brown squirrel on gray tree trunk

Criminal Enterprises and the Expansive Reach of Wildlife Trafficking

Post Authored By: Teresa Dettloff

A common misconception about wildlife trafficking is that it involves exotic species hundreds of thousands of miles from US soil. However, wildlife trafficking rings operate within the United States, and major US cities serve as hubs for the transport, transfer, and sale of wildlife that has been illegally trafficked. Wildlife trafficking is perpetuated through complex criminal enterprises and threatens the stability of ecosystems worldwide.

A March 2018 report published by the National Wildlife Federation announced that one third of America’s wildlife was at risk of becoming permanently extinct.[1] Wildlife trafficking is huge contributor to this problem. The US Fish and Wildlife Service conducts more than 10,000 investigations per year, and issues fines totaling about $20 million.[2] However, the actual seizures of wildlife and wildlife products that are illegally trafficked pales in comparison to the amount that crosses borders undetected.[3] Illegally trafficked wildlife and wildlife goods are not always what is expected, such as ivory poached from elephant tusks.

Chicago Case Study

            In October 2020, seven people were arrested and charged for alleged involvement in a wildlife trafficking scheme.[4] The charges included money laundering, racketeering, and scheming to defraud. The city of Chicago was one stop in the multi-stage scheme. 3700 flying squirrels were captured illegally in Florida. 1400 of those flying squirrels were then driven from Florida to Chicago, where a wildlife exporter then shipped the animals to South Korea to be sold as exotic pets.[5] The estimated retail value of these animals is in excess of $1 million.[6] The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission informed the public that the animals were sold to a wildlife dealer who alleged that the flying squirrels were bred in captivity and were not obtained from the wild.[7] Flying squirrels are a protected species, and poaching these animals from the wild is prohibited. This instance of wildlife trafficking demonstrates the multiple steps involved in introducing a poached species into the market and the criminal enterprises that facilitate the sale of illegally obtained wildlife.

Why it Matters

             The regulations regarding shipping wildlife and the laws governing importation of certain species are complicated and convoluted.[8] The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) allows the trade and sale of certain species under certain conditions and subject to specific rules.[9] It is difficult for consumers to determine what products are legal and what products are illegal, as traffickers may comingle legally obtained wildlife and wildlife products with those that have been illegally poached. The best practice? Refrain from purchasing wildlife products. Helpful guides have been published by organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, to help consumers understand what products may contain illegally procured ingredients.[10]


[2] Id.

[3] See Id.


[5] Id.


[7] Id.


[9]  See CITES Convention,


About the Author:

Teresa Detloff

Teresa Dettloff practices law in Chicago, Illinois and is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where she served as a lead article editor for the law journal. She is also a member of the United Nations Association Chicago Chapter.

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