Criminal networks and the illicit wildlife trade


What is the current state of the evidence regarding criminal networks and the illicit wildlife trade in the East and Southern Africa region?


This five day help desk review provides an overview of academic, policy and practitioner literature that examines the illicit wildlife trade and criminal networks. Whilst there is a broad consensus that the illegal wildlife trade is a pressing and growing concern, there is much debate as to what this trade entails and who the key actors are. It is important to highlight that it involves a broad range of actions, receiving different levels of attention from various academic, policy and practitioner communities. This being said there is increasing agreement on the stages involved in the illicit wildlife trade and the nature of the criminal networks involved.

Key Findings

  • Studies of the illicit wildlife trade and the criminal networks involved, often involve certain assumptions. These require further critical analysis to explore the complex dynamics of the illicit wildlife trade. It is a diverse and fluid phenomenon, confounding attempts to characterise it as a singular trade that can be tackled by a common approach.
  • The illicit wildlife trade is not exclusively a problem of extracting high-value wildlife products to generate profits for organised criminal networks. The trade may also be part of local livelihood strategies in poor and marginalised communities. Illicit trading networks defy neat categorisations of legal‒illicit, state‒society, public‒private and formal‒informal. Rather, they span a range of relationships and links which are difficult to capture using singular and unproblematic definitions.
  • The illicit wildlife trade involves a number of broad stages or elements. Providing a breakdown of these enables a greater sense of how criminal networks are formed of different actors up and down the supply chain. The logistics of wildlife trafficking are complex and highly variable across Africa, but there are commonly three distinct phases – poaching, trafficking, and retail. Each of these stages is increasingly professionalised and dominated by criminal and corruption networks.
  • The illicit wildlife trade is trans-boundary and involves cross-border criminal syndicates. In the era of global free trade, the ease of communication and movement of goods and money facilitate the operations of groups involved in illicit trade. Driven by perceptions of low risk and high profit, indications have emerged of the illicit wildlife trade attracting greater interest from organised crime groups. These criminal syndicates are moving poached or illicitly harvested wildlife with the help of the same techniques and networks used for illicit trafficking in persons, weapons, drugs etc. The sourcing of wildlife is often undertaken by local groups including pastoralist communities, artisanal or subsistence hunters and even militias and terrorist groups.


Suggested citation

Avis, W. (2017). Criminal networks and illicit wildlife trade. K4D Helpdesk Report 150. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies