Documenting the Wildlife Trade

Running Wild Media has years of experience documenting wildlife in their natural habitat for various conservation purposes and this experience is advantages for documenting conservation issues facing wildlife all over the world. In addition to documenting human wildlife conflict, Running Wild Media Co-founders document wildlife trade and trafficking across the globe for various conservation organizations.

What is it?

Wildlife trade is a broad term used to describe various forms of trade from exotic pets, animal parts to even illegal trafficking of protected species. Items as familiar as dried fish and shells you would find at a local shell shop near the beach are considered part of the wildlife trade. Exotic species are also an active part of the wildlife trade and are defined as species that are not domesticated like dogs, cats and horses. Fish, snakes, frogs and birds at your local pet store are all a part of the wildlife trade. These elements of the trade are regulated and are typically okay to participate in, although consumers should be very cautious and educated about the implications of supporting the legal wildlife trade.

The illegal wildlife trade is extremely dangerous and occurs because the export/import/trade of particular products are banned, making these commodities highly valuable on the black market. This trade is usually run by organized crime networks and encourages illegal poaching in protected areas. Often, poaching is conducted by desperate individuals who have no other place to turn to feed their families and is done as a last resort. The best way to stop poaching on the ground is to provide alternative economical opportunities, such as hiring these individuals as rangers, organic farmers, skilled laborers and so on. The overall organization of poaching and the trafficking of wildlife products are conducted by criminals, therefore, must be confronted with solid law enforcement practices.

Above: Sea turtles, shark products and shells on sale in a tourist shop in Enoshima, Japan. Unsuspecting tourists that purchase one of these items and then take it on a plane with them face heavy fines and even jail time. Photos by Justin Grubb

Governing Entities

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) is an international agreement between governments that aids in the protection of species that are listed as endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). CITES as three appendages I, II and III. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling the trade ( The animals featured in the images above are included in appendix I.

The Wildlife Trade’s Affect on Biodiversity

Imagine you are a buyer looking for a beautiful piece of coral skeleton to put on your home office table. You are looking for a particularly large piece, one with good looking coral branches and a solid white color. You are looking through several pieces and finally settle on one that isn’t missing any branches and at one point probably looked “healthy.” The seller is very aware of what the buyer is interested in, and will select the best looking pieces of coral for sale. This usually means the largest, strongest and healthiest corals are selected for sale, removing them from the environment and ultimately, removing their genes from the genetic pool. This has the opposite affect of natural selection, which in a natural state, selects against sick, weak and poorly adapted animals and plants in the environment. These are considered outliers in a healthy population. But when the strong and healthy are targeted and removed, it acts to destabilize a population and select for the less genetically fit individuals.

Another example of destabilization is with trophy hunting. When a hunter selects a large male lion to kill based on size, mane and large gnarly looking teeth, they don’t often consider that the lion has spent years fighting off other male lions to finally produce a pride of his own and produce several offspring with a few different females. When the bullet from the hunter’s rifle kills the male, something of which millions of years of evolution could not have prepared him for, the pride is open to other outside male’s. These male’s will compete with one another until one takes over the pride but not until that male kills the cubs from the last lion’s lineage. This has a similar affect by removing the most genetically fit organisms from the environment and selecting against them through artificial means.

Both scenarios actively aid in lowering genetic fitness in a population and can cause severe survival problems if left unregulated. Therefore, it is extremely important to follow the guidelines of CITES when looking at wildlife products.

Above: A fairy bluebird, native to Borneo, for sale in a bird market in Pontianak, Indonesia. Photo by Justin Grubb

What to Do

Whether you’re shopping at a shell store or pet store, it is important to consider where the wildlife items you are looking at came from and recognize that many of these items were once part of a living breathing ecosystem, but now, are simply a dried heap sitting on a dusty shelf for someone to buy and take it home as decoration. The best course of action, is to avoid purchasing these objects in the first place and to spread awareness to others. Instead, while souvenir shopping, look for something handcrafted by a local and support their trade.

When you see suspicious items for sale in a shop, report it. There are various organizations the specialize in different avenues in wildlife trade and finding that matches your find is easy. Feel free to contact us with your find and we can assist in reporting any potential illegal activity.

Above: Dried shark fins, taxidermy sea turtle, jewelry made of turtle shell and dried stingrays. Photos by Justin Grubb

Justin Grubb