Skin and Bones

NOTICE: S&B is taking a break. We will be back with a revamp mid 2019! Unravelling the Illegal and controversial industry that threatens global biodiversity.

Wildlife crime assessed, UNODC. The breakdown of Key findings.

Earlier this week World Wildlife Crime was assessed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 

With so much information in one report (differences in legal and illegal trade, the issues of organized crime, international and national legislation, wildlife laundering, the World WISE database, policy implications, species specifics, ....oh the list is endless), I cannot address it all in one post (that's what the actual report was written for, go ahead a read it), but luckily some key findings were put together and I am going to take my Friday night off and unravel some of them. 

The aim and tagline for SKIN AND BONES is

'Unraveling the illegal and controversial industry that threatens Global Biodiversity'.  

 and a global problem is exactly what the researchers found.

"The desperate plight of iconic species at the hands of poachers has deservedly captured the world's attention, and none too soon... One of the critical messages to emerge from this research is that wildlife and forest crime is not limited to certain countries or regions". - Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, UNODC

Data was collected and analysed from the World Wildlife Seizures (WISE) database which represents 7'000 different species that have been seized in 164'000 cases spanning 120 countries. With so many species involved in complex networks, researchers conducting the report focused in-depth on a few of the world's most significant species - from a criminal markets perspective - sorted into seven industrial sectors:

  1. Furniture - Species of Rosewood
  2. Art, Decor and Jewelry - African Elephant Ivory
  3. Fashion - Reptile skins (Species of alligator, crocodile, snake and lizard) and Asian Big Cat species (leopard, tiger, clouded leopard, snow leopard and Asiatic lion)
  4. Cosmetics and Perfume - Agarwood
  5. Food, Medicines and Tonics - Pangolin derivatives, rhino horn and bear bile.
  6. Pets, Zoos and Breeding - Parrots, Freshwater turtles and tortoises and Great apes. 
  7. Seafood - Caviar, Marine turtles and Glass eels.

The 100 page report is the first global assessment of its kind and was produced as part of the UNODC's ongoing Global Programme on Wildlife and Forest Crime.  


Unraveling the Key findings: 

  • The Illegal Wildlife Trade is a global phenomenon

Virtually every country in the world plays a role as a source, transit, or destination for contraband wildlife. But certain species are associated with one region more then another depending on its range or the demand for its products. No single country has been identified as the source of more than 15% of the total number of seized shipments captured in the database and suspected traffickers of some 80 nationalities have been identified. Side note: the 15% statistic refers to all seizures, it would be interesting to divide this statistically into range, transit or destination countries (for all wildlife or species combined) to find any underlying patterns and identify where policy and law enforcement may need strengthening. However, within seizure information, country or region of destination is often unknown or unreported and country of origin may only be figured out after lengthy DNA analysis. Oh well a girl can dream.  


  • Illegal wildlife products are fed into legal markets. How and why?

This is not a new finding, all sensitive products; weaponry, drugs and wildlife derivatives can be legally or illegally traded and it all depends on the proper paperwork.  

How:  Fraudulent paperwork and forged permits are a huge vulnerability in wildlife trafficking. With 900'000 legal permits of protected wildlife products issued annually, high corruption rates can facilitate organized crime and devastate a species.

Also informal harvesting practices can allow internationally protected wildlife to be illegally introduced into commercial streams before being legally exported (See pythons and trade in reptile skins). Wildlife farms, captive breeding operations, and even zoos can play a role in laundering illegally acquired wildlife. 

Why: it happens as criminals have access to a much larger source of demand than they would ever of had on the black market alone. 

Python Skin looks better on the Python Credit:  Kathleen Franklin

Python Skin looks better on the Python Credit: Kathleen Franklin


  • When international trade is not regulated, species can be exploited regardless of national law. 

As we have seen time and again with all forms of organized crime and trafficking, criminals exploit gaps in legislation, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) appendixes do protect 35'000 species internationally, but there millions of other species they do not protect. When these species are protect nationally, in their range states, it becomes problematic when smuggled out of the country as then there is nothing regulating the possession, use or sale of most of these threatened species. 

Policy and national legislation for non domestic species needs to be upgraded. Illegal trade could be reduced if each country were to prohibit, under national law, wildlife that was illegal harvested anywhere in the world. 


  • Ports of entry

'Seizure data show that most enforcement activities to combat international wildlife trafficking take place at ports of entry, rather than in domestic markets'. - Seizure data, where available, is extremely useful, but it is never a complete data set. Estimates are that only 10% of smuggled wildlife products are discovered and seized, and then only a fraction of them are reported and categorized in a database. Although recognized in the report, it can lead to misleading analysis.

It is important to remember that if no seizures are recorded in an area it doesn't mean wildlife is not being trafficked through these parts, Perhaps the security systems and law enforcement in place are just not well enough equipt to detect it or a darker though, corruption is at play and a chunk of the profit is being handed over as a 'look the other way' payment instead. 

UNODC Press Release

Click here for a copy of the Report

Share:                                                      Legalities             Contact