Animal welfare in the wildlife trade

Despite the evidence that wild animals can suffer greatly in trade, a review of almost 300 wildlife trade articles published between 2006 and 2011, led by Sandra Baker, revealed that welfare was rarely mentioned. The literature focuses on mammals and on animals killed on site, for use as luxury goods or food, and for traditional medicine but little research attention is paid to the welfare of animals traded alive and in much larger numbers (e.g., birds, reptiles, amphibians) and to those – including mammals – potentially subject to greater impacts through live use (e.g., as pets). More evidence based research is needed on animal welfare in wildlife trade and this should be integrated with wider issues to benefit people and wildlife (see Baker et al. 2013).

A perhaps unexpected welfare issue arises when animals traded illegally are confiscated by customs officials. For example, in China, our collaborator Prof. Zhao-min Zhou working with Chris Newman found that while all 155 native birds seized between 2010 and 2015 were liberated, few of 156 indigenous mammals were ever released; 41 slow lorises headed into the pet trade, 40 Asiatic black bears headed into tiny and inadequate pens and 69 primates were held in captivity indefinitely. Similarly, the vast majority of 12,473 native reptiles were sold into the pet, or restaurant trade; 3,427 exotic individuals were never released or repatriated. At best, this places a substantial burden on authorities  to ensure good welfare standards for the animals for which they take responsibility but China’s wildlife sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres are not regulated by national laws, and the CITES 1997 Code of Practice 15 (Disposal of confiscated live specimens) recommendations are not implemented (although a CITES signatory nation). Consequently, most confiscated animals live short lives in crowded and inadequate enclosures. At a global scale, assessing the numbers of live animals in trade that are confiscated by enforcement agencies, and their subsequent fate is difficult: Neil d’Cruze‘s analysis of CITES trade records revealed that only one in three countries Party to CITES provides any information on wildlife seizures, and information about the fate of these wild animals is not a formal CITES reporting requirement. CITES trade database records (generally, and specifically, as concerns seizures and re-exports of seized wild animals and their derivatives) are inconsistent and incomplete. Over-archingly, these combined studies highlight how conservation, legal enforcement and animal welfare do not exist as isolated concerns, but must operate in unison, to uniformly high standards, ensuring that all ‘rescued’ animals (native species and CITES protected alike) do not then go on to suffer an equally bad, or worse, fate to the cruel one that their confiscation was intended to prevent.

Related Pages

Wildlife Trade
Global trade of exotic pets
Lion bones
Pangolins – poaching, trafficking and publicity
The impact of bear bile farming on conservation of wild bears


Baker, S. E., R. Cain, F. Van Kesteren, Z. A. Zommers, N. D’Cruze, and D. W. Macdonald. 2013. Rough Trade: Animal Welfare in the Global Wildlife Trade. BioScience 63:928-938

Zhou, Z. M., C. Newman, C. D. Buesching, D. W. Macdonald, and Y. Zhou. (2016) Rescued wildlife in China remains at risk. Science 353:999

D’Cruze, N. and Macdonald, D.W. (2016) A review of global trends in CITES live wildlife confiscations Nature Conservation 15: 47-63

D’Cruze N, Macdonald DW (2017) An update on CITES live confiscations, in response to Lopes et al. (2017). Nature Conservation 21: 163–166.


Professor Youbing Zhou
Professor Zhao-min Zhou