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What Is Animal Trafficking?

Animal trafficking is the unethical transport of animals from one place to another for the purposes of commercial enterprise or another form of exploitation. While some forms of trafficking are illegal, animal trafficking is broadly supported and promoted by existing laws.[1]


Where Are Animals Trafficked?

Animal trafficking occurs within wealthy and lower-income countries, and across borders.


Why Are Animals Trafficked?

The legal trafficking of live animals and their body parts represents a significant portion of the global economy.[2]

Animals are legally trafficked for the global trade in animal products such as meat, milk, and eggs; and clothing and textiles such as leather, wool, and feathers; and for industries that produce pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Animals are also trafficked to be used for human entertainment and to be sold as household pets.[3]

Since animals are generally considered legal property, most have little or no protection from trafficking.

Trafficking is part of an exploitative global economic system in which the same industries traffic both humans and animals.

For example, about 10 percent of the world’s children are forced to work, and many of them are trafficked to provide cheap labor for the industries that also exploit and traffic animals, including those that produce meat, wool, and leather.[4]

Foreign laborers are trafficked internationally to work in industries that exploit animals for food and fiber under conditions that are often considered modern slavery.[5]

Public policy often enables animal trafficking. For example, massive public subsidies assist industries engaged in animal exploitation and trafficking,[6] and policies regarding the transportation of live animals define animals as commodities.[7]

There are no international legal instruments aimed at banning animal trafficking unless their species is considered in danger of going extinct.

Illegal trafficking involves the prohibited poaching, capture, trade, smuggling, or collection of animals who belong to endangered species or other protected groups. The annual economic value of illegal trafficking is as much as $23 billion.[8]


How Could Changes in Policy Stop Animal Trafficking?

The United Nations Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) targets the trafficking of animals whose species are under threat of extinction. However, CITES has not yet succeeded in significantly reducing trafficking, nor in ultimately reducing rates of extinction.[9]

CITES does not target the trafficking of animals who are legally trafficked.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, decisionmakers have proposed policies to ban or reduce live animal trafficking. These policy proposals often state an aim of preventing pandemics and protecting human health under the auspices of the One Health approach.[10]

The One Health approach recognizes that human, animal, and ecosystem health are connected. For example, the systematic exploitation of animals for food and fiber is closely tied to many global environmental problems, including climate change, freshwater depletion, desertification, and water pollution.[11]

Animal trafficking is also directly tied to emerging zoonoses, which are diseases that infect both humans and animals. Most infectious diseases that impact humans are zoonoses.[12]

Outbreaks of zoonoses have increased in number and severity as animal trafficking has increased.[13] For example, the trafficking of pangolins and bats is likely responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. (Traffickers target pangolins more than more than any other animal in the world, with about one million pangolins trafficked annually.[14])

There has also been a significant increase in human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic.[15]

A Just One Health approach could improve the effectiveness of CITES and the potential impact of federal, state, and municipal policies that aim to ban or reduce animal trafficking. Such an approach would have the effect of advancing and protecting the interconnected rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet.



[1] Anne Peters, ed., Studies in Global Animal Law (Springer-Open, 2020).

[2] According to FAO, animal exploitation represents 40 percent of human agriculture and the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people. See “Animal Production,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed February 12, 2021.

[3]Import: Bring Live Animals into the United States,” Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, accessed February 16, 2021.; ”Stopping the Wildlife Trade,” Humane Society of the United States, accessed February 16, 2021.

[4]List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor,” United States Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, accessed January 31, 2021.; Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and Trends, 2012-2016, International Labour Office, 2017,

[5]  Michael Grabell, “Can Low-Wage Industries Survive Without Immigrants and Refugees?” ProPublica, May 5, 2017.

[6] David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics (Berkeley, California: Conari Press, 2013).

[7]Transporting Animals: Basic Requirements and Considerations,” American Veterinary Medical Association, accessed February 12, 2021.; “Live Animal Transport,” US Fish & Wildlife Service, accessed February 12, 2021.

[8] Wolfgang Lehmacher, “Wildlife Crime: A $23 Billion Trade That’s Destroying Our Planet,” World Economic Forum, September 28, 2016.

[9] Willow Outhwaite et al.,  Eastward Bound: Analysis of CITES-Listed Flora and Fauna Exports from Africa to East and Southeast Asia,” TRAFFIC International, March 2018.

[10] Specifically, see “Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2021,” S. 37, 117th Cong. (2021). More generally, see “State Action on Coronavirus (COVID-19),” National Conference of State Legislatures, accessed February 10, 2021. Also see ‘‘List of COVID-19 Pandemic Legislation,” Wikipedia, accessed February 12, 2021.

[11] Henning Steinfeld et al., Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006.

[12]Zoonotic Diseases,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed February 1, 2021.

[13] Katherine F. Smith et al., “Global Rise in Human Infectious Disease Outbreaks,” Journal of the Royal Society Interface 11, no. 101 (December 6, 2014).

[14] Daniel W. S. Challender et al.,  Scaling Up Pangolin Conservation: IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group Conservation Action Plan, IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, Zoological Society of London, July 2014.

[15] Nzinga Blake et al., “Human Rights Org Sees 185% Rise in Human Trafficking Cases amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, January 17, 2021.



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