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What is the illegal wildlife trade and why is it inhumane?

Article ID: 703
Last updated: 17 Jul, 2017
Revision: 2
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The illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry estimated to involve billions of individual animals [1,2]. Wild animals are traded alive to be kept as pets or to be put on display or killed and their parts sold for consumption, traditional medicines, ornaments and jewellery. The trade is internationally condemned on conservation grounds, with an increasing recognition of the cruel and inhumane treatment inflicted on affected animals.

In Australia, our native wildlife, particularly birds and reptiles, are targets of the illegal wildlife trade due to a high international demand for these species as pets [3,4,5]. Exotic animals are also illegally smuggled into Australia to be kept by collectors3. Multi-agency state and federal enforcement operations have detected large-scale illegal wildlife trade operations in Australia involving organised criminal networks.

At every stage of the wildlife trade, animals are exposed to serious risks to their health and welfare including:

  • Capture and restraint — methods used to capture and restrain wild animals may cause fear, distress, pain and injury.
  • Removal from their environment — removing a wild animal from their home territory and social group causes fear and stress and in severe cases can lead to death.
  • Close confinement — smugglers will go to great lengths to confine and conceal animals from enforcement authorities, which may result in fear, distress, injury and suffocation.
  • Prolonged and inappropriate transportation — smuggled animals may suffer from dehydration and starvation during transport and mortality rates can be extremely high.
  • Injury and ill-health — animals may suffer painful, debilitating and in some cases fatal injuries and disease.
  • Inhumane killing — many animals in the illegal wildlife trade are killed using inhumane methods.
  • Captivity and improper care — wild animals kept in captivity by smugglers and amateur keepers are exposed to many unusual stressors and are unlikely to be provided with appropriate husbandry and veterinary care.
  • Lack of legal protection — many smuggled animals will end up in countries that have inadequate or no animal welfare legislation or standards of care; even where these laws exist, animals held illegally will not be known to authorities.

In addition to the major risk to the conservation of endangered and threatened species, the illegal trade in wildlife is a serious and escalating animal welfare issue requiring urgent action.

Action is needed by governments, law enforcement and other responsible agencies to increase detection, investigation and conviction of illegal wildlife traffickers. Individuals can help too by reporting suspicious activities and facilitating cultural change to reduce the demand for wild animals and products.

If you witness any suspicious wildlife activity such as people capturing or transporting wild animals without due cause or you see advertisements for prohibited wildlife for sale, submit a report to the relevant authorities.

Also read RSPCA Policy E4.4 Keeping of wild animals as pets


1. Smith KF et al (2009) Reducing the Risks of the Wildlife Trade. Science 324:594–595

2. Rosen GE and Smith KF (2010) Summarizing the Evidence on the International Trade in Illegal Wildlife. EcoHealth 7:24–32

3. Alacs E and Georges A (2008) Wildlife across our borders: a review of the illegal trade in Australia. Australian Journal of Forensic Science 40:147–160

4. Barry C (2011) Australia’s wildlife blackmarket trade. Australian Geographic. Available at: http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2011/08/australias-wildlife-blackmarket-trade/. (Accessed: 2nd March 2017)

5. Australian Institute of Criminology (2010) Illegal trade in fauna and flora and harms to biodiversity. Available at: http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/rpp/100-120/rpp109/07.html.

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folder Is it acceptable to keep native animals as pets?
folder Is it legal to keep wildlife as pets?
folder Can I keep a native turtle as a pet?
folder Is it legal to sell exotic animals such as monkeys or tigers as pets in Australia?

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