Save the Tiger, Shift to other Big Cats: Illegal Wildlife Trafficking and the Rise in Zoonotic Diseases

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The worldwide shortage of tiger parts has not been good for other endangered big cats, as illegal wildlife traffickers have shifted to substitute body parts from jaguars, clouded and snow leopards, and lions instead.

Last week, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its World Wildlife Crime Report for 2020 reported the disturbing trend. This is the second such survey since the agency published is first report in 2016.

The full report makes for some depressing reading. Our inhumanity to others of our species is a cliche, but our record as a species is even worse when you add in what we do to wildlife,.

At least it makes a break from the relentless all COVID-19, all the time news.

Or does it? Not really.

UNODC reports the spread of  zoonotic diseases, which represent up to 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases  – including  SARS-CoV-2 that caused the COVID-19 pandemic and identified illegal wildlife trade as one potential cause. From the report:

The COVID-19 pandemic and the vast subsequent harms to human and economic well-being have starkly illustrated the potential global impact of zoonotic diseases, for which wildlife trade – both legal and illegal – is a potential vector. UNODC and its partners are dedicated to understanding the nexus between wildlife trafficking and risks associated with zoonotic diseases, while recognizing that there remain substantial uncertainties relating to this area.

According to the World Health Organization, around 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases that have affected humans over the past three decades originate in animals. While the understanding of both the disease and the origin of the virus that causes it are evolving rapidly, COVID-19 is likely linked to a pathogen found in wild bats that is suspected to have passed to humans, possibly via an intermediary.

While there are many factors that have contributed to the spread of zoonotic diseases, including social, environmental and economic developments such as urbanization, increasing human population density, climate change, and the increase in speed of trade and travel, large-scale wildlife trafficking and deforestation are among these key factors. More frequent human-wildlife interactions increase the probability of transmission of animal-borne pathogens to human beings, and illegally sourced wildlife, traded in a clandestine way,escapes any sanitary control and exposes humans to the transmission of new viruses and other pathogens. Without human interference through capturing,slaughtering, selling, trafficking, trading and consuming of wildlife, the evolution and transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 would have been highly unlikely. [Report p. 34; citations omitted]


Many species are part of the global trade in wildlife parts, including bears, birds, turtles, tigers – and pangolins, according to the press release issued in conjunction with the report:

The report notes that pangolins, which were identified as a potential source of coronaviruses, are the most trafficked wild mammals in the world, with seizures of pangolin scales having increased tenfold between 2014 and 2018.

Transnational Criminal Networks

The criminal networks that profit from the illegal wildlife trade are transnational and organized, and increasingly use modern techniques  – such as social media – to sell their wares. From the press release:

“Transnational organized crime networks are reaping the profits of wildlife crime, but it is the poor who are paying the price,” said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly. “To protect people and planet in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, and to build back better from the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot afford to ignore wildlife crime. The 2020 World Wildlife Crime Report can help to keep this threat high on the international agenda and increase support for governments to adopt the necessary legislation, and develop the inter-agency coordination and capacities needed to tackle wildlife crime offences.”

Do Trade Bans Work?

The report mentions that the trade in ivory and illegal rhinocerous horn is down – and I’d like to think that is in part as a result of decades of international bans on trade in such products and more recently enacted domestic bans:

Perhaps the most revolutionary policy change in the past four years occurred in the trafficking of ivory, as several of the largest legal domestic markets were sharply restricted. Around the same time, several indicators suggested the illicit market went into sharp decline. The association of these two trends requires further investigation, but it is possible that the loss of the legal market undermined investor confidence, flooding the market with more ivory than required by retail demand.

Data on poaching and trafficking indicate that the ivory supply saw a resurgence around 2007 and grew steadily until around 2011, declining until 2016, and stabilizing at much lower levels in the following two years. Prices in both East Africa and Asia appeared to have risen from 2007, peaked around 2014, and to have declined dramatically in the following years. Similarly, rhino horn poaching appears to have risen from 2007,peaked in 2015, and declined every year since that time, with prices also declining during this period. Prices currently paid for rhino horn in Asian markets are a fraction of those cited in the popular press. It had been suggested that raw horn was worth US$65,000 or even US$100,000 per kilogram around 2014-2016, while field monitoring suggests the 2019 price was closer to US$16,000.

The simultaneous decline in poaching and prices suggests these illicit markets are contracting. It is possible that stockpiles are being tapped, reducing the need for poaching, but the associated decline in price indicates current supplies exceed demand. Some very large seizures of both ivory and rhino horn were made in 2019, which is likely to be a record year once all the data are in. Unless indicators emerge of renewed poaching, the source of this ivory was likely stockpiles, exported before prices decline further still.

The Bottom Line

It is indeed cheering to think that trade in ivory and rhinoceros horn is down.

But counterpoised against that undeniable good is that COVID-19 has emerged. causing a worldwide pandemic – a zoonotic disease whose origin may have been legal or illegal wildlife trade.

Small comfort.

And this may be only one zoonotic disease to which we don’t have immunity, let alone any idea how to prevent or treat.

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  1. Ignacio

    Pangolins: could be pangolin trafficking related with the surge of SARS CoV 2?. As it has been reported Pangolin CoVs with spike proteins showing striking similarities with SARS CoV 2 spike protein suggest there is a possibility. Then there are studies that suggest that trafficking with living animals helps increasing the likelihood of viral infections in these, helps with virus spread, and possibly breaking inter-species barriers for viruses. So, there there is a good human-centric reason to end with wild animal breeding/trafficking.

  2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

    The summary section on pangolins may be found at pp. 14-15 (including a chart), and the larger discussion in chapter 4. I linked to the full report in the text. I refer readers to these sections for further details.

    1. Ignacio

      While the illegal traffic of pangolins (particularly pangolin scales) has increased by a lot since 2014, this increase might not necessarily be related with Covid-19. The increase is mostly seen as scales trafficking from African pangolins to Asia and does not involve live animal trafficking or breeding. The report states that pangolin breeding is not possible as they do not resist capture and staying in cages. Very few seizures of living animals are reported. Also, Pangolin CoVs having SARS CoV 2-like spike proteins have been identified in Asia and not in Africa. Trafficking of Asian pangolins might have decreased possibly due to decreasing populations. Thus, increased trafficking of pangolin scales from Nigeria, Cameroon etc. to Asia is a menace for wild pangolin populations in African forests but it is not likely this could be the origin of Covid-19.

      1. Carolinian

        to Asia

        Don’t you mean “to China”? Or are there other Asian countries involved in this trafficking (perhaps due to ethnic Chinese)?

        While much of the current China bashing seems off the wall surely wildlife protection is one area where they deserve it.

        1. Ignacio

          Mostly, but not only China, according to the report. It says Chinese expats in Africa are involved.

        2. ObjectiveFunction

          It’s overwhelmingly mainland China that drives demand for these products, for conspicuous displays of wealth and largesse, as well as an affirmation of non-Western traditions (Parody, really. Confucius would gag at the utter crassness of it).

          Hornbills are now vanishing from rain forests for the keratin in their beaks; both halves of New Guinea are being emptied out. Large reptiles like crocs and turtles are vanishing. Oil palm, pasture and strip mining are erasing the last of the great rain forests (the mass burning began on Clinton and Al Gore’s watch btw. They did bu&&er all cos that would be white people telling brown people what to do, again).

          And of course there’s the navy of Chinese (also Korean I think) supertrawlers, industriously sweeping the oceans bare of pelagic fish. No doubt they’re developing a taste for whale, then it’ll be goodbye to them too.

          The Middle Kingdom is resuming its rightful place under heaven, and tribute must flow in from all corners of the barbarian planet. So China is in the ‘machine gunning bison herds from trains’ phase of smug self-regard for the seemingly infinite bounty they presently enjoy. Fine, the Europeans and Americans did it too, as much as their tech allowed; and so did Cro Magnon hunters, to every large tasty animal that couldn’t get out of their way. But there are far far more Chinese mouths.

          If a Chinese Thoreau or John Muir exist, I haven’t heard of them. Their philosophy likely represents an affront to Xi Jinping thought, as well as pernicious foreign influence.

          No doubt younger Chinese will be broader minded, especially once the feast is over and there’s no more money in it. Far too late for the earth though. Perhaps cloning? a la Blade Runner:

          Do you like our owl?
          It’s artifical?
          Of course it is.

          1. Carolinian

            Thanks for reply. Of course in this country we have the Christian Dominionists who believe the Bible literally gives humans “dominion over the Earth.” Seems to be a lot of that dominion thing going around.

            Chinese make soup out of ’em; Americans mount them on the wall. And there is that old Matthew Broderick movie called The Freshman where the mafia fetches endangered species for rich people to eat at a special dinner. Could this be what goes on at those secretive Eric Schmidt parties? Naaah…..(?)

            1. newcatty

              I just read a transcript of an interview with Jane Goodell about the fact that in the bible that the most often accepted translation of the phrase is that humans were given” dominion over the Earth”. Her interviewer directly asked her opinion on that very subject. She said that she had discussed this with a Hebrew scholar. He told her that the original statement was actually that humans were given stewardship over the Earth.

        3. drumlin woodchuckles

          I have an idea about how to stop Chinese demand for rhino horn, pangolin scales, etc. It would be hard to do, but it could work if it could be done.

          Some organized group of people would have to infiltrate all these networks. Then that group could mix radioactive isotope Polonium 210 into the pangolin scales, rhino horn, etc. ( Polonium 210 is what somebody used to kill that Russian exile in England with). After enough Chinese consumers of pangolin scales, rhino horn, etc. died horrible deaths from Po 210, the rest would realize that these and maybe other wildlife products are not safe to use. ( And if Po 210 is impractical, how about thalium sulfate?)

  3. TomDority

    The criminal networks that profit from the illegal wildlife trade are transnational and organized, and increasingly use modern techniques – such as social media – to sell their wares.

    The only reason the criminal networks are profitable are that their are purchasers of their criminal wares.
    I don’t get, in my small pea brain, why the people who buy this illegal material are any less culpable in the crimes against the planet and the confiscation from future generations, of a healthy, diverse environment than the actual poachers. If you put the cart behind the horse you see that the the purchasers are putting out a hit on these endangered wildlife and on the natural resources being targeted.
    I thought that if you paid someone to kill another person – you are equally culpable to the person doing the hit.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      BBC recently broadcast a roundtable discussion about this topic. Every discusser except one kept focusing on the “poachers” and the “networks” and the “demand”.

      One single lone discusser kept trying to bring the discussion back around to a basic point which all the others were too dumm stoopid iggnerant to ever be able to understand.

      And that basic point was this: Organised crime is a BUSINESS. Organized criminals are in business to make MONEY. They are not in business to “sell pangolin scales” or “rhino horn” or any other particular commodity. They are in business to sell whatEVer illegal item will make MONEY.

      And they make so much money that they need all the very best lawyers, financial advisers, secrecy designers, tax haven engineers and all the most famous and prestigous international money-laundry center banks of the whole world to handle those collectively trillions of dollars and make them disappear and then re-appear as go-legit money.

      And so if you want to stop Organized Crime, you have to wipe out and “exterminate” all the several hundred thousand silk collar and satin collar Money Laundry-Industrial Complex personnel from existence all around the world at the same time. Preferably by de-licensing, de-chartering, trying, convicting and sentencing to life-without-parole terms in the carceral facilities of a carceral state which is just what all those people need and what the rest of us will need to “exterminate” the money/law/finance people who make it all possible . . . from the face of the earth.

      No functional “extermination” of every single money-laundry money-hiding money-moving expert?
      No reduction in the BUSINESS of organized crime, which is a BUSINESS.

  4. Ken

    Instead of invading countries why doesn’t the USA invade illegal poachers and animal traffickers?

  5. Ping

    Perhaps no other “legal” organization has done more to financialize wildlife slaughter and malicious exploitation than Safari Club International. Before SCI member killing of Cecil the Lion (lured from protected sanctuary, wounded and left suffering for 1-2 days before tracked and killed) their publicly available website boasted of in-house legal department that guns for weakening or eliminating any and all species and environmental protections (much information of legal victories against species and environmental protection still publicly available in re-formatted website).

    Initially these attacks on species protections by SCI legal dept were necessary to fuel the decadent perverted elite trophy hunting contests killing millions of animals and over 320 species including rare and endangered for top honors in their holy grail “Record Book” maintained at their International Wildlife Museum (created after a PR move to cast trophy hunting as conservation) in Tucson AZ where they control Arizona Game and Fish (the 5 member commission is dominated by SCI members and no wildlife biologists, AZ state atty general attended the SCI seminar on plans to eradicate wolves at the big annual Las Vegas convention and Governor Ducey’s austerity 2017 austerity budget slashing education, already at the US bottom, and health care for children at poverty level, still found over 1 million dollars for SCI agenda-increased access to hunting on state land and eliminating species protections especially wolves).

    SCI’s legal apparatus is now used to funnel money from extractive industries to eliminate the habitat and species protections on public lands. SCI a is a spiders web of legal environmental and species destruction. Ironically, to the detriment of the hunter of common game for consumption that they claim to champion as part of their PR play and now fully merged with NRA and their playbook in conflating gun rights with this agenda of destruction.

    They reportedly control wildlife policy in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. South Africa has commodified wildlife to such an extent as reclassified wildlife species as agricultural species.

    1. Ping

      Obviously the so called (that overlooks abuse and violations) “legal” commodified slaughter and exploitation of wildlife championed by the powerful Safari Club International et al also feeds the illegal markets. Zoonotic diseases are unfortunately a form of poetic justice for a late-stage society that still cannot grasp what it means to live in balance with, and respect species in the natural world and unable to dismantle the international financial structure that is running out of financialization targets.

  6. newcatty

    Arizona Slim from your thinks to Goddess ears. Speaking of the despicable Dead Animal Museum in proximity of Tucson. It is an embarrassment and should be burned to the ground. Of course, I am not encouraging arson. Just symbolic fire. When we lived in the Ole Pueblo, I was involved with running some environmental ed programs. It sickened me that the “museum” touted their museum as an educational venue for school children. They were bold enough to couch their taxidermy as a place for children to “see” wildlife from around the planet. They said they supported conservation of wildlife and habitats. Schools were encouraged to go there for field trips.

  7. Ping

    Safari Club’s International Wildlife Museum in Tucson is now headquarters for the “Record Book” which documents the global trophy hunting contests, and according to reports have now moved the legal/political operation to DC. The museam always operated in stealth behind their “conservation” front but the upper mezzanine of record keeping was like Fort Knox (needing triple security to enter).

    Whatever one thinks of Center for American Progress, this report is breathtaking…especially the graph of money flow to dismantle protections for public lands for extraction industries. Appearantly SCI’s well developed legal strategies to perpetuate the massive trophy hunting industry have now been applied to completely ravage wildlife and habitat globally for plunder in many industries.

  8. Ping

    Further, this report documents the scope:

    Pretty much SCI is behind any legislative assault on species or their habitat protection in the US and elsewhere.

    In Arizona where SCI “partners” with Arizona Game and Fish, there was a controversy about the creation of a herd of bighorn sheep (yield expensive permits) taken from other herds to a ridge in the Catalina Mountains bordering Tucson identified as a “medium low” habitat quality and convenient for trophy hunting. Many of the 75 “seeding” sheep captured from helicopter nets died from injuries or stress or livestock contact pneumonia. AZGF hunted and killed most of the mountain lions in the area to reduce predation and years previous killed 49 mountain lions for more trophy stock of bighorns and pronghorns in another regions canyons (Arivipa). 5+ years later, the surviving herd has not grown despite new generations born.

    When questions by concerned public, AZGF lied to the public and media about funding for the project, omitting 250K from SCI International chapter (document available). SCI, whose motto at the gaudy Las Vegas conventions is “if it pays, it stays” has commodified wildlife and thru it’s control of state Game and Fish departments, wildlife is managed like a game park even though hunters of common game for consumption are a minority and the public abhors trophy hunting.

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