New innovation tackling illegal wildlife trade

Global illegal wildlife trading is a major threat to environmental biosecurity, biodiversity, human health and wellbeing and directly threatens tens of thousands of species. It is also a likely source of invasive species.

Many Australian plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world and this continues to attract organised criminal activity in the absence of improved surveillance, increased enforcement, greater public awareness and participation, and heavier penalties and prosecutions.

It is critical that the impacts of illegal wildlife trade are taken seriously in order to safeguard our environmental assets, and provide resilient landscapes for our unique flora and fauna.

What is it?

Illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is the illicit sale or exchange of biological resources, i.e., naturally harvested, alien or non-domesticated animals and plants.

  • live animals and plants for the pet and ornamental trade;
  • carcasses and body parts for the meat or timber trade;
  • derivatives and products for the medicinal trade; and skins and miscellaneous parts for the decorative and fashion trade.

These species may be protected under either domestic or international law, but have been harvested and traded without appropriate legal permission.

Each year, the IWT

  • produces many thousands of tonnes of wildlife contraband, worth billions of dollars.
  • is a major component of transnational environmental crime and a driver of declines in biodiversity globally.
  • also generates novel biosecurity and human health risks through the transport and introduction of alien and invasive species – as well as their pathogens and diseases.

How bad is it?

In 2019, over 1 million illegal wildlife items (live or derived products) were seized across thousands of global incidents.

IWT is increasing and Australia has had more high-profile wildlife seizures in the last three years than in the previous eight years combined.

There is good evidence that rare and endangered species are of higher value in illegal trade, and that the IWT is itself a source of endangerment for thousands of species.

Why can’t we stop it?

Global wildlife trade is regulated by the multilateral Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

While CITES aims to root out illegal trade, the IWT remains a pervasive regulatory issue. For instance, there is no international legal agreement on what constitutes wildlife crime.

Ongoing challenges include:

  • Native Australian species protected under the EPBC Act are not automatically protected outside of Australia, and there is a popular international trade in Australian native species (e.g., reptiles).
  • Between 1999 and 2016 over 2,795 alien vertebrates were detected in Australia, and many of these were from illegal holding, breeding and importing. These species are a considerable risk to the Australian environment.
    Agencies responsible for combatting wildlife crime and enforcing legislation need resources, and in Australia differences in State and Commonwealth legislation lead to difficulties in exchanging intelligence and driving national cooperation.
  • A lack of public awareness and responsiveness is conflated as illegal wildlife trade can be poorly enforced with low penalties and low rates of prosecution being commonplace globally.


Through the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions, researchers at the University of Adelaide are leading a project focused on developing automated data-mining/web-scraping code to identify and characterise the illegal or unwarranted selling of alien species through e-commerce platforms (e.g., Gumtree, Facebook, enthusiast forums, lost and found websites).

Associate Professor Phill Cassey and a team of researchers are working with members of the Environment and Invasives Committee, and biosecurity staff specialists within government departments to ensure that a nationally appropriate tool is developed that can be used by all jurisdictions, and the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.

Along with this, four major solutions are recommended to tackle illegal wildlife trade.

  1. Designating greater enforcement and surveillance resources to the global wildlife trade, as well as an increased focus on existing and future risks from IWT to Australian environments, economies and human wellbeing.
  2. Facilitating greater intelligence sharing between agencies responsible for enforcing wildlife crime legislation, as well as cooperating with researchers and practitioners working in environmental biosecurity and wildlife conservation and forensics.
  3. Driving legislative improvements to increase the synergies between State and Commonwealth agencies – including coordination of permitting and surveillance/prosecution legislation, and higher penalties consistent across jurisdictions, which reflect the seriousness of IWT.
  4. Improving public awareness and responsiveness to IWT through education campaigns and conducting social research to understand which aspects of behavioural change provide the greatest social de-incentive.

The recent emergence of COVID-19 is causing global human suffering, and mortality, and has rapidly become the most acute public health emergency of our generation. While the origin of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID‐19 remains uncertain, there is strong evidence that novel zoonotic diseases are linked to human activities that bring wildlife and humans into increasingly intense contact; including the harvesting, trade and consumption of wildlife. By combatting, and preventing, the illegal harvesting and unsustainable trade of wildlife we can improve environmental health and animal welfare, while also reducing human health risks.

Further reading:  

*the bold references have been produced through the University of Adelaide research team

  1. García‐Díaz, P., Ross, J.V., Woolnough, A.P., & Cassey, P. (2017). The illegal wildlife trade is a likely source of alien species. Conservation Letters, 10(6), 690-698.
  2. Gore, M.L., Braszak, P., Brown, J., Cassey, P., Duffy, R., Fisher, J., … & Machalaba, C. (2019). Transnational environmental crime threatens sustainable development. Nature Sustainability, 2(9), 784-786.
  3. Johnson, C.K., Hitchens, P.L., Pandit, P.S., Rushmore, J., Evans, T.S., Young, C.C., & Doyle, M.M. (2020). Global shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 287(1924), 20192736.
  4. Lockwood, J.L., Welbourne, D.J., Romagosa, C.M., Cassey, P., Mandrak, N.E., Strecker, A., … & Tlusty, M.F. (2019). When pets become pests: the role of the exotic pet trade in producing invasive vertebrate animals. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 17(6), 323-330.
  5. Scheffers, B.R., Oliveira, B.F., Lamb, I., & Edwards, D.P. (2019). Global wildlife trade across the tree of life. Science, 366(6461), 71-76.
  6. Smith, K.F., Behrens, M., Schloegel, L.M., Marano, N., Burgiel, S., & Daszak, P. (2009). Reducing the risks of the wildlife trade. Science, 324(5927), 594-595.
  7. Swift, L., Hunter, P.R., Lees, A. C., & Bell, D. J. (2007). Wildlife trade and the emergence of infectious diseases. EcoHealth, 4(1), 25.
  8. Symes, W.S., McGrath, F. L., Rao, M., & Carrasco, L. R. (2018). The gravity of wildlife trade. Biological Conservation, 218, 268-276.
  9. Toomes, A., García‐Díaz, P., Wittmann, T.A., Virtue, J., & Cassey, P. (2020). New aliens in Australia: 18 years of vertebrate interceptions. Wildlife Research, 47(1), 55-67.
  10. Utermohlen, M. (2020). Runway to extinction: wildlife trafficking in the air transport sector.

This page has been prepared by: Phillip Cassey, Talia Wittmann, Adam Toomes & Oliver Stringham; Invasion Science & Wildlife Ecology Lab, School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide, SA 5005 AUSTRALIA