Illegal wildlife trade crisis

In recent years the impact of illicit wildlife trade (IWT) on species has reached unprecedented levels.

Black Rhinoceros

This trade, is estimated to be worth more than £15bn a year – the world’s fourth most lucrative criminal industry after drugs, human-trafficking and weapons and represents a serious threat to the very existence of some of our best loved species:


  • Between 2010 and 2012, over 10% of the total African elephant population has been slaughtered for ivory, a death toll the species simply cannot sustain.
  • It is estimated that 2015 is the 6th continuous year that the African elephant death rate is higher than the birth rate – meaning elephant populations across the entire continent are in decline.
  • African elephant populations in Central and West Africa face the most serious levels of poaching.
  • Asian elephants number under 50,000 individuals and are found in less than 10% of their former range.


  • Tiger numbers have fallen from some 100,000 individuals a century ago to as few as 3,000 today - a decrease of 97%.
  • Between 2000 and 2012 1,425 tigers were killed by poachers.


  • 1,175 rhinos were lost in South Africa in 2015 alone, that’s one rhino every 8 hours.
  • Three fifths of the world’s rhino species are critically endangered and the estimated global rhino population is just 29,000.


  • It is estimated that more than 1 million pangolins have been snatched from the wild in the past decade – making the pangolin the most illegally traded mammal on the planet.
  • it is estimated that a pangolin is snatched from the wild every 5 minutes.


  • In our oceans many shark species are being driven to extinction as massive levels of overfishing, estimated at over 100 million individuals killed annually, takes its toll.

Wildlife trade is regulated through the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) to which 179 countries are signatories, and Delegates debate issues that will go a long way to deciding the fate of many species including amongst others, proposals to legalise trade in rhino horn, how to address the massive illegal ivory trade and providing stronger protection for sharks.  The next CITES meeting will be held in Johannesburg,  this September, where ZSL scientists and conservationists will be in attendance championing for the highest level of legal protection for the world’s most endangered species.

ZSL is also working closely with the UK government to address the IWT; in February 2016 we were delighted to receive our third grant from Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, this time for our work in Cameroon. We are discussing with the Foreign Commonwealth Office potential for collaboration around the damage IWT does to developing economies in Africa and elsewhere. ZSL is also already active in fighting wildlife crime through our global conservation projects.

Urgent action is needed to address this crisis, to help countries control poaching on the ground as well as to take steps to reduce the demand in consumer countries that is ultimately driving the trade.