Exotic animal trafficking, despite its illegal and underground nature, unfortunately involves a large number of species, each targeted for specific reasons. Although there are international laws that protect them, it is clear that the activity persists and continues to be prosperous enough to attract attention. This article provides a detailed overview of the situation.
Trafficking in exotic animals: what international protection context?
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and national legislation play an important role in the fight against trafficking in exotic animals.
CITES is an international agreement between governments, adopted in 1973. It lists species divided into three appendices according to their degree of threat of extinction. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in these species is strictly controlled and generally prohibited. Appendices II and III include species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction but for which controlled trade is necessary. International trade in listed species requires permits issued by national authorities.
While CITES provides a framework for monitoring and enforcement, the role of national governments in ensuring its effectiveness is great.
Many countries have put in place national legislation consistent with CITES regulations to control and, in many cases, completely ban trade in endangered species. Some countries have even adopted laws even stricter than those recommended by CITES, particularly with regard to endemic or particularly vulnerable species. Governments are responsible for enforcing these laws, through their customs agencies, environmental police and courts. Penalties for violations can include significant fines and prison time.
Exotic animal trafficking: which animals are the most popular?
Reptiles such as turtles, snakes or lizards are among the animals prized for their skin, but also as pets. Their capture and transportation are often carried out in inhumane conditions, leading to high mortality rates.
Birds like parrots and raptors are in high demand as pets due to their aesthetic appearance. Poaching of these animals for trade unfortunately has a significant impact on wild populations, threatening some species with extinction.
Among the coveted mammals, we can cite primates, tigers, elephants, rhinos and even pangolins. Primates are often sold as pets, while other animals are more often captured and killed because traditional medicines attribute particular virtues to parts of their bodies. Their remains may also be sought for display as trophies. Trafficking in these animals threatens their survival in the wild, disrupts ecosystems and promotes the transmission of zoonotic diseases.
Fish and corals must be included in this sad list. They are mainly collected to populate private and public aquariums. The collection of corals and certain fish species can destroy entire marine habitats, essential to ocean biodiversity.
Exotic animal trafficking: what statistics?
It is very difficult to obtain precise figures since this trafficking is by nature clandestine. But it is estimated that millions of animals are affected each year. It is a very lucrative industry, estimated at some 160 billion euros per year, almost the equivalent of arms trafficking or drug trafficking. The existence of the Internet does not fail to facilitate what we must call commerce. We must consider that this trafficking constitutes a real vicious circle insofar as it contributes to the scarcity of animals and where the rarer an animal is, the more expensive it is. It’s a hellish dynamic that is self-perpetuating.
To give you an idea, around 25,000 elephants are killed each year, or 3 elephants every hour. A Brazilian blue parrot egg, a protected species, sells for 5,000 euros. However, not everything goes into the hunter’s pocket because a whole chain of intermediaries gets rich. Brazilian wildlife is one of the most affected because this country provides almost 10% of exotic animal trafficking.
We must not forget the responsibility of many tourists, ignorant or cynical. They stimulate this trade by buying all kinds of objects made with prohibited materials such as ivory or turtle shell. These millions of tourist purchases ultimately weigh almost as much as the activity of poachers.
What methods are used by traffickers?
The methods employed by exotic animal traffickers are varied and often sophisticated, taking advantage of loopholes in regulatory and surveillance systems.
Traffickers create or obtain false CITES documents to hide the illegal nature of their trade and feign the legal origin of the animals. Sometimes traffickers exploit legislative loopholes, using semi-legitimate documents to circumvent the laws. They also sometimes associate with corrupt officials to facilitate their illegal activities.
Poached animals are often transported in extremely precarious conditions, in cramped spaces, without food or water, leading to a high mortality rate during transport. Traffickers do not hesitate to hide animals in luggage, legitimate shipments, or even send them via postal services.
The use of the Internet and social media has contributed to an increase in the illegal trade in exotic animals. Traffickers use online platforms to reach large audiences and sell animals anonymously, making it difficult to trace sellers and buyers.
What measures can be taken to combat exotic animal trafficking?
The measures taken by States to combat exotic animal trafficking are varied. Customs in different countries are intensifying inspections of cargo, baggage and postal items to detect and intercept trafficked animals. Agents are specifically trained to recognize the signs of animal trafficking and use sophisticated scanners, organic matter detectors and cross-reference databases to identify suspicious shipments.
Campaigns are also organized to raise public awareness of the negative impacts of trafficking on species and ecosystems, as well as the legal and health risks. Local communities are encouraged to participate in wildlife monitoring and protection. Lessons on conservation and animal protection are integrated into school curricula. But we must recognize that the lucrative nature of exotic animal trafficking is such that it is very difficult for poor populations to resist the temptation, despite the sanctions that threaten them. Penalties for animal trafficking include high fines and long prison sentences. Furthermore, although certain countries train eco-guards, they often remain powerless to prevent the killing or theft of animals given the significant resources used by traffickers (weapons, helicopters, etc.).
Sanctions also target companies involved in the transport and sale of exotic animals to motivate their increased monitoring. They are held responsible and can face severe sanctions.
Finally, countries share information on trafficking networks, their methods and the routes used. International agreements are signed to strengthen legal and customs cooperation between countries.
All these measures must constantly be adapted and strengthened to effectively combat exotic animal trafficking. It is also essential to address the underlying causes of trafficking, such as poverty, lack of economic opportunities, without forgetting consumer demand.
Today 182 countries have joined CITES. However, many efforts still need to be made for certain signatory countries to adopt adequate national legislation and effectively apply the provisions of the convention.