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

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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