Illegal Wildlife Trafficking – How You Can Help

Date: 19/05/2020
By: Greg Tully, Pan-African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA)
A young chimpanzee which had been caught for the illegal wildlife trade

Conservationists and field researchers have a unique opportunity to both witness and counteract illegal wildlife trafficking, yet for many, this aspect of fieldwork can come as a shock, one that they do not feel prepared for. To help arm conservationists with strategies, I served on a panel on this issue at the 27th Congress of the International Primatological Society, in 2018. Because the issue is so pressing, my fellow panelists and I developed a commentary for the American Journal of Primatology, which was published in December 2019.

The Problem in Context

The illegal wildlife trade itself is an enormous problem. Currently, wildlife is the fourth largest form of illegal trafficking, following drugs, arms, and humans – a woeful list to be part of. While accurate and clear statistics are difficult to come by, we do know that the trade in primates is big and continues to grow. For example, in 2015, primate trade volume was estimated at $138M, an increase from $98M in just three years. The result is the loss of thousands of animals every year, putting many species on the brink of extinction.

While almost every country is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and has accepted CITES regulations for importing and exporting endangered wildlife, sadly, even trade in many Appendix I species (those considered most endangered) has not been stemmed. This is due to several factors – poor enforcement of existing regulations, increased demand, and under-resourced law enforcement organisations are just a few of the issues. These criminal activities have been emboldened by the advent of social media. What once was more isolated activity has now found a global market through the amplification social media provides. At the same time, private, encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp allow traffickers a safe place to do business.

The Role of Wildlife Centres

The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) represents 23 wildlife centres in 13 African nations. Our member centres experience the impact of wildlife trafficking every day. They currently provide care for over 3,000 primates, many of whom were orphaned by traffickers who killed their mothers to sell as bushmeat and sold the young primates into the illegal pet trade. Our member wildlife centres play a crucial role in the fight against trade by providing a home to orphaned primates rescued through law enforcement operations. However, the centres are nearing capacity and will not be able to meet the demand. Nor do we have members in every country, so gaps persist.

For this reason, PASA has taken a number of steps to fight the illegal trade in primates. First, we started Action for Chimpanzees, a programme which brings a regional approach to protecting critically endangered chimpanzees in West Africa. Second, we launched a petition calling on social media companies to stop enabling the illegal pet trade. Third, we are working in partnership with zoos and other organisations to address this issue. It’s a complex challenge and we can’t do it alone.

Education session at a PASA member Sanctuary

How Conservationists Can Help

Conservationists are in a unique position to increase awareness of the illegal trade, and to help reduce it. Field workers often develop close relationships with local people, which can be hugely helpful in this fight. At the same time, they are familiar with habitat requirements and conditions, population demography, and social behaviour of endangered species. However, they are most likely not trained to take action against trafficking and so may not know what to do when confronted with it.

We recommend that scientists and conservationists working in the field take the following action steps to help fight illegal wildlife trade.

  1. Get to know local customs and law enforcement organisations

Knowing who to contact when trafficking becomes apparent is a critical first step. These might be NGOs, specialised law enforcement agencies, or other researchers. It’s also helpful to stay up to date with shifts in the local social or business environment and how it could impact wildlife habitat or trade.

  1. Increase the scientific capacity of local people

Deepening knowledge of and appreciation for wildlife through workshops for local people, as well as structured training for students that intend to become professionals, are among the most effective ways to effect conservation. Many countries make this kind of community interaction a requirement of fieldwork and we urge researchers to embrace this opportunity.  

    1. Design Collaborative Research

Collaborative research can facilitate community involvement and provide insight into cultural perspectives on the pet trade and bushmeat trade, as well as providing a broader set of expertise to look at the research problem systemically.

What Not to Do

While it may be tempting, do not purchase the animal. This will in fact perpetuate the trade by providing the trafficker with money. Instead, report the full context of the sale to local authorities or NGOs involved in wildlife rescue. Most countries with primate habitat have anonymous reporting options.

The illegal wildlife trade is devastating populations of many of the world’s iconic species, including primates, so it is important to become knowledgeable on the issue. Armed with the right information and relationships, conservationists can make a significant contribution to protecting these remarkable animals.


Gregg Tully is the Executive Director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), the largest association of wildlife centres in Africa, which includes 23 organisations in 13 countries, focused on securing a future for Africa’s primates and their habitat. Gregg earned a Ph.D. in animal behaviour from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2006. He then turned his attention to the non-profit sector, working as the Development Director of the Nepal Youth Foundation and in the Marketing and Communications department at the Marin Humane Society in California. After receiving the Marin Humane Society’s Humanitarian of the Year award for his commitment to animal protection worldwide, he moved to Thailand in 2012 to lead Soi Dog Foundation, the largest stray animal protection organization in Southeast Asia. He joined PASA in 2015.

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