Wildlife smuggling: routes, methods and risks to aviation

Sean Patrick

Aviation Security Analyst

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Sean Patrick

Aviation Security Analyst

Sean is an Aviation Security Analyst. His role is to assess risks and trends, looking at how ongoing and one-time events can impact the security of operators globally, with a special interest in aviation security in Africa and Asia.

Prior to joining Osprey, Sean worked for many years in the travel and security industry, alongside government agencies. He also holds a master’s degree with distinction in Intelligence and Security Studies from Brunel University.

For airlines, transport companies and airports, illegal wildlife smuggling represents not only an operational but also a reputational threat. The illegal trade in wildlife is considered the fourth most lucrative black market in the world, worth an estimated USD 19 billion per year. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as well as TRAFFIC, a global specialist in wildlife trade, and many other organisations have highlighted the threat that wildlife smuggling poses to endangered species, as well as the risk it poses to health and safety, both within affected communities and to aviation workers. Many wildlife-smuggling groups are often involved in other forms of criminality, including narcotics, weapons and people smuggling.

Routes and methods

Since the start of 2022, Osprey has identified a notable increase in wildlife-smuggling incidents among passengers travelling through airports, as well as air cargo shipments, following a decrease in such activity associated with COVID-19-related travel restrictions and resultant reductions in flights and passenger numbers in 2020-2021. Incidents involving wildlife trafficking via air have primarily occurred in Asia, Africa and Latin America and are driven by regional demands for animals, both alive and dead, as well as their body parts and derivatives, particularly in China and South East Asia. Indeed, the UNODC 2020 World Wildlife Crime Report highlights that 87% of rhinoceros horn seizures with a known destination between 2002 and 2019 were bound for China and South East Asia. In addition to rhino horns and ivory, it is common for live animals, including pangolins native to sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and animal parts such as teeth and claws from big cat species, to be trafficked through the region.

Air travel is popular with wildlife smugglers due to its connectivity and speed, reducing the likelihood of animals expiring or becoming ill during transit compared to other, slower forms of transport. In some cases, items and/or animals are hidden on a traveller’s person; however, live animals and high-value animal derivatives are frequently concealed in passengers’ carry-on or checked luggage. The majority of rhino horn intercepts recorded by Osprey in 2022 involved the items being smuggled in this way. Notably, smuggling incidents detected at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport (FAOR/JNB) often involve rhino horns being concealed in passengers’ baggage. An incident in January involved the seizure of a total of 11 horns, which had been concealed in a passenger’s luggage, and further incidents reported in April, May, and June involved passengers attempting to smuggle 31kg, 26kg and 25kg of rhino horn, respectively.

Larger shipments are usually sent via air cargo services, such as air mail or courier, and the illegal shipment of live animals via these methods is common. For example, on 6 October, officials at the Air Cargo Complex of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (VABB/BOM) seized over 600 exotic animals, including lizards, pythons and iguanas, from a consignment sent from Malaysia. The consignment was declared as live exotic fish, and while 16 of the packages in the consignment contained declared animals, 13 were reported to have held undeclared animals listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), hidden under trays containing fish. Air cargo is also a popular method of transport among smugglers; in July 2021, 160kg of rhino horn was seized from an outbound cargo shipment at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport.

India: A growing concern

Thus far in 2022, Osprey has issued nine alerts regarding significant wildlife seizures at airports, four of which occurred in India or involved travellers who had arrived from India. India is both a significant origin and destination for smuggled wildlife, and many airports in the country are growing in popularity with smugglers transporting wildlife and derivatives illegally. For example, Chennai International Airport (VOMM/MAA) has seen wildlife being smuggled both into and out of the airport in 2022; a single incident in January involved over 1,300 Indian star tortoises being smuggled to Malaysia, where the animals are often sold as pets. Also, in May, Chennai Air Customs Officers seized 11 animals – an albino porcupine, a tamarin monkey and nine sugar gliders – being brought into the country by two passengers who concealed them inside checked baggage.

The use of Indian airports to traffic wildlife is likely to increase given the growth of the Indian aviation industry, which is providing more opportunities for smugglers. Indeed, in October, Indian media reports citing the International Air Transport Association (IATA) stated that the region had recovered well from the COVID-19 pandemic and is now seeing a growth in both staff numbers and new routes. Further reporting citing the Indian Union Minister of Civil Aviation stated that there were 200 million air travellers in 2019-2020, and by 2027 the country is expected to see 400 million domestic and international air travellers, with major implications for criminality in the country, including wildlife smuggling.


As the aviation industry recovers and further efforts to tackle wildlife smuggling are made, it is likely that there will be an increase in activity and in seizures. Such incidents pose a safety risk to security-screening personnel and baggage handlers who may be forced to deal with situations involving venomous/aggressive animals or viruses carried by animals and animal products. Airlines also have moral and social responsibilities to address the issue; the demand for illegally imported exotic wildlife has seen many species become endangered, and poaching in Africa is known to fund armed militant and extremist group activity.

Aviation operators should ensure screeners are provided with adequate training to deal with wildlife-smuggling situations safely, including information regarding the wildlife and derivatives they are likely to encounter in their specific location. Aviation workers should also look for individuals who display behavioural indicators of criminality. Osprey will continue to monitor wildlife smuggling impacting aviation and provide up-to-date, detailed information and advice via our alerts.