International Wildlife Law and the Problem of Illegal Trade

In last week’s case concerning whaling in the Antarctic, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Japan’s whaling program is not scientific as the Japanese government claimed. The Court further decided that Japan failed to justify the number of whales that were annually killed and ordered a temporary halt to its whale hunt. Halting the senseless practice of commercial whaling is considered a major step forward by conservationists and environmental groups worldwide.

However, the hunt for endangered species and protected wildlife has been on the rise for the last decade and has recently turned into a global crisis. Many wildlife species are currently on the brink of extinction, especially on the African continent. In large part, this is mostly due to practices of illegal hunting and poaching for purposes of illegal wildlife trade. This blog will briefly discuss this issue as well as recent efforts of the international community to combat international wildlife trade.

In South-Africa ,the rate of rhino poaching has increased by 43 % between 2011 and 2012 and the numbers are still going up. In 2013, 1,004 rhinos were killed  as supposed to 13 in 2007.  The Zoological Society of London estimates that since the beginning of this year, a rhino is killed every 11 hours by poachers. The African lion that once thrived across the entire West-African region from Senegal to Nigeria, is also currently facing extinction. According to a new report that was published in January, less than 35,000 lions remain in Africa today, which is approximately 25 % of the species’ original range.  In 2012, all across the African continent, it was estimated that 20,000 elephants were slaughtered for ivory according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. [1]  This means that 10 % of the total population of African elephants has been killed. The Zoological Society of London stated that it is a death toll that the species cannot sustain.

The declining population of wildlife is mostly due to practices of illegal hunting and poaching for purposes of illegal trade in wildlife products.

 Elephants HuggingThe illegal wildlife trade takes fourth place in global illegal trade after narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeiting of products and currency and is estimated to be worth at least US$19 billion per year. While threatening the future existence of whole species, it devastates already vulnerable communities, drives corruption and undermines efforts to cut poverty. [2]

Since the trade in wildlife products from endangered species is illegal, it tends to attract some dubious actors. Interpol, the international intelligence agency stated that the black market in wildlife products is being driven by organized crime syndicates, who have moved on from narcotics and guns onto wildlife. [3] Ivory can fetch up to $2,000 a kilogram on the black market - which is more than most narcotics- earning it the nickname 'white gold'. [4]

Terrorists group such as Al-Shabaab, a wing of Al-Qaeda based in Africa that is responsible for continued instability in Somalia, is known to finance its operations through the poaching of elephants. Al-Shabaab raises an estimated $ 600,000 a month through the invory trade. The Lord’s Resistance Army, another well-known terrorist group infamous for forcing children to fight in its rankss, also engages in poaching and trafficking of elephant ivory. [5]

Putting a stop to illegal wildlife trade has become not only a matter of conservation but also of national security and international stability. In 2013, US President Barack Obama issued an executive order recognizing that the poaching of protected species and the illicit trade in ivory has become a global crisis and that the US must take a leading role in combating it. [6]

The largest obstacle in combating illegal wildlife trade lies in the fact the demand for wildlife products continues to be high, particularly in Asia. In many Asian nations, it is believed that the horn of a Rhino can cure ills such as cancer, diabetes, infertility and hangovers. Aside from ivory, rhino horn is also becoming more lucrative than drugs, according to experts. In addition, wildlife products are also considered to be luxury goods and acquiring such items can enhance social status.  Often, these products are easily purchased at local markets in Asian countries and are on display to potential buyers. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that 'weak judicial systems, corruption and light sentencing are reasons why, despite laws that make poaching illegal, it continues to remain a lucrative economic activity'. [7]

BLOG - Lion WildlifeInternational attempts have been made in the past and present to halt illegal wildlife trade. In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). By imposing a ban on the international trade of ivory, elephant populations stabilized throughout the 1990’s and the first decade of 21st century. Since the levels of illegal poaching began to rise in 2012 and skyrocketed in 2013, the international community began to call for action.

In February of this year, the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference was held in London and was attended by world leaders from 40 different world nations to help save iconic species from the brink of extinction. The Conference was chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and attended by Prince Charles and his sons.

During the Conference, the London Declaration was adopted which contains commitments for practical steps to end the illegal trade in rhino horn, tiger parts and elephant tusks that fuels criminal activities. Key states included Botswana, Chad, China, Gabon, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Vietnam, alongside the US and Russia. All have signed up to actions that will eradicate the demand for wildlife products, strengthen law enforcement and support the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by wildlife crime.

Conservationists and environmental groups have stated that there should be no illusions that this will be straightforward as some of the world’s greatest hotspots for biodiversity are war zones and poaching is feeding off political instability, creating a vicious circle where the profits from ivory are fueling unrest. [8]

Dr. Bradnee Chambers , the executive secretary of the UNEP Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, stresses that the international community not only needs to combat the illegal poachers , but will also need to fight to win the hearts and minds of the people in countries where demands for wildlife products is driving endangered species to the brink of extinction. [9]

During the Illigal Wildlife Trade Conference, Botswana announced that it will host a further Conference in early 2015 to review progress against the commitments made in the London Declaration. [10]


[1] 'Four African nations spurn ivory sales', available at


[3] 'Four African nations spurn ivory sales', available at

[4] ‘Elephants slaughtered for trinkets and terrorism’, 8/2/2014 , available at

[5]  Idem

[6]  Idem

[7]  ‘Continued Poaching Will Result in the Degradation of Fragile Ecosystems’, 4/6/2012, available at

[8] ‘Global Pact against Illegal Wildlife Trade Should Also Look Beyond Poaching’, The Guardian, 3/4/2014, available at

[9] Idem

[10] 'Decisive action agreed on illegal wildlife trade', available at

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