Wildlife Trade

Fighting Illegal Wildlife Trade

Along with climate change and habitat degradation, the excessive human consumption of wildlife is one of the major threats to biodiversity – which is essential to secure ecosystems' sustainability and resilience.

The number of wild animals traded as pets, medicines, food delicacies and for collection across the world is impressive, and the trend has been steadily increasing in recent years. 

In China this trend has witnessed a sharp increase following the rampant economic development, which has benefited large shares of the population but has also further accelerated the exploitation of wildlife to unsustainable trends from across the globe. Today, this is the most pressing conservation issue both in Asian and African range countries where many of these endangered species have their habitat. 

The globalization of markets for exotic wildlife has increased demand which, in turn, has created high profits for those trafficking in endangered wildlife. Trade routes have become increasingly complex, crossing international borders by land, water, and air. China is a country of vast territory, sharing long borders with 14 countries, which creates significant difficulties for investigating and combating illegal wildlife trade. 

While many consumers realize wildlife need to be protected, they do not realize the current consumption trends are unsustainable, and consumers behavior is a serious threat to wildlife, when not even against the law. With our work we are committed to find appropriate ways to raise public awareness of the need for wildlife conservation and to encourage a change in behavior that is conducive to the protection of wildlife.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has a long history of strategically addressing wildlife trade globally along the entire trade chain, from habitats to markets. For key focal species or species groups, WCS focuses its interventions at the following four discrete levels: 
  • the site level, within the protected area or broader habitat;
  • the landscape level, in areas surrounding poaching sites;
  • choke-points, such as ports and border crossings; and
  • end-points of sale, such as wholesale markets and retail establishments where wildlife is sold to consumers.
To prevent poaching of wildlife at the source, we believe that expertise, government relationships, and innovative approaches are required along the trade-chain and in the markets that drive the poaching of many species.

Our ultimate goal is stemming wildlife trafficking for the priority species listed in CITES Appendix I, Appendix II (with zero quota), China’s National Class-I Protected Species List, and other species restricted from trade by local laws.


Since 2008, WCS has played an increasing role in combating wildlife trafficking for priority species in southern China. Our work to catalyze stronger enforcement of wildlife crime laws is a critical component of WCS strategy in both Asia and Africa, and vitally important for the survival of many key species globally.

Our core activities span through:
  • Empowering law enforcement agencies with key knowledge through regular capacity-building trainings; 
  • Facilitating the work of law enforcement agencies through innovative tools (Wildlife Guardian software); 
  • Performing regular monitoring and surveys on local pet, wet and TCM markets; 
  • Developing public sensitization campaigns; 
  • Supporting local forestry police and customs with on-demand consulting services. 


During the first five years of our work on wildlife trade WCS has delivered capacity building workshops to almost one thousand law enforcement officers, training them on the value of wildlife conservation and the techniques for distinguishing endangered species and genuine wildlife products. We involved in this important exercise key central and provincial leaders from both the China Customs and the Forestry Police Department.

Knowledge development tools

Accurate identification of traded species and their products still remains a key challenge to front-line officers. While training seminars are very beneficial for improving awareness and strengthening inter-agency cooperation, they need some complimentary tools to ensure knowledge about animal species identification is retained.

Other than scientific knowledge, the inconvenience of searching through several huge hard-copy wildlife species databases and law regulations while operating in the field notably impair their surveillance work. Therefore, we began exploring more effective ways to deliver this knowledge through innovative tools such as a smartphone based software we are currently developing [LINK]. 

Through the Wildlife Guardian mobile app users can easily identify animal species through a straightforward and visually guided search across animal features. In only three easy steps even inexperienced users can effectively identify the species they are looking at.

Along with this automatic identification function, WCS will include an additional module that enables authorized users to request online remote support from our experts network. This function will be especially useful in facilitating government agencies actions to enforce compliance with national and international regulations for wildlife protection. Additional features also included in the Wildlife Guardian app are an easy access to the latest news, laws and regulations related to wildlife conservation. 

Market monitoring and surveillance

Besides empowering law enforcement agencies for wildlife protection, the Wildlife Conservation Society also directly supports their efforts by performing extensive monitoring and surveillance activities in the pet, food and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) markets in southern China. 

China has a long history of including wildlife in medicine. More than 1,500 animal species have been recorded as TCM ingredients, among which 50 benefit from the highest protection of the Class I China protected species list, and 110 are included in the Class II list. If we also include plant species, the total figure increases by about 5,000 species. 

The China Plant Red Data Book published in 1993 already contained 388 threatened plant species. Of these 77 species (one fifth) were commonly used in TCM. Since 1996, the Wildlife Conservation Society has worked to increase the conservation awareness among TCM practitioners and the public, and to maintain sustainable development of this traditional medicine. This has become possible through the Asia Conservation Communication Program (ACCP), which was set up under the support of the United States Fish and Wildlife Foundation. 

Since 1997, the WCS-ACCP program has conducted over 20 symposia, and urged TCM practitioners to play an active role in protecting these resources. These meetings have boosted communication between TCM experts and wildlife conservationists, and explored a better environment for TCM development. Based on the knowledge consolidated in these symposia, WCS released two publications: Resources of Chinese Materia Medica and Conservation of Endangered Wild Animals and Plants. 

During 2006-2008, WCS implemented the project "Protecting Southwest China's Wildlife Used in TCM" under the support of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). This consisted in activities aimed at promoting conservation awareness among the public through supporting TCM practitioners. The main achievements included: a) setting up a Sichuan professional committee for maintaining the list of endangered TCM wildlife. b) Collecting information on endangered wildlife due to overexploitation for TCM. c) Supporting research on substitute ingredients. d) Running public awareness campaigns among TCM college students in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. 

Since 2006, WCS is also monitoring the trade and consumption of Saiga horn in southern China TCM markets. Surveillance activities have been performed several times during each year, allowing us to better understand the trend of both the prescription and consumption of this product in the past seven years. We share our findings and suggestions for a more effective conservation of this species to the Saiga Conservation Alliance as well as to the State Forestry Administration.

Transboundary illegal trade

WCS addresses wildlife trade along the entire trade chain, from the supply to final points of consumption, from the moment an animal is caught in the wild to its end on a dinner plate in Guangzhou or a shop in New York. This is possible through an integrated cross-country strategy that promotes increased information exchange and collaboration among regional offices and a global network of public and private partners. 

China has a long border of over 21,000 km adjoining 15 counties, making it challenging to fight wildlife smuggling across the borders. These border regions also encompass a unique range of ecological zones and ecosystems. such as the habitat of Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Marco Polo Sheep (Ovis ammon polii) and many more. The control of illegal hunting and trade in these areas is a critical step in wildlife protection. 

Starting in 2008, WCS pioneered an innovative conservation award in order to provide incentives and special recognition to those conservation enthusiasts working in these border regions. Soon this event was extended to applications coming from all over China and changed its name into Wildlife Guardian Action. Till date, 253 front-line law enforcement officers have participated to the contest, with an increase of 130% across the past four editions. 

Today the Wildlife Guardian Action accepts nominations either from law-enforcement agencies, journalists and civil society groups. This initiative helps promoting knowledge-sharing through a number of workshops where we invite the winners to share their experience and best practices, and allows for a greater media exposure of wildlife conservation issues on Chinese media.

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WCS China Trade Program
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