An overview of global wildlife trade


The global trade in wildlife products is an enormous industry. While information relating to the illicit trade of these products is freely available, figures pertaining to legitimate trade rarely makes the headlines. According to global customs statistics released in 2012, wildlife products worth $187 billion were imported worldwide and the value of wild animals, excluding fish and plant products, amounted to approximately $3 billion.

Scientists say, however, that these figures are much higher as it does not include counties’ domestic trade and not all customs unions disclose their figures. In addition, it is estimated that around 50% of plant products and 70% of animal products are likely imported by way of general categories.

Rhinos were rescued from extinction by the model of private land and wildlife ownership.

According to reports in the European media, for example, the legitimate trade in wildlife products in the European Union alone is worth over €100 billion.

Impact of trophy hunting

In a research paper on the economic impact of trophy hunting in South Africa published in 2018, Andrea Saayman writes that according to research, the impact of deer hunting on the economy of Mississippi in the United States, ranges from $761 million to $1,03 billion and creates between 26 489 and 37 888 temporary and full-time jobs. There are 13 states in the American South that directly benefit from the hunting industry.

Adri Kitshoff-Botha, CEO of Wildlife Ranching South Africa (WRSA), says research conducted by North-West University in 2018, estimates the economic value of the South African hunting industry at around R11,6 billion a year. According to the latest figures (made available in 2018) from the Department of Environmental Affairs, the contribution of international hunters to species and day costs alone, amounts to R2,1 billion per year.

Impact on other industries

Apart from the direct income the game industry generates, there are numerous fringe benefits that trickle down to other industries. Andrea writes that every hunter who visits South Africa, spends roughly R500 000 during his visit.

A hunter spends 47% on the game he hunts, 20% on transport to and in South Africa, 13,2% on accommodation and catering, and 10% to ship trophies. The rest is spent on food, ammunition, clothing, additional tours, and so on.

Impact of illicit trade

In stark contrast is the monetary value of the global trade in illicit wildlife products, which is estimated at between $7 billion and $23 billion. Considering how difficult it is to obtain figures relating to legitimate trade, one must assume that this figure can be much higher. This makes it the fourth most profitable crime in the world after drug, human and arms trafficking.

Science Direct, the world’s leading source of information on scientific, technical and medical research, says in a document that although some trade in wildlife products are legal, most of the trade remains illegal. Scientists also describe poaching as one of the biggest threats to the survival of endangered species.

Yet no one is brave enough to admit that the restrictions on the sustainable utilisation of game and game products are largely to blame for the existence of a thriving black market.

The ban on hunting elephants has increased their numbers in Botswana to such an extent, that they have destroyed habitats and threatened the existence of other species. Selective hunting of is therefore permitted again.

The number of wildlife species affected by illegal trade is enormous and, according to Science Direct, includes most species for which there is a market, but without a source that can meet the need. For many of these species, illicit trade has been and continues to be catastrophic. The demand for tiger skins and bones, for example, has resulted in the demise of 97% of the world’s tiger population.

Several experts acknowledge that the interaction between people and the environment where this type of trade is concerned is complex and often misunderstood. For people in poorer countries, this is often their only means of survival. Yet many of the species are susceptible to unplanned and uncontrolled poaching and the random way species are exploited poses a great danger to the conservation of diversity.

The market for endangered species

The international community decided to divide endangered species into three classes and to adapt the trade in these species by assessing the extent to which the groups’ existence is threatened. It ranges from a total ban to strict trading conditions. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) implemented rules that regulate member states’ compliance and how it should be enforced.

Sir Winston Churchill, during his stint as prime minister of England, said: “If you destroy a free market you create a black market.” And although never expected, this is exactly what happened. Many of the wildlife products that are sold illegally are on CITES’s endangered species lists.

It appears that conservation and people’s dependence on wildlife products for an income, can best be served by the sustainable supply of such products from existing, accumulated inventories or the sustainable production and utilisation thereof.

Impact on nature conservation

Inger Andersen, former director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says the sustainable, legal and fair trade in wildlife products can be a powerful natural solution to the dual challenge of promoting the survival of rural communities and preserving the environment.

There are several examples in South Africa of how private ownership has saved game species such as rhino, Cape mountain zebra, bontebok and black wildebeest from extinction.

On the other hand, she is concerned that the trade in wildlife products may pose a serious threat to conservation, as ever-increasing prices could come at a serious cost to nature, which will plunge people even further into poverty and increase pressure on species survival.

Arancha González, former executive director of the International Trade Centre, says the world’s economic resources are under pressure due to climate change, urbanisation, invasive species and increasing human demand for food and fibre.

Biodiversity provides essential goods and services to people and nature is even described as the ‘gross domestic product’ of poor people. For this reason, she says, policymakers, project designers, communities and the private sector need to understand to what extent the world’s wildlife is affected by trade and how it can be tempered.

Conservation via private investment

Adri says the model of private ownership of land and game in South Africa is a clear example of how private investment can promote species conservation and increase game numbers. There are several examples in South Africa of how private ownership has saved game species such as rhino, Cape mountain zebra, bontebok and black wildebeest from extinction. She says it is an excellent example of conservation in the 21st century.

Despite critics’ claims that game farming does not contribute to conservation, South African game farmers have increased the numbers of several species, of which the numbers had dropped dramatically or tended towards extinction levels over the last century, to viable levels through careful breeding.

Buffalo annually attract hundreds of foreign trophy hunters to South Africa, where their spending also helps other industries.

International experts say poaching poses the greatest threat to wildlife species and that law enforcement officials are unable to curb it. Yet no one is brave enough to admit that the restrictions on the sustainable utilisation of game and game products are largely to blame for the existence of a thriving black market.

Possible solutions

Science Direct mentions that there are several conditions under which game farming and trade should be legalised in order to contribute to nature conservation. It states that, among other things, the legal product must substitute black market products, a significant part of the demand must be met, the legal product must be more cost effective in order to lower black market prices, game farming should not rely on natural game to increase its numbers, and illegal products should not end up in the market by using legal channels.

It seems that South Africa and Namibia’s game industries largely comply with these conditions and that they provide a better solution to sustainably conserve diversity than advocates of stricter trade restrictions.

For more information, contact Wildlife Ranching South Africa on 012 335 6994 or send an email to – Andries Gouws, Stockfarm