The Wildlife Trade: Where Animal Welfare Arguments Fall Quiet

Though we often focus criminological work on harms against biodiversity and resource users, these are not the only types of harm that we should be concerned with. In particular, harms against animal welfare are often legally prohibited and quite common in the wildlife trade. Here I consider how animal welfare arguments are not commonly used to motivate change and how we might use them to greater effect.

The Animal Welfare Dimensions of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Over the past two years, I’ve become increasingly acquainted with the illegal wildlife trade, as opposed to commercial fisheries where I previously focused professionally. Overall, I have found the animal welfare impacts rather astounding. That is, wild animals that are hunted and traded for food and pets are often subject to incredibly cruel conditions.

For instance:

  • The Nicaraguan Green Sea Turtle Fishery. The green sea turtle fishery in Caribbean Nicaragua is a legally-existing fishery in which the majority of catches are likely taken illegally (link). Not only are green sea turtles listed as ‘endangered’, but the sea turtles themselves are often kept alive, turned on their backs and out-of-water for a week or more before being butchered.

  • The Neotropical Parrot Trade. The vast and largely-illegal trade of neotropical parrots internal to Latin America (link) has been found to result in high rates of trade-related mortality of up to 75% (link) and poor nutrition and mental stimulation in captive animals (link).  

  • The “Invisible” Reptile and Amphibian Trade. Though the global reptile trade is virtually unknown in terms of scope and scale, it is broadly conducted in violation of national and international laws, and significant rates of morality and stress are believed to occur throughout the supply chain and among wild-caught captive reptiles (link, link).

  • Live Animal Confiscations. Another issue that I see very little written about is the welfare of animals confiscated from the illegal trade. Such animals may be euthanized, kept in poor facilities with poor care, or even be released to the wild to perish more slowly (link, p. 58). Sometimes, the confiscations just end up being traded again through illicit means.

Following one animal welfare framework (link), these examples might all score highly on five overlapping dimensions of harms against wildlife:

  • Water/food deprivation and malnutrition;

  • Environmental challenge (i.e., lack of shelter and rest areas);

  • Disease/injury/functional impairment;

  • Behavioral or interactive restriction, and;

  • Mental and physical suffering.

Wildlife Trade Reduction for...What?

Now, while I was not so naïve or inexperienced to have believed there were no significant animal welfare issues in the wildlife trade…I will admit that I have been surprised to learn how little animal welfare is considered in wildlife trade advocacy.

According to a review of wildlife trade literature by Baker and colleagues (2013), issues of animal welfare are largely ignored while biodiversity concerns are emphasized (p. 935):

[T]he wildlife trade literature is dominated by conservation issues, with conservation levers being the most often mentioned (in 71% of 292 articles), and animal welfare considered in only a minority of articles.

For instance, consider how this issue is not mentioned in the London Declaration that was produced in the recent Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London organized by the UK government. There’s a lot of mention of harms, but none of them have to do with animal welfare.

Baker and colleagues go on to suggest that the relative absence of animal welfare arguments relates to the fact that the wildlife trade can be such an important source of human welfare. In conservation-speak, this means that advocacy on animal welfare can risk a “backfire” effect when resource users have their own welfare needs, or at least government partners can think so. Specifically (p. 935):

[the lack of animal welfare in trade publications] may be a symptom of authors’ reluctance to refer directly to animal welfare because of real or perceived negative views held by their target audiences (e.g., governments and enforcement bodies)… Although animal welfare was almost never mentioned as a trade lever in the literature, animal welfare education could prove persuasive in some circumstances,  but concern for animal welfare is likely to be minimal where human poverty is rife (Ramaswamy 1998)

This dynamic has been noted by others, like Weston and Memon (2009), who write that many families that own illegally-sourced neotropical parrots in Latin America are unable to ensure the nutrition of their families, let alone their pets (p. 80)

Most people can barely afford to properly feed their own families let alone worry about a bird’s dietary health. Under the widespread belief that birds eat only seeds, many birds are simply placed on seed diets out of convenience and affordability. Some efforts are made to import commercial diets produced in the US but the cost of importation plus the cost of the product are not within the majority of the bird owning public’s budgets (Rivero Salins 2007).

An Opportunity for Expanded Advocacy?

The developmental needs of many biodiverse countries certainly limits the applicability of animal welfare arguments against the wildlife trade. However, from my own experience, I think there exists a limited range of opportunity to leverage animal welfare messaging for improved wildlife trade regulation.

In particular, I think the best opportunities relate to illegal wildlife trades that:

  1. Supply live animals for use as pets;

  2. Overlap with domesticated pet markets; and

  3. Target consumers in high- and upper-middle-income countries.

My reasoning is that the animal welfare impacts of a wildlife trade in can conflict with pet ownership motivations (companionship, hobby-breeding), while the existence of domesticated pet markets create clearer opportunities for pet owners to alternatively purchase captive-bred companion animals. Meanwhile, high-income and upper-middle-income countries (see World Bank definitions) likely offer already-motivated communities to accept and promote new pet ownership patterns. On this final point, Baker and colleagues (2013) offer a great example in China – an upper-middle income country – which had no term for animal welfare in the Chinese language prior to the 1990s, but the term has since gradually entered the popular Chinese vocabulary (p. 935).

So who knows? Maybe the conservation community can better consider animal welfare in its efforts to reduce illegal wildlife trade? I hope we can begin to evaluate this approach and achieve much greater effect to reduce the illegal wildlife trade. Certainly, it is not westerners alone who care about the pets that inhabit their lives.

Selected References:

  • Baker, S. E., Cain, R., Van Kesteren, F., Zommers, Z. A., D'cruze, N., & Macdonald, D. W. (2013). Rough trade: animal welfare in the global wildlife trade. BioScience, 63(12), 928-938. Open-Access Link.

  • Ruggiero, V., & South, N. (2013). Green criminology and crimes of the economy: Theory, research and praxis. Critical Criminology, 21(3), 359-373. Open-Access Link.

  • Weston, M. K., & Memon, M. A. (2009). The illegal parrot trade in Latin America and its consequences to parrot nutrition, health and conservation. Bird Populations, 9, 76-83. Open-Access Link.

Header Photo Credit: By Wolf Gordon Clifton / Animal People, Inc. [CC BY 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons