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Illegal Wildlife Trade: The 15-billion-dollar industry that kills to survive

Informative Article

38 million wild animals are poached every year in Brazil alone. But, why does this happen?

by Kiersten Ngeow

Illegal wildlife trade. It’s the world’s 4th largest illegal trade, following drugs, human trafficking, and counterfeiting. Worth an estimated 15 billion dollars annually, illegal wildlife trade has made immense profits. But at what cost?

Due to the demand of wildlife products, millions of animals have been murdered and face extinction. One such tragic case is the black rhino, being systematically hunted to extinction by the poachers.

But why does this happen?

The demand for wildlife products comes from their affiliation with immense wealth and status, along with the belief in their “medicinal” properties. For example, rhinos are targeted for their horns as medicine for a variety of illnesses, ranging from the fever to even cancer. However, this belief is false, as rhinoceros horns are made out of keratin—the same material that make up our own hair and nails.

Despite this, pound for pound, rhino horns are significantly more valuable than gold.

According to the Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation, a rhino horn can cost up to $100,000 per kg. In comparison, gold is only valued at $36,968 per kg. This means that poaching is an incredibly lucrative business — even if it is through illegal means. But, does that mean it should be done? This is where our Trilemma is presented: Does the value of the illegal wildlife trade industry outweigh the lives of endangered species? Or is there a neutral stance?


Imagine this. You’re in a position of poverty, where there is a lack of employment opportunities. Everyday is a struggle for survival due to lack of food and resources. Despite this, you try to survive the day, even though it seems quite impossible to make ends meet.

Then you hear about poaching. The idea of being able to hunt down animals and make a fortune in a short amount of time. The only catch—it is not only dangerous to poach, but it is illegal. And worst of all, you know many of these species are already facing extinction.

For some poachers, this is their reality. Driven by desperation, hunger, and unemployment, they seek to make ends meet—even if it is through illegal means.

From the video “Confessions of a Rhino Poacher”, the poacher under the pseudonym “Z” explains how personal circumstances led him to become a poacher. “I poach because of circumstances. There is no work, no money and no food. That is why I poach.”

But not all poachers are driven by such dire needs.

In the Sinamatella Productions film (en)snared, Albert Mathe, a former poacher explains how the motivation to illegally hunt varies, “There are different types of poachers. Those are those who go out and kill rhino because they just want to make money.” For Mathe, his motivation was to feed his family, “Whereas for us, here in the village our stomachs are empty and we need food. That’s why I used to hunt antelope. I’d divide up the meat and we’d go to trade it for money.

Park Rangers:

Park rangers risk their lives everyday to protect unsuspecting wildlife from becoming helpless victims in the illegal wildlife trade. According to National Geographic, “In Africa, nearly 600 rangers charged with protecting wildlife were gunned down by poachers between 2009 and 2016 while in the line of duty.” Additionally, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park, at least 170 rangers have been killed in the past two decades.

But, why do they do it? Why would park rangers risk their lives to save these animals?

The devastating impact that poaching has to wildlife threatens the existence of countless species. For example, between 2014 and 2017, more than 100,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory.

Additionally, protecting, instead of poaching wildlife is crucial to the future of the global ecosystem.

Overexploitation of species affects the living planet in substantial ways. Just as overfishing causes imbalances in the whole marine system, our complex web of life on earth depends on careful and thoughtful use of wildlife species and their habitats.”

With poaching threatening the existence of valuable species, it is vital to take action to save these creatures. Otherwise, we risk losing these species forever.


For some, poaching is an act of desperation to make ends meet, or a way to make money rapidly. While for others, poaching is a threat to the existence of irreplaceable endangered species that play integral parts in our world ecosystem.

But what if we could reach a compromise? One where the livelihoods of those reliant on illegal wildlife trade could gain opportunities to pursue other forms of income.

As National Geographic states, “There are also numerous nonprofits around the world working to end wildlife poaching. Some of these groups have helped to promote alternative, more sustainable ways for poachers to earn a living.”

One of these nonprofits is COMACO which aims to incentivize poachers with stable and substantial incomes through farming. In doing so, COMACO has allowed poachers to have jobs while giving back through their crops. Additionally, the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) has helped transform numerous poverty-stricken poachers into wildlife protectors.

In doing so, the lives of endangered species could be saved, while also providing alternate ways for poachers to produce income.


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