National Geographic News
A photo of an elephant in Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 African elephants, like this one in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, are killed every year by poachers.


Carmen Russell in Nairobi

for National Geographic

Published June 24, 2014

A global industry in so-called environmental crime—which includes everything from selling elephant ivory to illegal fishing to illicit logging and more—is worth between $70 billion and $213 billion a year and largely finances criminal, militia, and terrorist groups, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations and INTERPOL.

"There has been a substantial upgrade in the scale from past reports," said Christian Nellemann, head of the Rapid Response Unit at the United Nations Environment Assembly. "One of the primary reasons, particularly with regard to timber and loss of wildlife habitats, is that the methods used by organized crime were not so well known just a few years ago."

The new report, called "The Environmental Crime Crisis," says that between 20,000 and 25,000 African elephants are killed every year, with an estimated $165 million to $188 million in ivory going to Asia. (Related: "Beloved African Elephant Killed for Ivory—'Monumental' Loss.")

The trade in rhinoceros horn, meanwhile, has an estimated value of between $63.8 million and $192 million. Although fewer than 50 rhinos were poached in 2007, that number rose to over 1,000 in 2013.

But Nellemann, who served as editor in chief of the report, says illegal timber trading is likely growing even more rapidly, with "forest crime" estimated to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion annually and representing as much as 30 percent of the global timber trade.

Chart of environmental crimes compared with drugs, e-crimes, and arms trafficking.
NG Staff. Source: United Nations Environment Programme

Researchers used different sources to calculate the worth of various types of crime, including trials, statistics from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, INTERPOL arrests and seizures, and information provided to the UN Security Council about revenue from terror groups that used the profit.

Investigators also physically counted trucks carrying timber.

"The official export for one country in Africa is maybe one or two loads per year," Nellemann said in an interview. Yet "we have photos of hundreds of trucks passing borders."

Approximately 90 percent of wood consumed in Africa is used for fuel and charcoal. Illegal charcoal is also being exported to several Middle Eastern nations like Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

Exports from Somalia alone are estimated at $360 million to $384 million per year, with up to $56 million supporting al Shabaab (the group responsible for the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Kenya last year), according to the new report.

Most member state delegates to the United Nations Environment Assembly hadn't reviewed the data, but some expressed surprise at the new numbers, given the recent efforts to curb environmental crime in recent years.

Members of the Wildlife Works private bush patrol observe the three week old remains of an elephant killed by ivory poachers in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park near Kasigau
Members of a bush patrol find the remains of an elephant killed by poachers in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park.

Sri Parwati Murwani Budi Susanti, Indonesia's assistant deputy minister of environment, was adamant that her government—along with those of other member nations—was working hard to combat illegal trade in plants and animals, but said the report showed that "we still have so much more to do."

Budi Susanti said the international community needs to focus on certification programs.

"We have regulations, but we need to inform the consumers," she said. "If buyers won't buy the products that aren't sustainable, there won't be demand."

But Nellemann said that consumer awareness "is not enough."

"It might be the long-term solution," he said. "But in the shorter [term], you need to allocate resources to provide protection on the front line and stop criminal networks from increasing."

Parth Deo
Parth Deo

The approach has to be bottom-up, it cannot continue this way. It is hard to believe that environmental crime has reached such heights, until and unless there is a combined effort to curb and sensitize the movement among locals, it will continue to happen. Personally, officials who really care for wildlife, should be given the job of handling these areas, an insensitive official couldn't care less. 
I think "There was room in the world for the mountain lion and me."

Vipin Kak
Vipin Kak

As long as there isn't any political goodwill to curb such acts of exploitation and crime, no act done in favour could bear any fruitful effect. Secondly, the problem of corrupt officials who often support such smugglers, should be severely and effectively dealt with. Every effort would go in vain, unless the aforementioned solutions are implemented and strictly followed.

Nick Ryan
Nick Ryan

There needs to be more international pressure on those not only committing the act of slaughtering these animals but also anyone is participates in the importation of the ivory harvested from elephants and rhinos. This issue affects everyone here in the U.S. Considering the amount of money that is spent in fighting the war on terror, the money made from killing these animals directly funds the terror groups we are at war with! There is much more that can and should be done. 

Naomi Radunski
Naomi Radunski

They have all the statistics, they have the value of revenue, they have the sociological causes, they understand the market dynamic ... they like talking about it ...
yet last year 1000 - ONE THOUSAND - rhinos were slaughtered, compared to 50 in 2007 ...and TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND ELEPHANTS were slaughtered.  We are far away, watching helplessly, donating whatever we can ... and seeing that the only change is downward.  What are they going to DO when they stop talking ...?

Robin Loveridge
Robin Loveridge

To fight a multi-billion dollar industry we need targeted investment. You can support the conservation of the cousin's of the African elephant- the Sumatran elephant at

Jesse F
Jesse F

All lo us should take action to curb not only the environmental crime but also the other ways of crime, to make our earth a better place to live. As consumers, we need to rise our awareness and resist the illegal trade in wildlife.

Haidee Gepo
Haidee Gepo

We must not destroy our planet, there needs to be a collective effort from all humans.

khaled sanad
khaled sanad

i think that we have to do something to save our environment from this  kind of war 
yes this is a war which threaten our dominions :(

cheng pingyang
cheng pingyang

sorry to hear about this kind of news.the awareness of environment differs .but we couldnt realise the bad condition until our earth were deeply destroied.please do some thing to keep our lives sustainable.

Tanmay Sharma
Tanmay Sharma

OMG!! We are living in the world of destructions. On one hand there is environmental crime—which includes everything from selling elephant ivory to illegal fishing to illicit logging and more—and on the other hand the same money largely finances criminal, militia, and terrorist groups that destroys the peace of the world. Countries from all over the world should come together to create huge awareness campaign to stop that. 

Tori Lynn
Tori Lynn

Who doesn’t love cute, fluffy bunnies? I know I do! Unfortunately, there are people in this world who prefer wearing bunnies instead of just admiring them. I read a heartbreaking article on about angora fur production and the torture that rabbits endure for their fur. You can read more about this horrifying reality here:


Popular Stories

  • Lost City Found in Honduras

    Lost City Found in Honduras

    A joint Honduran-American expedition has confirmed the presence of extensive pre-Columbian ruins in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region rumored to contain ruins of a lost "White City" or "City of the Monkey God."

  • Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Small, young galaxies should be free of interstellar dust, but an object called A1689-zD1 is breaking all the rules.

  • Cool Polar Bear Pictures

    Cool Polar Bear Pictures

    Take a peek at polar bears playing, swimming, and sleeping in their changing habitat.

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »