Clownfish in Andaman Coral Reef, © Ritiks

Wanted Alive: Inside the Illegal Live Animal Trade

The illegal trade in live animals is a booming business including pet stores, collectors, and individuals seeking exotic species from around the world. With millions of live animals traded legally throughout the globe each year and countless more sold on the black market, the live animal trade is thriving. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the animals caught up in it.

In the world of wildlife trafficking, the illegal trade in live animals is particularly devastating because so many animals die along the supply chain. Depending on the species, as many as three animals may die for every one that makes it to the buyer alive.

Our experts recently analyzed a decade of data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and found that some 3,726 illegal shipments containing nearly 330,000 live animals attempted to enter the United States between 2005 and 2014. Yet much of this trade is still invisible. It is estimated that less than 10% of illegal wildlife is actually detected. Based on the numbers from our analysis, that could mean that smugglers attempted to bring as many as 13 million live animals into the U.S. in the past decade – and up to 9.7 million of them died before they reached the intended buyer.

The only silver lining to these grim statistics is that you – the average consumer – can do something about it. You may be the buyer that these smugglers are hoping to reach, and if you start questioning the source of live animals, it can have a real impact. So don’t assume that just because an animal is in a well-known store that it came there legally. Ask where the animals you’re looking at come from, and if the seller can’t provide clear documentation to prove what they’re saying, walk away. Learn which animals have the highest likelihood of being illegally traded into the United States so you can do your part by asking the right questions, avoiding questionable purchases, and helping stop the demand for the illegal trade in live animals.

Tropical Fish

Ornate butterflyfish,© StealthwaterTropical fish are seemingly inoffensive animals and often passive, low-maintenance pets. There are many species of tropical fish that come in every size and color. However, the diversity of tropical fish is also what makes them difficult to identify, and hard to spot species that may be traded illegally. Our experts found that most of the tropical fish attempting to enter the United States illegally were exported from Thailand and Indonesia. A total of 53,799 individual tropical fish were found in the shipments that were denied entry. A full 99.8% of the shipments containing tropical fish were imported for commercial purposes and had large quantities of fish. If you buy – or even see – tropical fish for sale, ask where they came from. Captive-breeding of more than 300 fish species occurs in the United States, so if the fish haven’t been taken from the wild, it should be easy for the seller to provide proof.

Freshwater Turtles

Red-eared slider, © Ryan Moehring?USFWSFreshwater turtles are another pet store staple, but some are extremely rare and highly sought after by collectors. Both common and rare turtles seem to be plagued by the illegal live animal trade. Sadly, freshwater turtles are some of the most endangered vertebrates in the world. Our experts found a total of 68,680 freshwater turtles in the shipments that were denied entry to the United States, with about one-third of them from a single genus known as slider turtles – the most popular kind of pet turtle in the United States. Some species of slider turtle are native to the United States and like the tropical fish, are even legally bred for commercial sale here. But as we discovered, others are imported illegally, which means they were very likely taken from the wild, putting the species further at risk.


Staghorn coral, © Amanda Meyer/USFWSPeople often forget that corals are living animals. Unfortunately, not only are they sought after for jewelry and other products, they are also traded live for use in aquariums. The United States is the largest importer of live coral in the world. Because coral reefs are protected in U.S. waters, the U.S. imports coral from other countries to meet the demand – some of which is legal, and some of which is certainly not. Over 99% of all the coral shipments we found in our analysis were imported for commercial purposes, and over 91% of the coral was sourced from the wild. With coral being such a slow-growing animal, the impact of the illegal trade on coral reefs is exponential. The amount of coral taken from our oceans every day could take years, even decades to grow back. In the meantime, the oceans lose the vibrant reefs that so many other marine species depend on.


Python, © Liz BaracoThe United States legally imports around one million live reptiles each year. The ball python is perhaps the most popular pet snake, growing up to 5 feet long and living for more than 30 years. Pythons in general, particularly the ball python, are rampant in the illegal wildlife trade. The decade of shipments analyzed by our experts contained more than 18,000 live pythons. Although the pythons in the detained shipments came from a variety of different countries, they all seemed to be going to the same place: Miami, Florida. Unlike the other kinds of animals mentioned here, the majority of pythons found in these shipments appeared to be from captive-breeding facilities. Unfortunately, loopholes make it possible for wild-caught animals to be sold as captive-bred through permit-laundering and bribes. It is possible – even likely – that any number of the pythons in the illegal trade with captive-bred paperwork are laundered into the “legal” market.

This list covers just a few of the victims of the illegal live animal trade. Other victims include butterflies, tarantulas, parakeets and lizards. Sadly, the majority of these animals die before completing their journey, which means the average buyer never sees the true cost of their purchase. Traffickers go to great lengths to keep the trade in live animals invisible, trying to pass off wild-captured animals as captive-bred, or even painting or altering the animals to disguise them as a more common, legal species. It’s up to you to pay close attention, ask the right questions, and refuse to take anything less than solid proof to back up the seller’s claims. Be sure to talk to your friends and family who are looking at buying pets about doing the same thing. And if you know of animals – either in a store or online – that are being sold illegally, report it to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement at or 1- 844-FWS-TIPS.

Together, we can put a dent in the illegal live animal trade, not only keeping more animals in the wild, but also sparing the lives of thousands more animals that would otherwise die along the way.

Do You Know What You're Buying?

Illegal wildlife products can be found even in retail stores here in the U.S. Make sure you know what questions to ask about your purchases to avoid contributing to wildlife trafficking.

Learn More »

3 Responses to “Wanted Alive: Inside the Illegal Live Animal Trade”

  1. Marie Richards

    Please stop importing things illegally, things that deserve to live their lives in their natural habitat.

  2. Itala T Rutter

    Stop importing animals illegally. Please. It is uncivilized and dangerous to imbalance the system like this. Have some restraint and regard for the natural order.

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