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Ecomafia: The Illicit Trade Of Endangered Animal Species

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

The Eco-Mafia is the world's new villain.

The Mafia of Endangered Animal Trafficking by Elijah Shah
The Godfather of Animal Trafficking by Elijah Shah

We are all well acquainted with the term ‘mafia’, from movies like Suburra and The Godfather to our now ordinary use of the word to refer to hooligans or mobs. Not too long ago, however, a similar term was created to capture an important aspect of organized crime that is often unseen. The term ‘ecomafia’ was coined in 1994 by an Italian NGO, Legambiente, to describe the environmentally damaging crimes - or ecological crimes - committed by criminal organizations.

To our dismay, environmental crime is one of the most profitable forms of criminal activity, which is why criminal groups are attracted to it. It can vary from illegal waste disposal and logging to the trade of ozone-depleting substances and endangered animal species. The latter is of particular urgency and will be the focus of this article. It might be surprising to learn that even crime can be environmentally damaging, and here you are going to read about one of the most common ecological crimes that occur away from the public eye.

The illicit trafficking of endangered animal species includes taking wild animals from their natural habitats, distributing, and ultimately possessing/consuming them. Just like the trafficking of drugs and firearms, there are manifold globally organised crime networks for the trafficking of endangered species, mainly for their demand as luxury goods. Illegal trade in wildlife can have two main forms, with the first one being the illegal trade in exotic animals to live in homes as pets.

The illegal trade in exotic pets is a booming business that is growing as more exotic animals are insolently demanded as pets. Most exotic animals are traded from places like Australia, South America and Africa, and are mainly brought to Europe. Exotic animals that are deprived of their natural habitat include monkeys, tigers, and pythons, alongside many more. The most heartbreaking part is that the mortality of the animals is about 80-90% during their transport, due to severe malnutrition, appalling conditions, and overwhelming loneliness and stress.

The second type of illegal wildlife trade occurs through poaching, mainly for the production of luxury goods, like clothing made from leather or fur. The world’s most trafficked mammals are Pangolins, which account for an astonishing 20% of the illegal wildlife trade. Their scales are demanded by traditional medicine, spiritual purposes, and clothing.

Another well-known example is the poaching of elephants for ivory, used to make jewellery, piano keys, decorative items, and more. Around 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year out of a continent-wide population of 400,000. When animals like elephants or rhinos are poached, they are often left to die in the place where they were hunted, adding to their miserable suffering.

It is needless to say that the unlawful trade in endangered species is threatening and disturbing entire animal populations and ecosystems, aiding biodiversity loss. This can be worsened by potential disease outbreaks. In the 1970s, for instance, an outbreak of the exotic Newcastle disease resulted in the death of 12 million birds in the USA, which was traced to parrots smuggled from South America.

Perhaps the most important pitfall in government systems that allows the illicit trade of endangered species to continue is the lack of laws and regulations against it. There is no enforcement of stringent laws or punishments for preventing this illegal activity, which allows criminals to continue to profit from it without enduring any consequences. Moreover, e-commerce and social media websites have provided an easier way to advertise the sale of exotic animals or their parts, which is why this invasive black market is expanding.

Although emerging ecological crimes are starting to gain more public attention, as also proven by the apparition of the term ‘ecomafia’, an important shift in how these crimes are perceived and dealt with in the fields of criminology and justice is urgently needed.


Bale, R. (2020). Is elephant poaching really declining? Natural Geographic.

Europol (n.d.). Illicit trafficking in endangered animal species. Europol.

Giardi, G. (2015). Fighting the European Ecomafia: Organized trafficking in waste and the need for a criminal law response from the EU. MCEL Master Working Paper 2015/1.

Hall, J. (2019). Exotic pet trade, explained. Natural Geographic.

Peta (n.d.). Inside the Exotic Animal Trade. Peta.

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1 Comment

Yashvi Shah
Yashvi Shah
Jan 15, 2022

Thanks for the mention!

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