Nature and Biodiversity

4 charts that show how organized crime is endangering wildlife and damaging ecosystems

Officials hold confiscated elephant tusks before destroying the ivory at the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, in Bangkok, Thailand, August 26, 2015. About two tonnes (2,155.17 kg) of ivory were crushed and incinerated during the ceremony as part of a campaign against poachers, traffickers and traders involved in the illicit trade in ivory, according to a Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation press release. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Illegal wildlife trafficking is a global problem affecting 4,000 animal and plant species. Image: REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Michelle Meineke
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Illegal wildlife trafficking currently affects 4,000 animal and plant species, despite two decades of global efforts to halt it, a new United Nations (UN) report finds.
  • Around 13 million items were seized from 2015-2021, according to the World Wildlife Crime Report 2024.
  • Understanding how wildlife crime impacts high-agenda concerns like biodiversity – the third biggest risk of the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks report – could help accelerate action.

Despite 20 years of national and international prevention efforts, wildlife trafficking persists. But stronger scientific evidence could enable more rapid, measurable progress. This is the key message of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) World Wildlife Crime Report 2024.

Pangolins, rhinos, elephants, eels, cedar and rosewoods are just a tiny sample of the 4,000 animal and plant species affected by wildlife trafficking, the report shows. Huge efforts to stop illegal wildlife trade through seizures generated around 16,000 tonnes of items from 2015 to 2021.

This global problem, which impacts animals, plants, communities, economies and more, could get far worse. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is the third biggest risk to the planet of the next 10 years, as highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

"We rely on nature as the underpinning of our daily lives as much as for the foundations of business and industry, for raw materials and ecosystem services," says Akanksha Khatri, Head of Nature at the World Economic Forum.

"In the delicate web of life, everything is interlinked - and wildlife crime poses a major threat to the health of our environment. We must recognize the value of natural capital, restore and conserve ecosystems, increase regulatory pressure to improve laws for the environment, and unlock finance for nature across the board."

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1. Species at the greatest risk

Today, the extinction rate of species on Earth is hundreds of times higher than in the past 10 million years. Wildlife crime is playing a big role.

Between 2015 and 2021, approximately 81% of illegal trade seizures in 162 countries and territories involved plant and animal species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Appendices, the UN report explains.

Hints of progress

However, the latest numbers on elephant ivory and rhino horn trafficking “provide grounds for some optimism”. The high-profile marketing and policy efforts for ivory and horn, along with market restrictions and greater law enforcement, appear to be working – potentially creating a positive template for helping other species more effectively. Still, “continued vigilance” is vital, the UNODC urges.

Rhinos and elephants still account for 29% and 15% of the species most affected by wildlife crime, respectively, after pangolins (28%) – at least 200,000 of which are poached every year. The population of African elephants has plummeted from 3-5 million a century ago to a maximum of 690,000 today, while the number of Asian elephants has more than halved from 100,000.

Remembering the bigger picture

Both elephants and rhinos are considered “iconic” wildlife and have received significant attention. Still, some of the clearest examples of conservation harm caused by wildlife crime “receive comparatively little attention”, the report says.

This includes the illegal collection of succulent plants and rare orchids, the trafficking of a wide range of reptiles, fish, birds and mammals. Here, illegal trade appears to have played a “major role in local or global extinctions”.

Species most affected
Pangolins, rhinos, elephants, cedars and rosewoods are the most affected worldwide – but thousands of other species are also being trafficked. Image: United Nations

2. Wildlife crime is big business

The underground economy for wildlife crime is worth up to $20 billion every year, driven by often “invisible” large and organized criminal groups. This global activity comes only behind arms, drugs and human trafficking in scale, according to the Zoological Society of London.

“Professional and remotely directed gangs have been active in elephant and tiger poaching, and industrial scale illegal fishing and logging operations are well documented,” the UN report says.

Plus, corruption stalls the implementation of new regulations, and the rapid rise of new technologies over the last decade means traffickers can get their “product” to global markets faster than ever.

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Putting more deterrents in place

Making it more challenging to make money illegally is a huge effort. Analysis shows that 164 Member States of the UN criminalize wildlife trafficking violations to some degree. More than half (52%) have penalties that meet the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’s definition of a serious crime with a maximum custodial penalty of at least four years – the highest level of criminalization across nine environmental crime sectors analyzed.

The other side of the financial equation in illegal wildlife trade is the negative socio-economic impact on communities, including fewer jobs for those in wildlife-based industries and reduced tourism. For example, travel and tourism is a major economic engine in Africa – a hotspot for poaching by international syndicates – with more than $168 billion generated in 2019.

Non-material contributions associated with the world’s animals and planets – our identity, culture and learning, for example – are also damaged by wildlife crime, the report flags.

Commodities in trade
Illegal wildlife trade is one of the world’s largest criminal activities. Image: United Nations

3. Tracking trends in seizures

Records relate to more than 140,000 wildlife seizures reported between 2015 and 2021, a result of extensive national and global coordination. The UN report shows that a total of 13 million items were seized in the same period.

Notably, the annual number of seizures reported for 2020 and 2021 was around half the number reported for each of the preceding four years. Several factors may be behind this, including reporting standards, less law enforcement, shifts to new modes of marketing and moving illegal wildlife shipments to avoid detection, or the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may also be a “genuine reduction in trafficking levels”, the UNODC says.

Seizure trends for four key commodities 2015–2021
Seizing illegally trafficked wildlife has made a positive impact, but ivory is still the only commodity beneath the 2015 baseline. Image: United Nations

Only part of the story

Whatever the cause, there is still a lot of progress to be made, as elephant ivory was the only commodity to have moved below the 2015 baseline by 2021.

And this data does reflect the full scale of the global challenge.

“Actual wildlife trafficking levels are of course far greater than the recorded seizures and it is important to keep in mind that there are important gaps in seizure-based evidence of trafficking in timber, fisheries and some other large trade sectors,” the UNODC warns.

Establishment, maintenance, and breakdown of corrupt relationships that facilitate transnational illegal wildlife trade
Tackling illegal wildlife trade worldwide is a hugely complex effort, so a more strategic approach is key. Image: United Nations

4. What can be done about it?

The time to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking and protect 4,000 animals and species is very short. Already, data “gives no reason for confidence” that the UN Sustainable Development Goal 15.7 – to take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna – will be achieved by 2030.

Therefore, greater action is urgently needed. The adage that knowledge is power is certainly true in this case. While we have more information than ever, the report stresses that more detailed and frequent data and analytics are vital to plugging knowledge gaps.

Tailored solutions per region and species, for example, are key. There is also plenty of potential to research criminal structures, financial incentives, and other features of trafficking chains. Wildlife crime is a fast-moving and complex landscape, the UNODC reminds, but one point is certain: “There is no room for complacency”.

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