Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking


By Rachel Love Nuwer

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An intrepid investigation of the criminal world of wildlife trafficking–the poachers, the traders, and the customers–and of those fighting against it

Journalist Rachel Nuwer plunges the reader into the underground of global wildlife trafficking, a topic she has been investigating for nearly a decade. Our insatiable demand for animals — for jewelry, pets, medicine, meat, trophies, and fur — is driving a worldwide poaching epidemic, threatening the continued existence of countless species. Illegal wildlife trade now ranks among the largest contraband industries in the world, yet compared to drug, arms, or human trafficking, the wildlife crisis has received scant attention and support, leaving it up to passionate individuals fighting on the ground to try to ensure that elephants, tigers, rhinos, and more are still around for future generations.

As Reefer Madness (Schlosser) took us into the drug market, or Susan Orlean descended into the swampy obsessions of TheOrchid Thief, Nuwer–an award-winning science journalist with a background in ecology–takes readers on a narrative journey to the front lines of the trade: to killing fields in Africa, traditional medicine black markets in China, and wild meat restaurants in Vietnam. Through exhaustive first-hand reporting that took her to ten countries, Nuwer explores the forces currently driving demand for animals and their parts; the toll that demand is extracting on species across the planet; and the conservationists, rangers, and activists who believe it is not too late to stop the impending extinctions. More than a depressing list of statistics, Poached is the story of the people who believe this is a battle that can be won, that our animals are not beyond salvation.



“Don’t tell anyone, but we just got word that Vietnam’s last Javan rhino was found dead with its horn hacked off.”

I had little idea of what my colleague was talking about, but I had a sinking feeling—a sense that something much bigger and more sinister was at play. It was April 2010, and I was in Vietnam carrying out scientific research on how people living near two national parks use the forest, animals included. Rhinos, however, were well above my pay grade. My knowledge of illegal wildlife trade was confined to the interviews I conducted with a few local hunters and to the exotic meat that many rural people told me they loved.

As the details of the rhino’s story unfolded, however, my fears—and morbid curiosity—grew. The rhino had lived for many years alone in Vietnam’s Cát Tiên National Park. And by alone, I mean really alone. Surveys confirmed that, in all of mainland Asia, she was the only one left of her kind. Fate finally caught up with her, though, when a hunter took aim, shot her through the leg and hacked off her horn—most likely while she was still alive. As the culprit absconded with his prize, Vietnam’s last rhino laid her head down in the mud and died.

Why did her killer go to such lengths to find her, and why hadn’t she been better protected? What did people want with her horn, and what, if anything, was being done to prevent them from getting their hands on that forbidden material?

It was these and similar questions—not only for rhinos, but also for elephants, pangolins, bears, tigers, songbirds, tortoises, and more—that ultimately compelled me to pivot from a career in conservation ecology to one in journalism. I thought I could do more for these disappearing species by spreading the word about their plights than by conducting research on them. People can’t care about something they do not know exists. But perhaps if they knew, for example, that there are just fifty or so Javan rhinos remaining in the world—and that the last one living in Vietnam died a sorry, sad death, driven purely by human greed—we could do more to save such species from extinction.

As my journalism career ramped up, I followed and contributed to the creeping coverage about the illegal wildlife trade. I knew that virtually every country in the world now played a role and that organized criminal groups were increasingly calling the shots. Animal trafficking had grown to become a $7- to $23-billion industry, to the point that it ranked just behind drugs, arms, and human trafficking as the most lucrative of contraband industries.

I also became familiar with the mind-numbing statistics about impending species extinctions. Just 30,000 rhinos are left globally, and more than 1,000 are killed for their horns each year. Likewise, in just seven short years, 30 percent of all savannah elephants have disappeared, mowed down with bullets so that poachers can collect their ivory. Meanwhile, fewer than 4,000 tigers are left in the wild, but there are far more in captivity—many of which are raised for their body parts and meat like cattle. And pangolins—those adorable, oddball scaly anteaters that have taken the Internet by storm—have become the world’s most trafficked mammal, with a million slaughtered over the past decade.

But where was it all headed?

This question ultimately led me to Poached. There would be interviews with experts and rigorous coverage of the scientific findings, yes, but to find the answers I was looking for, I would absolutely have to go to the field, to the very places where the elephant and rhino killings are taking place, where pangolins are being butchered, and where the law is being flouted.

The end result is not exhaustive—I was constrained by the usual money, time, and logistics woes of any journalistic undertaking—but my investigation did encompass the major themes shaping the illegal wildlife trade today. It also drove me to four continents and twelve countries in just under a year, from Chad—where paranoid friends warned me I’d be kidnapped but where one of Africa’s most unlikely elephant success stories is under way—to my original research site in Vietnam, where I joined a hunter in the forest as he stalked his endangered prey. Sometimes, I was forced to go undercover: in China, I secured an offer of a bag of illegal pangolin scales in a dark side alley, under the guise of helping my sister produce breast milk. But, more often than not, I found that even criminals were willing to speak with me—including the Thai man sentenced to forty years in a South African prison for plundering the nation’s wildlife, who confessed to me, his voice shaking, that he’s been abandoned by his boss and former collaborators. And the rhino horn user in Hanoi who brought some along to dinner—never mind that it’s highly illegal—and told me that he doesn’t care if all rhinos go extinct, just before offering me a shot of ground horn mixed with alcohol.

Going into this project, I thought I knew a thing or two about the illegal wildlife trade. I was shocked, though, by the amount I had to learn not only about trafficking itself but about the conservation world, which is full of interpersonal drama and decades-long infighting. At times, I found myself despairing that corruption, bureaucracy, petty jealousies, and simple apathy will prevent us from making headway before it’s too late.

But then I’d meet yet another person who has given his or her life to this cause and who has made a difference in spite of what seem like insurmountable odds. There’s Jill Robinson, who—following a life-changing encounter with a caged bear in a dark basement—rescued hundreds of animals and helped to end bear bile farming in Vietnam. And Nguyn Văn Thái, a leading grassroots activist who gives otherwise doomed pangolins seized from trade a second shot at life. There are the rangers I met in the field who risk their lives nightly to protect their natural heritage from poachers and the journalists who continue to report the truth about the trade, despite frequent death threats and the occasional arrest.

All told, I was at times shocked by the depravity to which some people sank to get what they want—but I was also encouraged by the lengths that others go to protect what they love. Most of all, though, I was humbled to be a part of this story.

Poached is a book for anyone who enjoys a bit of adventure, who is curious about the world, and who has a fondness for animals—of both the two- and four-legged variety. It’s a story for all those who think our planet would be a less wonderful place were elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, and more to disappear. It’s a dark story, but one full of hope.



I like to watch them. They fill me with joy.… I said to the Red Bull, “I must have that. I must have all of it, all there is, for my need is very great.” So the Bull caught them, one by one.

—Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn, 1968

A live civet for sale at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. (Credit: Tim Gerard Barker)

A Himalayan griffon vulture captured by a hunter in Vietnam.

Rhino horn is ground into a powder at a restaurant in Hanoi.

Illegal ivory openly displayed for sale in Laos.

The remains of an elephant poached for its tusks in Malawi.



LUC Văn H no longer dreams of the animals he kills. But, for a while, it was becoming a real problem. The dreams—nightmares, really—persistently played out in the same way. He’d catch an animal in the forest, and then, several days later, someone or something—a very old man, a pig, the animal itself—would visit him in his sleep. “Tám H,” it would say, calling him by his nickname. “You must pay.”

Sometimes, those words would jolt him awake. Other times, he’d get up in the morning to find a sheen of sweat clinging to his body. Either way, the nocturnal visions left him feeling rattled. A superstitious man, Tám H takes these things very seriously. Through trial and error, he found that the only way to banish the ghosts of the animals he hunted was to make a sacrifice, offering up another life—of a duck, pig, or chicken—as appeasement. “To be a hunter,” he said, “you must believe in the spirit of the forest.”

That spirit, however, has lately seemed less pleased with Tám H. Several years ago, the dreams began to wane and so, too, did his luck. Rising each morning before sunrise to check traps concealed in thick brush and tangled canal beds, these days he inevitably finds them empty. Times have gotten so bad that he’s had to start supplementing his income by growing rice and raising shrimp and crabs.

Twenty years ago, when Tám H moved to this tough patch of waterlogged jungle at Vietnam’s southern tip, animals were everywhere. He never returned home without something to show for his efforts. Gradually, though, the forest’s furred, scaled, and feathered residents became scarcer, with some species disappearing altogether. No longer able to make a living, poachers in these parts are becoming as rare as the creatures they hunt.

“Today, most hunters are changing their careers because the animals are so few, they cannot earn enough,” Tám H explained. But he’s tenacious—and the best at his craft. He has no plans to retire.

Pride aside, the potential rewards make it worth Tám H’s effort to stick in the game. When he does get lucky, the money from the sale can support him and his family for six months. Last year, he trapped two pangolins—highly sought after in Vietnam as a delicacy and medicinal elixir—and sold them for around $450 each. “Pangolins will be extinct soon,” he predicted. “But they carry a price like gold.” In his neck of the woods, the average household earns just $1,000 per year, so a pangolin payday is truly a windfall.

FOR MANY AMERICANS, VIETNAM STILL CONJURES IMAGES OF HELICOPTERS, protests, and soldiers in the jungle. But to continue to associate Vietnam exclusively with the Vietnam War (or the American War, depending on whom you ask) is painfully outdated. Visitors today to Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon), Vietnam’s economic center of 8.4 million residents, will discover rivers of motorbikes, sidewalks clogged with tourists wearing “Good Morning Vietnam!” T-shirts, shop windows displaying $5,000 local designer shoes, haute tasting menus, and international DJs spinning ambient tunes at exclusive clubs perched atop high-rises. Vietnam remains communist on paper, but a market economy is its beating heart.

The country’s transformation began in earnest in 1986, when the government initiated a series of economic reforms known as Đi Mi (Renovation) that paved the way for private for-profit enterprises. Entrepreneurialism flourished, as did Vietnam’s bottom line: its economy grew at an annual rate of 7.5 percent from 1991 to 2000, while the poverty rate fell from 29 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2012. Vietnam, according to economists, was Asia’s “rising dragon,” a country whose markers of growth were right on the heels of China’s, albeit on a smaller scale.

As is often the case, Vietnam’s developmental gains came at a cost for the environment. Logging, agriculture, and aquaculture have reached even the remotest deltas, forests, mountains, and grasslands, to the point that few if any of Vietnam’s natural places can be called truly pristine today. Wildlife has suffered accordingly. Researchers have warned of an impending epidemic of “empty forest syndrome”—habitats that look intact at first glance but that are in fact devoid of all but the most common animal residents. Illegal trade in particular has helped drive more than 130 native Southeast Asian animals onto the critically endangered list—a worrying tally that will likely only grow because there is no realistic deterrent to hunting the region’s remaining animals out of existence. The same applies for the traffickers who move wildlife from forests to cities, the merchants who sell it, and the buyers who consume it. By some estimates, between 13 and 42 percent of Southeast Asian animals and plants—half of which are unique to the region—will be extinct by the end of the century if nothing changes.

“There needs to be a real threat of getting caught and punished, but right now that threat is minimal,” said Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, an organization working to reduce the impact of illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, and the former Southeast Asia regional director for TRAFFIC, the trade-monitoring network of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Although wildlife trade has a higher profile now than ever before, he continued, the increased talk in the media, at governmental meetings, and in international conference halls has yet to translate into significant changes on the ground. Why? “It’s corruption, collusion, and an absolute lack of concern,” Shepherd said. “Too many people just don’t care.”

Such callousness toward the survival of other species may strike Western readers as completely unacceptable, but animal welfare and conservation were incorporated into the North American and European psyche only in the past century or so. Interspecies empathy in the West was partly inspired by a greater appreciation of biodiversity and of animals’ capacity for intelligence and feeling. But it was also enabled by an increasingly comfortable lifestyle that gave people the bandwidth to worry about animals, rather than focus solely on where their next meal was coming from.

As Asia has begun catching up economically, some citizens there, especially young people, have grown increasingly concerned about animal welfare and conservation. But an additional variable complicates things there: for thousands of years, many Asian cultures have viewed wild animals and plants as commodities that exist for the betterment of humans, not just as meat but also as medicine and status symbols (and, sometimes, all three at once). In China, for example, “little non-consumptive value, such as the pleasure of watching or photographing wild animals without killing or removing them from the wild, is attributed to wild animals or natural ecosystems,” wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown in The Extinction Market. “Rather, nature and wild animals and plants are seen through the prism of their utilization as sources of income, food and prestige.” Wildlife, in other words, is simply a resource to be exploited.

Throughout China and Southeast Asia, meat from wild animals—referred to as “wildmeat”—is often considered a tonic that can bestow that animal’s particular energy and characteristics upon the person who eats it. A snake may be eaten to cure arthritis or a skin disease, because snakes are flexible and shed their skin, or a tiger may be consumed for strength and power. Such values and beliefs are widely held, even today. “In the 1980s, when I was small, eating wildlife wasn’t really a big deal,” said Lishu Li, manager of the wildlife trade program at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China branch. “We grew up with the knowledge that everything has a medical use or function, including consuming meat from wild animals.” When Li’s rural relatives were fortunate enough to capture a pangolin, the whole family would gather to eat it.

In addition to their perceived nutritional and medical value, certain rare animals are considered status symbols that only the rich and powerful can afford. In posh wildmeat restaurants wealthy businesspeople and officials show off or curry favor by ordering exotic dishes like pangolin or bear—the way Kobe beef or beluga caviar are served in the West. In the past, such excess was out of reach of most peoples’ budgets, but now more and more individuals are earning enough to afford a piece of the wildlife pie. “People want something special,” explained Madelon Willemsen, former country director for TRAFFIC Vietnam. If the species is going extinct, all the better, she said. It means you’re influential enough to have gotten hold of one of the last.

The market has enthusiastically responded to this demand, starting with hunters and the way they do business. Subsistence hunting—trapping or shooting animals to feed one’s family—has largely been replaced by hunting to satiate the appetites of the rich and upper-middle class. What was once a survival strategy has become a profit-driven enterprise—and a pillar of a global trade priced in the billions.

Tám H is part of an immense underworld of players encompassing not only the wild and urban centers of Asia, but, increasingly, the savannas and jungles of Africa, the forests of South America and Russia, the museums of Europe (where more than seventy rhino horns were stolen in 2011 alone); and the antique shops and Chinatowns of North America. As in any global trafficking network, the men and women involved span all walks of life, from the small-time trader who smuggles wildlife from village to town and the corrupt customs agent who signs off on shipments of those animal parts, to the trade boss who considers himself untouchable, as well as the wealthy patrons who motivate all of their crimes.

This is all above Tám H’s pay grade, however. He’s just a simple hunter, expendable, poor, and in ample supply. Without him, however, there would be no illegal wildlife trade.

I MET TÁM H IN 2010, AT A VERY DIFFERENT TIME IN MY LIFE. AN ASPIRING CONSERVATION ecologist, first I needed to collect a few academic degrees. My master’s research took me to U Minh, a boggy, mosquito-infested wilderness in Vietnam’s deep south, where Tám H lives. The place has a menacing reputation: it’s still known for the tigers that once prowled its tangled paths and the crocodiles that formerly plied its dark waters. Legend has it that in 1952 five hundred French paratroopers dropped into the hostile morass, only to be swallowed up and never seen again.

Much of U Minh’s wildness has since been tamed, however. Thousands of square miles of peat swamp forest were drained, chopped, and cultivated, leaving just 230 square miles remaining of the region’s characteristic melaleuca woods and reed-lined channels. Yet the place’s storied danger and difficulties live on in the tales people tell and in the spooky reverence with which they speak of it. Even the name itself conjures fear. U Minh: “a darkness like in hell,” one Vietnamese friend explained. “It’s not a normal darkness.”

My ecology master’s thesis addressed how people in U Minh use natural resources. To find out, I knocked on two hundred doors (figuratively speaking, that is, as many of the palm shacks did not have doors) and, with their permission, quizzed the owners about everything from whether they harvest honey in the forest to what their favorite type of meat is. From these interviews, a picture emerged of life in U Minh and the hardships it entails.

Though located in Vietnam’s deep south, many residents, I learned, are northern Vietnamese, including former Viet Cong soldiers. Decades ago, the government encouraged them to move to U Minh as part of a resettlement program. There were promises of rich, fertile earth; of waters brimming with fish; and of instant, easy wealth. Today, many of those original pioneers feel duped: their youthful dreams have long since been broken by U Minh’s harsh realities.

From the beginning of that venture, the land was against them. For one, the soil beneath U Minh’s characteristic peat is exceptionally acidic. When disturbed by plow, shovel, or channel, it turns the water in a would-be fish pond, well, or rice paddy bright orange and undrinkable—“sour,” as the locals say. This makes crops difficult to grow and aquaculture nearly impossible, depending on where your plot of land happens to fall. In the dry season, fire also poses a serious threat. The crisp brown peat can ignite with the flick of a match, and the resulting flames are voracious. In 2002 two large fires consumed more than twenty square miles of forest. As one interviewee described it to me, “There used to be a forest here before, but it caught fire and it burned, burned, burned.” To prevent such a disaster from recurring, locals are now tasked with hours-long rotations perched atop tall, hand-built towers on the lookout for smoke.

Poverty is therefore nearly universal. One woman heartbreakingly told me that her biggest dream is to have electricity; a young man implored, “Please go back to your country and tell them about U Minh. Tell companies to please come make investments in U Minh, to help people here.”

Of the two hundred residents I interviewed, more than 80 percent relied on nature to support some part of their lives: fish and animals to eat, wood to burn, honey to harvest and sell. Though most were subsistence hunters and fishers rather than professionals, quite a few recognized that they were caught up in a real-life tragedy of the commons, acknowledging that the animals are disappearing because of their collective activities. This is a common story not only in U Minh and Vietnam but throughout the world’s tropical ecosystems: a 2017 analysis of 176 case studies found that mammals declined by 83 percent and birds declined by 58 percent in hunted compared with unhunted places.

On top of its challenging environment and declining resources, though, U Minh suffers one more major setback: lingering impacts from “ecocide” carried out by the United States against Vietnam. Seeking to decimate crops and destroy the Viet Cong’s forest hideouts, from 1961 to 1971 US aircraft assaulted the landscape—including U Minh—with high-explosive munitions and 72 million liters of defoliants, including the infamous Agent Orange. Up to an estimated 4 million Vietnamese were and continue to be affected by dioxin poisoning. None ever received any compensation from the US government, and most received only minimal support at best from their own country.

Tám H believes his six-year-old son counts among the victims of the American poisoning. A quiet boy who often hid behind his mother’s legs when I met him, he was born with “brain illness,” as Tám H vaguely described it. He took up hunting—something he never had interest in, he said—to cover his newborn’s hospital bills. The decision paid off. Tám H proved to be a natural at his trade, and he more than quadrupled his family’s annual income, from $1,000 per year to sometimes more than $4,000. He emphasized, though, that he doesn’t enjoy the work: after spending all night outdoors, he returns home covered in mosquito bites, leeches, and bloody scratches. “Many times, when I step out of the forest, I don’t want to go back ever again,” he said. “But, because of my life, I have to go.”

Putting the well-being of his family first is completely understandable, but some still cannot excuse his actions. “When people say hunting is a livelihood issue but it’s illegal—like, ‘Oh, the hunter is really poor and he has five children’—I can’t get on board,” Shepherd said. “If you’re going to make an exception for hunting, then why not let them sell two of their kids, as well? Or deal in cocaine?” Hospital bills or not, Tám H is still breaking the law and driving animals to extinction.

In reality, though, Tám H doesn’t have to worry much about the law. Everyone knows what he does. He is popular and well liked—not only by neighbors but also by the police. In 2010, when I asked people in Khánh Thun hamlet, population one thousand, whether they knew anyone who hunted, they said, “Sure!” and pointed down the dirt road. In such a small community, few secrets stay secret for long—even breaking national laws. At one point when I was talking to Tám H, the local police wandered in to check my government-issued documents granting permission to be there. Afterward, rather than head back to work, the officers took a seat next to me to watch a Vietnamese-dubbed Chinese soap opera on Tám H’s gritty television, paying no heed to the hunter as he rhapsodized about his illegal exploits between drags on a hand-rolled cigarette.

I can still remember the butterflies in my stomach that day as my translator, Uy, and I made our way to Tám H’s house for the first time. I was eager to finally meet a real, live professional hunter but nervous about blowing the interview. We soon arrived at our destination: an unexceptional U Minh home with roof and walls built of tightly woven palm leaves and melaleuca branches and a dirt floor smooth from years of use. Tám H met us outside and welcomed us in. Lean and fit at forty, with a mop of wild black hair and a mischievous glint in his sharp eyes, his bombastic nature and natural charisma needed no translation.

He confirmed that he was indeed the famous pangolin hunter—an admission supported by the traps and nets balanced in corners and lining the ceiling of his home. “I’m willing to give you my knowledge and reveal my secrets, because you are a student and I like your research,” he continued, gesturing for us to take a seat on his wooden bed—one of the only pieces of furniture in the room. “I believe science is very important.”

He will catch anything he can get his snares and traps around, he began, including cobras, monitor lizards, pythons, turtles, otters, civets (small carnivores), fishing cats, and more. He’s not a huge fan of monkeys—they creep him out with their humanoid little faces, he said—but he’ll catch them, too. Above all else, though, he prides himself on his skill at trapping pangolins, one of the most elusive but lucrative creatures in the forest.

NOW, UNLESS YOU’RE AN ANIMAL FANATIC OR NERD LIKE ME, AT THIS POINT, YOU might be wondering, what on earth is a pangolin, anyway?

In the West, the world’s eight species of pangolins have various names and nicknames—scaly anteaters, artichokes with legs, or walking pinecones—but in Vietnam, they’re known simply as tê tê. They are the world’s only mammal with true scales, but their second and more recent claim to fame is as the world’s most highly trafficked mammal.

Yet, until recently, even some ecologists weren’t aware of the pangolin’s existence. The situation has since improved vastly: these days you’d be hard pressed to find a wildlife researcher who isn’t familiar with the pangolins’ plight, thanks to an increasing number of scientific papers and conference talks warning of their impending doom. A million are estimated to have been killed over the last decade.


  • "A must-read."—The Revelator
  • "Nuwer finds rays of hope in the park rangers and other conservation experts who are dedicating their lives to saving some of the earth's most majestic creatures."—Scientific American
  • "A compelling, lively, and highly informative read."—Science
  • "A deep, disturbing look into the illegal wildlife trade [that] offers a firsthand account of the battle between traffickers and conservationists."—Science News
  • "Nuwer's intimate look at different poaching industries is educational and overall heartfelt."—Library Journal
  • "Nuwer's engaging and immersive reporting style...illuminates and animates the larger forces driving the trade that's wiping out our remaining wildlife."—Sierra
  • "Nuwer, a conservation biologist turned science journalist, traces at first hand the front lines across the globe in her hard-hitting, wince-inducing report."—Nature
  • "By focusing on the humans at all points of the [illegal wildlife] trade, Nuwer is able to offer something rare: a window onto the feelings and beliefs that drive it."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Reads like a thrilling piece of fiction-which makes it even more heartbreaking when you remember the events are true."—Earther

On Sale
Sep 25, 2018
Page Count
384 pages
Da Capo Press

Rachel Love Nuwer

Rachel Love Nuwer

About the Author

Rachel Nuwer is an award-winning science journalist who regularly contributes to the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC Future, and Scientific American, among others. She lives in New York.

Learn more about this author