Summary and Keywords
Wildlife crime is an area of study typically defined from a legalistic perspective as an act in contravention of laws protecting wildlife. These crimes occur both within and across national borders and may include trafficking in wildlife or wildlife products. Internationally, wildlife crime is regulated by a series of conventions, with CITES being the most important for the regulation of trade. While these conventions are international in scope, they must be administered by signatory nations through domestic laws. Domestic laws are enacted within local contexts and are as varied as the crimes themselves, regulating hunting, transportation, use, and sale of wildlife. Several international organizations (e.g., INTERPOL) facilitate collaboration between countries, but these organizations do not have law enforcement authority, so enforcement occurs primarily at the domestic, state, and regional level, following the domestically enacted law.
Scholars have taken a variety of approaches to define and understand various types of wildlife crime and criminals. Some have used a stage-based approach to develop typologies of wildlife crime based on the location of the crime or the criminal within the supply chain, while other criminal typologies are based on underlying motivations. In addition to typological approaches, more general theoretical frameworks (e.g., opportunity theory) have been used to explain these motivations and drivers of crime. More broadly, wildlife crime can be situated and understood within overarching theoretical perspectives, including Green Criminology and Conservation Criminology. Green criminologists define wildlife crime in terms of harm to animals, regardless of whether the act was against the law, and examine how power and inequality produce these harms. Conservation Criminologists, on the other hand, advocate taking an interdisciplinary approach to systematically define and understand environmental risks, including those related to wildlife.
The diversity of perspectives and approaches has produced a wildlife crime literature that is extremely varied, ranging from research on hunting and poaching to trafficking and enforcement. The continued pursuit of novel theoretical perspectives and methodological practices is necessitated by persistent criminal threats to wildlife, particularly to endangered species. Scholar must therefore continue to develop, test, and refine theory and methodological approaches in order to empirically guide wildlife conservation strategy.
The contemporary concern about the loss of endangered species has highlighted the importance of understanding the nature of wildlife crime. In addition to imperiling wildlife populations, such criminal activity negatively impacts the natural ecological environment through the reduction of biodiversity, the disruption of the evolutionary process, and introduction of invasive species (Clifford & Edwards, 2012).1 It also threatens human health and livelihoods by reducing the diversity of biological resources for medicines, food crops, and genetics, as well as reducing opportunities for recreation and tourism (Clifford & Edwards, 2012), and may also contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases (Alacs & Georges, 2008; Chomel et al., 2007).2 Victims of wildlife crime can include individuals and their communities, flora and fauna, and the environment as a whole (Wyatt, 2013). For these reasons, wildlife crime has increasingly become the subject of criminological research interest.
Wildlife is defined as “all non-human animals and plants that are not companion or domesticated animals” (Wyatt, 2013, p. 2). In most research, wildlife crime is defined based on the legal code of the relevant jurisdiction or international agreement. For example, Moreto & Lemieux (2015) defined it as “any action, whether for commercial or personal purposes, which directly breaches national and/or international laws, agreements and regulations enacted for the protection of wildlife” (p. 304). As demonstrated by this definition, wildlife crime may occur at both the domestic (i.e., wildlife crimes that occur within the borders of a single country) and international/transnational-levels (i.e., wildlife crimes that cross national borders) (Elliott, 2016). Broader notions of harm to wildlife, which are defined independently of the legality of the action, have also been discussed. For example, some have noted that legal activities, such as deforestation or unsustainable legal harvests, also harm wildlife (Wyatt, 2013).3
Research on wildlife crime has followed several trajectories. A variety of disciplinary perspectives have been taken, such as natural resource management, ecology, anthropology, and criminology. From a criminological perspective, some scholars have conceptualized wildlife crime as one form of environmental crime to demonstrate the full range of environmental problems, but also highlight unique dimensions of each form of crime. For example, White and Heckenberg (2014) describe “brown,” “green,” and “white” environmental issues. “Brown issues tend to be defined in terms of urban life and pollution (e.g., air quality); green issues mainly relate to wilderness areas and conservation matters (e.g., logging practices); and white issues refer to science laboratories and the impact of new technologies (e.g., genetically modified organisms)” (White & Heckenberg, 2014, p. 69, emphasis in original). More commonly, researchers have studied specific types or instances of domestic or international wildlife crime or have developed typologies that describe the stages and types of, or motivations for, wildlife crime specifically.
This article provides an overview of the wildlife crime literature.4 However, the overview is limited to wildlife crime (as defined by law) in the domains outlined by Pires and Moreto (2011) as “(1) poaching for trade or personal possession; (2) illegally killing for bush meat; and (3) killing animals due to human-animal conflict” (p. 104).5 The discussion begins with an overview of the legislation and enforcement related to wildlife. This will be followed by illustrations of the types of wildlife crimes and offenders. To provide a comprehensive overview, multiple typologies of wildlife crime are merged into an overarching perspective. There is a review of the dominant theoretical typologies of offender motivation and specific theories that have been used to explain wildlife crime (and harm) and criminal events, as well as wildlife regulation and enforcement. The article concludes with a discussion of the dominant approaches in the literature and the direction of future research.
The Legal Context
A description of legislation in the United States provides an overview of the legal context related to wildlife. The focus on the United States is meant to provide a detailed example and a point of comparison for other legal systems. There follow the primary international treaties to offer a comprehensive description of this topic. This section concludes with a description of enforcement at the domestic and international levels.
Domestic Legislation: The U.S. Example6
Early American law focused on wildlife as a useful economic resource for food and clothing or as vicious nuisance animals with bounties (e.g., wolves) (Linder, 1988). However, in the late 19th century, as wildlife populations began to rapidly decline and hunting shifted from a subsistence and commercial to a recreational activity, hunters began to lobby for legislation to protect wildlife as a future recreational resource (Linder, 1988). Ultimately, the growing environmental movement promoted the protection of wildlife for ethical, ecological, and aesthetic values, and emerging laws sought to balance the interests of animal rights advocates, environmentalists, and commercial users (Linder, 1988).
Today, several pieces of U.S. federal legislation regulate the taking of wildlife (Table 1). Some prohibit the taking of a subset of wildlife (e.g., the Migratory Bird Treaty Act 1918), or protect specific geographical areas—e.g., the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act 1971 protects those animals on federal lands (Buck, 2006). Other laws regulate the labeling of wildlife products (e.g., The Rhino and Tiger Labeling Act, 1998 [Lee, Hoover, Gaski, & Mills, 1998]) or regulate federal acquisition and management of wildlife habitat. For example, the Migratory Bird Conservation Act (1929) provided federal land for bird refuges (Buck, 2006). Similarly, the Refuge Recreation Act (1962) created the National Wildlife Refuge System and the National Forest Management Act (1976) delegates some wildlife conservation responsibility to the Forest Service. Specifically, the Forest Service manages wildlife habitat on federal lands for game and nongame species, recreation, and consumption (e.g., timber harvesting), which is referred to as a multiple-use system (Buck, 2006).
Several acts also regulate commerce in wildlife. The most general legislation is the Lacey Act (1900), which states that wildlife imported to the United States from countries with established protections must be certified for entrance (Buck, 2006). Similarly, wildlife taken illegally in other countries cannot legally enter the United States (Moulton & Sanderson, 1998). Within the United States, the act also prohibits the interstate transit of game killed in violation of state law (Buck, 2006; Moulton & Sanderson, 1998).7 Essentially, the Lacey Act supports other wildlife protections by making it an additional offense to illegally transport illegally taken wildlife across federal, state, and foreign borders (Moulton & Sanderson, 1998). In addition, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) prohibits the import into the United States of species that are threatened with extinction (Moulton & Sanderson, 1998). The ESA is focused on threatened species and prohibits the taking or attempted taking of any endangered species (“take” includes harassment, harm, pursuit, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capture, or collection) (Wood, 2016). Penalties available in both the ESA and Lacey Act can span from lenient punishments, such as contraband forfeiture, to more stringent fines or prison sentences (Brooks, 1993).
Lacey Act (1900)
Regulation of the import and interstate transit of wildlife
National Park Service Organic Act (1916)
National Park Service given responsibility for wildlife protection in National Park System
Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918)
Illegal to take, possess, buy, sell, purchase, or barter any migratory bird, parts, nests, or eggs; habitat protection and refuges
Black Bass Act (1926)
Regulates the transportation of black bass across state boundaries
Migratory Bird Conservation Act (1929)
Provide federal land for bird refuges
Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act (1940)
Prohibits sale, possession, transport of protected eagles
Refuge Recreation Act (1962)
Created the National Wildlife Refuge System
Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act (1971)
Protects horses on federal land
Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
Moratorium on marine mammal hunting; regulation of marine mammal import
Endangered Species Act (1973)
Protection from taking of formally listed protected species
National Forest Management Act (1976)
Delegates some wildlife conservation responsibility to the Forest Service
African Elephant Conservation Act (1988)
Regulates import of ivory, supports elephant conservation
Rhino & Tiger Labeling Act (1998)
Regardless of the actual contents, a product may not be labeled as containing rhino or tiger parts
International coordination of wildlife conservation and enforcement efforts are largely driven by a series of international conventions, agreements that have been signed by multiple countries and ratified into law. The United Nations (UN) typically coordinates efforts to develop these conventions, but it does not have the power to enforce the treaties. Each country that seeks to become a party to a convention must independently ratify it and develop plans for enforcement through the domestic legislative process. For example, the United States passed the Endangered Species Act to ratify and meet its commitments to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty administered by the United Nations Environment Program.
CITES is the primary international agreement for the control of transnational trade in plants and animals. It regulates the “importation, exportation, and re-exportation of species listed in its three appendices” (Moulton & Sanderson, 1998, p. 21). “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” (CITES, 2016).8 Since the trade in CITES listed species is restricted, importers/exporters must obtain the appropriate permits to transport a listed species internationally (Warchol, 2004).9 Therefore, in addition to developing wildlife protection laws, all parties to CITES must establish a Management Authority (to issue trade permits for wildlife products) and a Scientific Authority (to provide scientific expertise on the status of species considered for trade) in their country (Sollund, 2011).
Other International Agreements
Although CITES is the primary international agreement to regulate the illegal trade in wildlife, other international agreements indirectly impact wildlife through efforts to promote conservation and protect biodiversity. The UN Convention on Biodiversity (1992) is an international agreement focused on sustainable development through the conservation of biological diversity and the equitable and fair distribution of benefits from these resources. The RAMSAR Convention (1971) is an intergovernmental treaty for the protection and sustainable use of wetlands, including marshes, peatlands, floodplains, rivers, lakes, and coast areas (ramsar.org). The World Heritage Convention (1972) preserves sites of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). Under the operational guidelines, criteria IX and X state that a site must have outstanding examples of ecological and biological processes and contain significant natural habitat for the in situ conservation of threatened species of “outstanding universal value” (UNESCO, 2008). However, sites have been delisted for failure to protect OUV species. A striking example is the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, which was delisted for reducing the protected habitat of the site and a significant loss of the endangered oryx population due to poaching and habitat degradation (Harrison, 2013). And finally, the Lee, 2004 protects migratory birds in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia from overexploitation by hunting, collecting, or trafficking (Migratory Bird Treaty, 1917; Lee, 2004). For example, in Canada the treaty was ratified as the Migratory Birds Convention Act (1994, S.C. 1994, c.22), which regulates hunting permits, seasons, methods, and possession limits.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an advisory body for both UNEP and UNESCO, and partners created the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Although it is not a treaty or international agreement, this system is used for the assessment of animal and plant species based on their conservation status and extinction risk. The Red List is a system that classifies species according to their risk of extinction and is intended to encourage biodiversity conservation (IUCN, 2012). Global experts list species according to their risk level; from lowest to highest risk, the categories are: Least Concern; Near Threatened; Vulnerable; Endangered: Critically Endangered; Extinct in the Wild; and Extinct (IUCN, 2012). Although this list does not have legal implications, it can be used as a reference point for the classification of species at the state level. Reports of wildlife crime or wildlife conservation status will often cite a species’ Red List classification, which can be easily accessed through an online database.
Countries are responsible for the enforcement of their own wildlife laws, regardless of whether domestic legislation is independent or connected to an international agreement. Enforcement may be implemented through governmental agencies such as police, border officials, or conservation officers at the national, provincial, regional, or park level. In the United States, for example, responsibilities related to wildlife are dispersed over many federal and state agencies. At the federal level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the Department of Interior is the primary wildlife authority (Buck, 2006).10 The FWS enforces wildlife laws, protects endangered species, manages migratory birds, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat, provides conservation assistance to foreign governments, and distributes funds to state fish and wildlife agencies. It also manages the National Wildlife Refuge System.11
The FWS has a regulatory and criminal enforcement role. The Division of Law Enforcement is responsible for inspecting shipments at U.S. ports (via uniformed wildlife inspectors), conducting surveillance, and engaging in criminal investigation. The FWS has a unit of special agents to operate undercover in the field to investigate conspiracies and fraud involved in the illegal wildlife trade. They also investigate wildlife issues within U.S. borders, such as illegal hunting in protected areas, hunting without a license, or crossing state boundaries with illegally taken wildlife (Moulton & Sanderson, 1998).
Despite the primacy of the FWS, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management are also involved in wildlife enforcement (Buck, 2006). In addition, the U.S. Customs Service addresses the importation of wildlife or wild animal products (Gray, 1993). These agencies work cooperatively on many wildlife activities. Overall, they are responsible for “regulating the taking of wildlife, regulating commerce in wildlife; conservation of endangered species; protection of marine mammals; and acquisition and management of wildlife habitat” (Buck, 2006, p. 154). The Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division prosecutes violations of federal wildlife legislation.
Although the federal government is responsible for much of the wildlife legislation and enforcement, the states also share responsibility. The states have been delegated the authority to implement and enforce routine game laws (e.g., establishing hunting seasons and limits) (Buck, 2006). Therefore, most states that have been delegated the authority have some sort of wildlife agency (Gray, 1993). States often rely on a commission system, in which a commission is appointed by the governor and operates like a corporate board of directors. The commission sets policy and regulations, while the agency staff is responsible for implementation (Gray, 1993). Many states employ conservation officers to enforce state fish, game, and recreation (e.g., boating or snowmobiling) regulations, though conservation officers are increasingly acting as general peace officers (Shelley & Crow, 2009).
Enforcement can also be privatized (Lunstrum, 2014; Nurse, 2013). For example, many game ranches in Southern Africa employ their own anti-poaching teams, or they may hire a private company to assist with anti-poaching efforts (Lunstrum, 2014). These private policing bodies are hired by a nongovernmental organization or through a private operator or individual and may assist in detection, policing, investigation, and prosecution of wildlife crime (Nurse, 2015).
Several issues are of increasing concern in wildlife enforcement efforts. Although a significant amount of wildlife crime (i.e., trafficking) involves international trade, there is no international enforcement body. Therefore, efforts to coordinate global enforcement efforts are extremely important. INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime section has a Wildlife Crime Working group that seeks to develop best practices in international law enforcement and build INTERPOL’s intelligence-led policing capacity in the area of wildlife crime by providing access to National Central Bureaus, which act as conduits for information (https://www.interpol.int/Crime-areas/Environmental-crime/Environmental-crime). Cooperation between organizations has also been growing. In 2010 the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organization, and the World Bank launched the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) (van Asch, 2016). The ICCWC is involved in strategic initiatives, capacity building, coordination between organizations, and support for wildlife enforcement at the regional and national levels (van Asch, 2016). In the EU, networking on wildlife crime is facilitated through the EU—Trade in Wildlife Information eXchange (EU-TWIX), which provides a restricted database of seizures, analysis of trade trends, and directories of experts to those working in customs and wildlife law enforcement (Sacré, 2016).
In addition to international coordination, forensics and genetic analysis are also significant dimensions of the enforcement process. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory provides forensic support to the FWS, State Fish and Game Agencies, and CITES members (https://www.fws.gov/lab/). Forensic analysis is used to gather information to determine the legality of wildlife seizure or further advance the investigation of the crime. This may include identification of species, geographic origin, (Ogden, Dawnay, & McEwing, 2009), time of death (e.g., Anderson, 1999), and cause of death (e.g., Viner, Hamlin, & McClure, 2016).
Wildlife Crime Types
Wildlife crime is more than the removal of wildlife from the environment; it also encompasses the illegal activities associated with the transportation, sale, and use of wildlife products. This complexity has led to the development of multiple typologies to describe the types and phases of wildlife crime. For example, Wellsmith (2011) distinguished crimes at the micro level (crimes that are committed by an individual, like poaching), the meso level (domestic crimes such as trade or organized hunting), and the macro level (transnational trade), while others have categorized types of criminal activity (Crow, Shelley, Stretesky, & Stretesky, 2013; Nurse, 2011; Wyatt, 2013). To provide a more general description of wildlife crime types, we created three overarching “stage-based” categories (described in Table 2) that subsume the crime frameworks developed by Crow and colleagues (2013) and Nurse (2011). For our purposes, primary, or in situ, wildlife crime occurs when wildlife is killed, injured, or removed from its natural habitat or original place. This level includes illegal taking methods, unlawful killing or wounding, and improper licensing or unlicensed activities, which in previous typologies have been categorized in differing ways (see Crow et al., 2013; Nurse, 2011). The secondary, or ex situ level, includes wildlife crimes that occur once the animal has been removed from its natural habitat. These activities include the following crime types described by Crow and colleagues (2013) and Nurse (2011): possession, transporting, trafficking, processing, selling and improper licensing, deception, and fraud.12 Finally, tertiary or end-use crimes involve the illegal purchase, use, or consumption of wildlife (Nurse, 2011; Wyatt, 2013).
Table 2. Stage-Based Wildlife Crime Typologies
Improper permitting, Unlicensed activities^
Illegal Possession of Wildlife or Products, Theft & Handling of Stolen Goods^
Illegal taking, Unlawful Killing or wounding, Robbery^, Poaching
Conservation-related offences (disturbance of protected species; cruelty, illegal poisoning)
(*) Crow et al. (2013);
(^) Nurse (2011)
Primary: Remove From Wild
Wildlife crimes that result in death, injury, or the removal of an animal from its natural habitat represent the first stage of wildlife crime, which we refer to as the primary, or in situ, stage. We collapsed several crime types described in the literature, such as improper permitting, illegal taking or methods of taking, and destruction of habitat (Crow et al., 2013; Nurse, 2011), into this broader category. Improper permitting occurs when an activity is legal with government authorization (in the form of a permit or tag), but the actor fails to obtain the appropriate documentation (Crow et al., 2013). Examples include a hunter shooting a doe when the license is for a buck, or a fisher who keeps fish despite only having a catch-and-release permit.
The primary level also includes illegal taking or illegal methods of taking. Some refer to this as illegal hunting (von Essen et al., 2014), while others use the term poaching, which has been broadly defined as an act that involves the illegal taking of wildlife in contravention of the law (Crow et al., 2013; Eliason & Dodder, 1999; Moreto & Lemieux, 2015; Muth & Bowe, 1998). Illegal taking methods include using a prohibited caliber firearm, illegally spotlighting deer, or setting bait traps. For example, in Canada it is illegal to use a shotgun greater than 10-gauge when hunting migratory birds (Migratory Bird Regulations, 2013).
Wildlife may also be harmed in situ indirectly through the destruction or contamination of habitat or as a result of human-wildlife conflict, which may occur intentionally or as the byproduct of other activities such as habitat encroachment. For example, when East African pastoralists living near protected areas experience livestock predation by wild carnivores, some will intentionally poison predators, such as lions or leopards (Kissui, 2008). Unfortunately, poisoning these animals can inadvertently poison other animals, such as vultures that feed on carcasses (Santangeli, Arkumarev, Rust, & Girardello, 2016).
Secondary: Trafficking and Transforming
Secondary wildlife crimes occur ex situ once wildlife has been removed from its natural habitat. In this category we include the illegal possession of an animal, parts of the animal, or byproducts of the animal in contravention of the law. Previously, typologies (Wyatt, 2013) have described several crimes that fall within this category, such as illegal possession, trafficking, and processing/transforming. There are a number of reasons why someone may possess illegal wildlife, such as the pet trade, traditional medicine, collector’s items, trinkets, food, or other processed commodities (Wyatt, 2013). Therefore, animals at this stage may be alive (e.g., pet trade), or they may be killed and transformed from their original state into other products such as food (e.g., bushmeat), carvings (e.g., elephant ivory), or medicine (e.g., pangolin scales). This transformation may include butchering or smoking meat, skinning animals, taxidermy (Eliason, 2012), carving or transformation into trinkets, or the production of traditional medicine products (Wyatt, 2013). Processing of the animal can happen multiple times throughout the trade process and can involve numerous individuals working in various sectors of the trade (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015; Wyatt, 2013). In the legal framework, the act of transforming the wildlife may not be illegal, but processors may still be in illegal possession of wildlife.
In addition to processing, there are further layers of complexity in the ex situ crimes. For example, illegal trafficking and sale of wildlife can occur at the domestic level, where wildlife is moved from one location to another to sell within the same country, or at the transnational level through illegal import or export. As with processing, once a wildlife product enters this stage it can be traded or transported multiple times (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015). There is also interplay between legal and illegal markets. Wildlife may be legally removed from the wild, but it, or products made from it, may be illegally trafficked. For example, in Canada a hunter with the correct permits can legally hunt a polar bear, but it is illegal to import parts of a polar bear into the United States, so their actions become illegal as soon as they attempt to bring the parts into the United States (Mimms, 2014). Although the bear was legally hunted, the movement of the products of that hunting across the border is nonetheless illegal. Illicit trafficking can also result from improper permitting when an individual or organization fails to obtain a license for import or export. For example, a laboratory may fail to fill out the correct CITES forms when importing samples for DNA analysis, which is in violation of law. Finally, laundering may occur in the trafficking phase. When there is a legal market for a species, black markets develop to falsify records that render an illicit product legal for the import/export or sale (Warchol, 2004). For example, individuals in the pet trade with permits to sell captive-bred animals may illegally pass off wild-caught animals as captive-bred (Nijman & Shepherd, 2011; Warchol, 2004).
Tertiary: Illegal Purchase & Use
The tertiary category of wildlife crime refers to the illegal purchase and use of wildlife. This level of wildlife crime is the demand side, or the final user that drives the market. Wildlife is purchased for many different purposes from companion pets to traditional medicine to trinkets to bushmeat. At this stage, someone may also consume pangolin scales as traditional medicine, illegally consume bushmeat, or keep a perceived collector’s item, such as furs or carved ivory (Wyatt, 2016b). While the trade may end here, products could potentially re-enter the trade (for example, an exotic bird that is sold on to another owner). This is an important stage to understand, as it drives the trade in wildlife. When this crime is perpetuated, there is increased pressure on wild populations.
In addition to crime types, scholars have also developed multiple typologies of wildlife offenders that have been divided into stage-based and motivation-based typologies. Within the stage-based typology, wildlife can pass through many different types of offenders as it moves through the supply chain. Therefore, we divide the stages into primary, secondary, and tertiary based on the location of these crimes in different stages of the trade network. We then subdivide the crimes into Wyatt’s (2013) categories (i.e., capturers, smugglers, networks, sellers and processors, and buyers). We next outline a second framework for identifying offender typology that moves beyond position in the supply chain to include motivation, behavior, community, and control mechanisms of the offender (Nurse, 2011). This approach is more nuanced through a categorization of offenders motivated by traditions, economics, masculinities, hobby (Nurse, 2011), and sociopolitical circumstances (von Essen et al., 2014). However, it should be recognized that these typologies are potentially mutable and ephemeral in nature, as an offender can fall into more than one category or change categories over time (von Essen et al., 2014).
Stage-Based Offender Typologies
Wildlife can pass through many different types of offenders as it moves through the supply chain. Therefore, as with crime types, we divide the stages into primary, secondary, and tertiary based on the location of these crimes in different phases of the trade network. As shown in Table 3, within these stages we then subdivide the offenders into Wyatt’s (2013) categories (i.e., capturers, smugglers, networks, sellers and processors, buyers).
Table 3. Stage-Based Typologies of Wildlife Offenders
Capturers*, Poachers, Human-wildlife Conflict
Buyers, Users, Consumers (Accidental, Denial, Committed)*
(**) Wyatt (2013);
(^^) Moreto & Lemieux (2015)
Primary: Capturers/Poachers, Human-Wildlife Conflict
Several types of offenders are involved in the capturing or killing animals from the wild. Subsistence poachers/harvesters are individuals who rely on hunting as a source of food or income (Wyatt, 2013). In contrast, opportunistic poachers/harvesters are motivated by profit (Wyatt, 2013). Despite a lack of economic need, these poachers take advantage of opportunities to exploit wildlife for food consumption, sale or manufacturing for personal gain (Wyatt, 2013). Others specifically target wildlife for profit. These specialist poachers/harvesters may sell animals to middlemen or directly into the market in a professional and organized manner (Wyatt, 2013). Professional hunters may act as individuals or may work as part of a larger network of poachers with varying degrees of organization (Warchol, 2004).
Secondary: Traffickers, Smugglers & Networks
The secondary or ex situ stage also includes a variety of offenders involved in the movement of wildlife between its origin location and final destination. Traffickers, acting alone or as middlemen in a larger network, are involved in the illegal movement of wildlife from its initial capture point to an end buyer for purposes of profit and personal gain (Wyatt, 2013). Networks have varying levels of organization, ranging from “disorganized crime” to “organized crime” (Elliott, 2016). Disorganized crime lacks a formal structure or hierarchy, although the actors may have a plan and move items through a network (Wyatt, 2013). In contrast, organized crime is broadly defined as criminal organizations that are adaptive to multiple situations and use hierarchical structures, violence, and corruption to achieve goals (Congram, Bell, & Lauchs, 2013; von Lampe, 2008). The degree to which organized crime groups engage in wildlife crime is unclear (South & Wyatt, 2011), but there is evidence of organization in some forms of wildlife trafficking (e.g., the rhino trade in South Africa), but to an unknown degree (Ayling, 2013; Warchol, 2004).
Regardless of whether wildlife crime is categorized as organized or disorganized, trafficking may involve a network of people and resources, and the networks may include processors with specialized skills needed for specific products (e.g., ivory carvers, taxidermists) (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015). While these individuals may not play a direct role in the trafficking of wildlife, their skills and workmanship may be a required step in the illegal trade network (Elliott, 2016). Networks are also required for distribution, which can be domestic or transnational and include links to “non-source countries” (Ayling, 2013). These networks take advantage of commercial trade routes and mechanisms, interweaving licit and illicit trade to avoid detection (Nurse, 2015).
The final stage of the illegal wildlife trade includes multiple end users, including consumers of specific types of traditional medicine, meat consumers, collectors, and hobbyists. For example, an individual may purchase an exotic pet, such as a tropical bird that was illegally captured from the wild. Buyers may also include people purchasing meat for food consumption, such as gorilla meat purchased in a market in the Congo. In other circumstances, wildlife is purchased by a collector or hobbyist who would like to expand their collection of rare species (e.g., egg collectors) (Nurse, 2011). These wildlife buyers broadly fall into three categories: accidental, denial, or committed (Wyatt, 2013). The accidental buyer has no idea that they have committed an illegal act or that their actions may cause harm (Wyatt, 2013). For example, a tourist may purchase a trinket made with an endangered species shell or someone may buy a pet from the store without realizing that it was a protected species (Wyatt, 2013). On the other hand, a denial buyer may either know or suspect that their actions are illegal, but will seek to justify or rationalize their actions (Wyatt, 2013). Finally, the committed buyer knows their actions are illegal, but continues to purchase (Wyatt, 2013).
Motivation-Based Offender Typologies
While categorizing wildlife offenders by stage demonstrates the actors involved in each part of the trade, wildlife crime can also be categorized by motivation for involvement, or the underlying factors that drive wildlife crime. As described in Table 4, we have collapsed several typologies (Muth & Bowe, 1998; von Essen et al., 2014; Crow et al., 2013; Wyatt, 2013; Moreto & Lemieux, 2015) into five broad categories: traditions, economics, masculinities, hobby (Nurse, 2011),13 and sociopolitical circumstances (von Essen et al., 2014).
Table 4. Motivation-Based Typologies of Offenders
*Crow et al. (2013);
(^) Nurse (2011);
(**) Wyatt (2013);
(***) von Essen et al. (2014);
(^^^) Muth & Bowe (1998)
Traditional criminals have been described in the literature in a variety of different ways, including subsistence hunters, folk crime, traditional criminals, and household consumption. This category refers to a traditional or subsistence activity that occurs at the household or local level in which the primary motivation is survival or cultural tradition rather than profit.14 At the most basic level are subsistence hunters and harvesters, who rely on hunting for food or as source of income, so that their wildlife crimes are strongly linked to poverty and the need for survival (Wyatt, 2013). This can also fall under the umbrella of household consumption, but household consumption may include those who use wildlife as part of their tradition and/or food preference and therefore span the socioeconomic spectrum (Muth & Bowe, 1998). Others have used the term folk crime, meaning “criminal acts that, although they may be fairly widespread, fail to constitute a serious violation of public sentiment, either within the subculture in which they take place or within society at large (Muth & Bowe, 1998). As a result, accommodation of folk crimes, such as poaching, by enforcement agencies and the general public alike is frequently the norm” (Muth & Bowe, 1998, p. 21). Thus, even when a folk crime is illegal, it may be widely practiced and condoned in the local community.
The economic criminal is not primarily driven by poverty or tradition, but by a weighing of the costs and benefits of the crime in the pursuit of profit (Nurse, 2011). The literature describes many types of economically driven wildlife criminals. Muth and Bowe (1998) defined poaching for commercial gain as “the illegal harvest or sale of fish, wildlife, and plant species for the purposes of gaining economic benefits” (p. 13). The term livelihood criminals has also been used to describe those who may have multiple motivations for wildlife crime, such as tradition, but whose primary motivation is economic profit (von Essen et al., 2014). These broad definitions of economic criminals have been further refined; for example, Wyatt (2013) categorized the opportunistic poacher as one who does not set out to commit a wildlife crime, but takes advantage of a situation, such as an individual who stumbles upon a tiger in a snare set for an antelope. In contrast, the specialist poacher is driven by profits and will actively search for opportunities to participate in wildlife crime (Wyatt, 2013). And finally there are those who actively participate in the wildlife trade. Wyatt (2013) refers to them as smugglers, but these could also include others who participate in the transportation and sale of wildlife with the goal of profits.
Some wildlife crimes are categorized as having a gendered motivation, rooted in a perceived need to display stereotypical masculinity through an exertion of power over animals, a display of sportsmanship, or gambling (Nurse, 2011). Some poach for thrill killing, as they are not necessarily interested in meat or a trophy, but enjoy the gratification of catching and killing prey (Muth & Bowe, 1998). Others are interested in the challenge of trophy poaching (hunting for the largest animal, the biggest antlers, etc.) and may resort to poaching when they are unable to get the animal they want legally (Muth & Bowe, 1998). This need for masculine domination, hegemonic masculinity (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005), played a role in colonial trophy hunting, where shooting a lion or tiger was considered a display of power (Hussain, 2010).
When we think of hobbyists, our first thought does not generally go to crime, but collectors and sportsmen can pose a threat to wild populations through the illegal poaching, trafficking, or possession of wildlife. Hobby crime can be based in tradition or provide thrills and/or enjoyment (Nurse, 2011), but the primary motivation is sport or acquisition collectors. For example, egg collectors in England seeking rare birds to add to their collection will go out of their way to raid nests, despite the fact that many rare birds are protected species (Gross, 2006). Illegal sport hunting or recreational poaching (Muth & Bowe, 1998) is similar in that an individual is carrying out a hobby or a tradition regardless of the prohibitions established by the law.
Sociopolitical factors, such as political unrest or retaliation, can also motivate wildlife crime (Muth & Bowe, 1998; Benz & Benz-Schwarzburg, 2010; Draulans & Krunkelsven, 2002; Forsyth & Marckese, 1993). Poaching can be an act of rebellion or part of a disagreement with government regulations (Muth & Bowe, 1998), as a response to conflict with an authority (Forsyth & Marckese, 1993). In the case of sociopolitical criminals, the wildlife crime is a mechanism for rebellion or retaliation. Some see it as a need to be tough, which is rooted in an “us [hunters] versus them [authorities]” mentality, and the need to express autonomy (Forsyth & Marckese, 1993). For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo political unrest has been associated with poaching by rebel groups in the National Parks (Benz & Benz-Schwarzburg, 2010).
Theoretical frameworks in wildlife crime are as varied as the types of crimes themselves and are dependent on the level of analysis (Table 5). Some theoretical perspectives are focused on motivation and therefore overlap with motivation-based offender typologies, while others are distinct from the typologies. Another set of theories focus on explaining the criminal event itself rather than offender behavior. Several theoretical frameworks used to describe wildlife crime are borrowed from other areas of criminology, such as street crime and drug trafficking. The following is a summary of the dominant theoretical frameworks used to understand wildlife crime.
Table 5: Theoretical Frameworks Used (or proposed) for Research on Wildlife Crime.
Crime occurs when there is a temporal and spatial collision of suitable targets and offenders in the absence of a guardian.
Cohen & Felson, 1979
Crime does not occur at random spatially, but is tied to offender movements.
Offenders make “rational choice” to commit a crime based on the costs, benefits, and opportunities.
Cornish & Clarke, 1987
People are more likely to engage in crime when the ratio of definitions of the meaning of the law is tipped toward law violation.
Ordinary law abiding citizens rationalize illegal behavior.
Sykes & Matza, 1975
Criminal behavior is learned through operant conditioning in social and nonsocial situations and reinforced by social interaction.
Burgess & Akers, 1968
Interactions between enforcers and players shape offender behavior in a rational manner.
A critical approach focused on the influence of power, environmental inequality, and activities harmful to the environment.
An interdisciplinary approach using risk and decision science, natural resource management, and criminology to study the context specific crimes and risks for the development of policy and interventions.
Gibbs et al., 2010
Opportunity theories (or environmental criminology) are commonly used to explain wildlife criminal events.15 These theories seek to explain how opportunities for crime are created through the interaction of physical characteristics in the environment (place), people (offenders, victims, targets), and time, as well as to understand how offenders move through their world (Wortley & Mazerolle, 2008). Three foundational opportunity theories have been explored in the wildlife crime context. Routine activity theory posits that crime occurs when there is a temporal and spatial collision of suitable targets and an offender in the absence of a guardian (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Crime pattern theory states that crime does not occur at random temporally or spatially, but occurs in ways systematically tied to offender movements (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1984, 2008). Finally, rational choice theory argues that an offender makes a “rational choice” to commit a crime based on the costs, benefits, and opportunities (Cornish & Clarke, 1987).
In addition to opportunity theories, wildlife scholars have also examined other theoretical frameworks originally designed to explain street crime, for example Sutherland’s (1939) differential association theory, which posits that people are more likely to engage in crime when the ratio of definitions of the meaning of the law is tipped toward law violation. Based on this theory, wildlife scholars have examined whether individuals in disadvantaged rural communities participate in the behaviors of their peers (e.g., if my friends poach wildlife, I will too) (Nurse, 2015). Neutralization theory (Sykes & Matza, 1957) explores the way in which ordinarily law-abiding people rationalize their illegal behavior (e.g., “I know it is wrong to hunt deer, but my family is hungry, so it is ok for me to break the law”). Neutralizations may be particularly relevant to wildlife crime in circumstances where individuals believe that the law is unjust or treats them unfairly. Offenders may use this belief to rationalize their defiance of the law when, for example, the traditional activity of hunting with dogs is criminalized (Nurse, 2015).
Theoretical frameworks have also been borrowed from other areas of criminology and other disciplines. For example, as previously discussed in the typology of motivation, feminist theories related to masculinities have been used to explain poaching. Although not yet tested, Keane and colleagues (2008) advocated examining wildlife crime using social learning theory, or the notion that crime is learned from others through principles of operant conditioning (Akers, 1973). Keane and colleagues (2008) further discussed using normative theories, such as individual perceptions of procedural fairness (Tyler, 1990), to understand wildlife crime, and also encouraged wildlife scholars to draw on theories from economics, such as instrumental theories in which the decision-maker weighs the costs and benefits to make decisions about crime (Becker, 1968), and game theory, which seeks to understand how interactions between enforcers and players (i.e., criminals) shape offender behavior in a rational way (Andreozzi, 2004). Theories from other disciplines have also been used or proposed to explain wildlife crime. For example, cultural risk theory looks at cultural factors influencing poaching and responses to poaching (Rizzolo, Gore, Ratsimbazafy, & Rajaonson, 2016).
Several broader perspectives have been developed to provide a more general theoretical perspective or approach to studying environmental and/or wildlife crime. Green criminologists advocate taking a critical approach that focuses on the influence of power and environmental inequality (Lynch & Stretesky, 2003; White, 2008), including activities harmful to the environment that are not considered crimes (White & Heckenberg, 2014). The emphasis is on social and environmental harm, ecological injustice, and animal abuse and nonhuman exploitation (Nurse, 2015). In the wildlife arena, scholars have used this perspective to examine harms to wildlife through questions about the identity of the victim and nature of the victimization: Is it the animal? An animal can be a victim in numerous stages and parts of a crime, and even after confiscation when a live animal may be euthanized or enter a rehabilitation facility (Wyatt, 2013). This is further explored in the critical perspectives of Ecocide (Hellman, 2014) and Species Justice (e.g., Goyes & Sollund, 2016). Species justice sees the animal (or plant) as having rights, so that it is considered the victim (White, 2013). The species justice framework, however, is not a monolith. It has theoretical roots in biocentric (i.e., the environment is prioritized over humans) and ecocentric (i.e., humans are part of the ecosystem, and as such their needs are balanced with those of the environment) philosophical perspectives (Wyatt, 2013). However, Wyatt (2016a) noted that policy related to wildlife crime fails to recognize the victimization of wildlife, meaning it takes an anthropocentric perspective focused on humans. Another overarching perspective, referred to as Conservation Criminology, shifts away from the critical study of harm to focus on environmental risks (Gibbs et al., 2010). Rather than advocating a specific theoretical perspective, the conservation criminology framework explicitly calls for an interdisciplinary approach to the study of wildlife (or other environmental) crimes and risks to develop theory and policy interventions that are context-specific.
Research on wildlife crime is as varied as the typologies of wildlife crime. Using a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches, it ranges from forest-level studies of poachers and poaching communities to analysis of transnational trade. Research on wildlife crime is also conducted in a variety of disciplines (e.g., criminology, environmental law, natural resource/wildlife management, economics, geography, anthropology, and sustainable development).
The diverse approaches to wildlife crime research result in a literature that could be organized in multiple ways, including by species, geographic location, or crime type. Von Essen and colleagues (2014) note that the literature can be divided into drivers of deviance, profiling perpetrators, and categorizing crime (pp. 633, 644). Moreto and Lemieux (2015), on the other hand, categorize the literature as actor-based, stage based, or product-based. Actor-based research is focused on the individual’s characteristics and actions in the supply chain (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015). In contrast, a stage-based research approach seeks to understand the systems of the market (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015). Product-based research examines the characteristics of the product itself and the role those characteristics play in crime (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015). However, for the purposes of simplicity, the literature is reviewed here by topic.
A portion of the literature focuses on the communities surrounding protected areas and other wildlife source locations. Research includes community participation in conservation, perceptions of risk associated with wildlife (e.g., Kahler, Roloff, & Gore, 2013), and motivation for resource exploitation (Kühl et al., 2009). Research at the community level has also looked at local communities as both the actors in wildlife crime (poachers and traffickers) (e.g., poisoning predators, Santangeli et al., 2016) and as protectors of wildlife (e.g., community anti-poaching hotlines, Green, 2016). Others have taken a geographic approach to understanding wildlife crime, using maps and spatial statistics to understand poaching patterns and human-wildlife interactions (e.g., Maingi et al., 2012; Rashidi et al., 2015).
Other areas of the literature focus on enforcement, including the effectiveness of anti-poaching activities and overarching enforcement issues (Wellsmith, 2011). Researchers have examined the motivations for careers in wildlife enforcement (Eliason, 2016), enforcement and community relations (Moreto, Brunson, & Braga, 2016), and ranger misconduct (Moreto, Brunson, & Braga, 2015). Additional scholarship focuses on the role of anti-poaching units, examining the impact of privatized wildlife law enforcement (e.g., Nurse, 2013) and militarized enforcement units, such as anti-poaching patrols in South Africa (e.g., Shaw & Rademeyer, 2016). The militarization of wildlife enforcement has recently become a topic of discussion, as patrols battle an arms race with poachers (e.g., Lunstrum, 2014; Nurse, 2013). Enforcement has also been examined on a broader scale, looking at local and international collaboration between enforcement agencies (Pink & White, 2016). In the conservation and environmental management literature, academics have focused on methods for achieving and measuring compliance (e.g., Arias, 2015; Gavin, Solomon, & Blank, 2010).
Scholars have also studied wildlife trafficking and trade on both local and global scales. Some evaluated the trade in a particular species, such as the slow loris in Japan (Musing, Suzuki, & Nekaris, 2015). In other studies, trafficking has been examined in the broader political and economic context, particularly with regard to transnational trafficking or the movement of goods across international borders (e.g., Wyatt, 2016b). Discussions of transnational trafficking takes many forms, including theoretical questions regarding what types of theories might apply and methodological considerations, such as the utility of various approaches like social network analysis (Elliott, 2016).
Research also includes tests of the previously mentioned theoretical frameworks. For example Eliason (2012) examined whether routine activity theory explains the convergence of motivated poachers and wildlife in the absence of a conservation officer in the United States. Schneider (2008) explored the utility of the market reduction approach as a strategy for reducing the illicit wildlife trade. Others have used opportunity theories (e.g., rational choice, routine activities) to explore rhino poaching in South Africa (Herbig & Warchol, 2011) and other forms of poaching (Crow et al., 2013; Lemieux, 2014; Warchol & Harrington, 2016). Crime pattern theory (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1984, 2008) has been used to demonstrate that poaching does not occur randomly in space or time (Hill, Johnson, & Borrion, 2014). Some have considered distribution of crime under the “risky facilities” lens, which notes that particular locations can experience disproportionately high levels of crime (Eck, Clarke, & Guerette, 2007). For example, Kurland explored spatial and temporal distribution of illicit wildlife trafficking at U.S. ports of entry (Kurland & Pires, 2016). Opportunity theories have also been used to test the applicability of models such as CRAVED (concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable) (Pires & Clarke, 2012; Petrossian & Clarke, 2013; Pires & Petrossian, 2015) and CAPTURED (concealable, available, processable, transferrable, useable, removable, enjoyable, desirable) (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015) to describe the trafficking of wildlife and the product-centered characteristics which make it desirable for trade.
Scholars have also tested additional criminological theories, feminist theories, and theories from other disciplines. For example, some have used neutralization theory to explore the ways in which criminals rationalize their wildlife crime (e.g., Nurse, 2011; Eliason & Dodder, 1999; Enticott, 2011). Others have examined the impact of social norms on lemur poaching in Madagascar (Jones & Andriamarovololona, 2008) and the influence of family tradition on turtle poaching (Mancini et al., 2011). The role of gender in wildlife crime has also been a focus of academic study in, for example, the human-wildlife context (Gore & Kahler, 2012) and the study of hegemonic masculinities crimes and hunting (Forsyth & Marckese, 1993; Nurse, 2011).
More broadly, wildlife crime has been analyzed under overarching perspectives such as Green Criminology and Conservation Criminology. From the critical green criminology perspective, scholars argue that although in some circumstances it is not illegal to take wildlife, the removal of an animal may cause significant ecological harm (van Uhm, 2016). This non-anthropocentric approach is ecocentric, or biocentric, shifting the focus from humans to position the animal as the victim (van Uhm, 2016). This Species Justice (species-centric) approach is central to some discussion of wildlife crime in the criminal justice system, especially with regard to the management of a nonhuman victim by the courts (White, 2016). In contrast, other approaches to wildlife crime are more focused on using multiple lenses to view crime. Conservation Criminology shifts away from the concept of harm, instead focusing on risks to the environment. Recognizing the complexity of wildlife crime, it is an interdisciplinary approach that integrates risk and decision science, natural resource management and criminology (Gibbs et al., 2010).
In summary, wildlife crime can be studied and analyzed using a myriad of theoretical perspectives, each focusing on different aspects from the local to the transnational level, from the various players and their motivations to the governments and international nongovernmental organizations involved in legislating and monitoring criminal activities. As researchers continue to explore the drivers and mechanisms of wildlife crime, theory will continue to be developed, tested, and refined to advance understanding of the nuances of the different criminal activities. Many hurdles remain (e.g., data availability), and perhaps no single perspective will adequately describe the full range of criminal activity. The clandestine nature of wildlife crime will thus necessitate serious and concerted exploration of new and unique methods to collect empirical data to test and shape theory.
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(1.) “A biological invasion consists of a species’ acquiring a competitive advantage following the disappearance of natural obstacles to its proliferation, which allows it to spread rapidly and to conquer novel areas within recipient ecosystems in which it becomes a dominant population” (Valéry et al., 2008, p. 1349).
(2.) Physical movement of wildlife through the international supply chain provides the most opportunities for the spread of zoonotic disease (Travis et al., 2011). Zoonootics (diseases that move between species of animals) can threaten human health, wildlife health, agriculture, livestock (Chomel et al., 2007).
(3.) Notions of harm are most often discussed in reference to animal welfare during transit, but much of that work focuses on domestic animals rather than wildlife.
(4.) It is not possible to review the literature on wildlife crime and fisheries crime in a single article, as these literatures have proceeded along separate tracts. For a more extensive discussions of illegal fishing and noncompliance, see Agnew et al. (2009) and King & Sutinen (2010). Some also discuss animal welfare in the wildlife crime context. For a detailed discussion, see Nurse (2016).
(7.) The Lacey Act was later amended (and replaced the Black Bass and original Lacey Acts) to restore protection for migratory birds, which were removed from the Lacey Act in 1969, and add protection for plants (Moulton & Sanderson, 1998).
(8.) There is concern that CITES listing may have a negative impact, because it lists species from high to low risk, causing some people to perceive high-risk species as being rare and thus more desirable for trade (Alacs & Georges, 2008).
(9.) Permits are required regardless of the purpose; for example, those working in zoos, scientific laboratories, museums, art galleries, commercial trade, or hunting (e.g., returning to the United States with a trophy) must have a permit for export and import.
(13.) The categorization of these terms has been slightly modified, as outlined in the following text.
(14.) This use of the term “traditional” deviates slightly from that of Nurse (2011), who stated that traditional criminals “Derive direct (and sometimes personal financial) benefits from their crimes” (p. 46). Here the financial benefit is seen as falling into the broader category of Economic Crimes.
(15.) Environmental Criminology is another term used to describe opportunity theories, not to be confused with Environmental Crime, which is the study of crimes that impact the ecological environment, such as pollution or wildlife crime.