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Illegal wildlife trade

Seized poacher's weapons and poached ivory -® WWF-Canon _ James Morgan

The illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats to the survival of some of the world’s most threatened species. In fact it’s second only to habitat destruction as a cause of loss for many species.

That’s why tackling illegal wildlife trade is such a vital and urgent part of our work at WWF.

There's been an unprecedented spike in illegal wildlife trade across the world in recent years, which is threatening to overturn decades of conservation successes, especially for key species like rhinos, elephants and tigers.

Here are just a few of the shocking figures:

  • In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed for their horns by poachers in South Africa, but that increased to a shocking 1,004 in 2013. That equates to three rhinos being poached per day
  • 22,000 African elephants were estimated to be killed by poachers for their ivory in 2012. Most of that is happening in Central Africa where poaching rates are twice the continental average. Left unabated, we could see the extinction of elephants in Central Africa in our lifetime
  • There may be as few as 3,200 wild tigers left in the world - and  the illegal trade is one of the biggest threats to their survival. Between 2000 and 2013, the parts of at least 1,537 tigers were seized in Asia.

A Rhino infographic describing the number of Rhinos that have been poached since 2007. The percentage increase is 7,700 percent.

More about wildlife trade – legal and illegal

The term ‘wildlife trade’ actually refers to a mostly legal practice. It covers a wide spectrum of everyday activities and products – for instance:

  • timber used for furniture or building materials
  • exotic flowers, plants or pets
  • ‘wild’ ingredients sourced for medicines and cosmetics
  • clothes, shoes or bags made from, for example, reptile skins.
Almost all sealife (other than farmed fish) is obviously wild too. So most people, whether we think about it or not, are involved in wildlife trade in some way - even if it’s just as end consumers of wild products.

Wildlife trade only becomes a problem, and of prime concern to us at WWF, when the trade becomes unsustainable and puts the future survival of a species at risk.


Since 1975 there’s been an agreement between governments around the world known as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which aims to ensure the international trade in a wild plant or animal does not threaten its future.

At the moment there are 178 member states, or ‘parties’, signed up to CITES – in other words the vast majority of countries in the world, with rare exceptions like North Korea and Angola.

Iberian or Spanish lynx (Lynx pardinus)

Wildlife trade policy

We work with the UK government - and across the world through the global WWF Network - to influence international policy on illegal wildlife trade, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Products carved from elephant ivory

Wildlife crime in the UK

You might not realise it, but the illegal trade in wildlife is a problem here in the UK too. Find out the various ways we're tackling it - and how you can help support our work.