Wildlife Crime

Kristie R Blevins & Terry D Edwards. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

The United States is one of the largest markets for wildlife and wildlife products from all over the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars are earned annually from wildlife crimes committed in the United States alone, and about $6 billion are earned every year from wildlife crimes worldwide (see Musgrave, Parker, & Wolok, 1993; Tobias, 1998; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2007; Warchol, 2004). This chapter offers a general overview of wildlife crime at both the state and federal levels, identifies a variety of types of wildlife offenders, provides an overview of the techniques involved in the policing and punishment of wildlife criminals, and makes suggestions to address and prevent wildlife crime in the future.

Definition and Characteristics of Wildlife Crimes

Wildlife crime is a unique category of crime. It does not fit “cleanly” into the various traditional categories, or classifications, often used to describe criminal activity—categories such as crimes against persons or property crimes. Like gambling, prostitution, and drug use, wildlife crimes are sometimes considered to be “victimless crimes” because a readily identifiable injured party or victim, at least in the form of a human being, is not present or filing a complaint. However, it has been argued that in the case of wildlife crime, like other victimless crime, society-at-large is the true victim because these criminal acts lead to significant harm to, if not the complete eradication of, entire species of animals and plants, thereby affecting hunters, anglers, nature photographers, and anyone else who enjoys wildlife in some way. Indeed, some would say that wildlife crimes, taken to the extreme, have the cumulative effect of seriously damaging entire ecosystems (Clifford, 1998; see also Muth, 1998).

Wildlife crimes are generally considered to be a subset of environmental crime. A common, albeit very general, definition of wildlife crime states that it is any violation of a criminal law expressly designed to protect wildlife. One of the most common wildlife crimes is poaching, which is generally defined as taking a wild resource out of season or through an illegal means. The laws usually cover animals (including mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and even insects), as well as certain plants (Gregorich, 1992; Muth & Bowe, 1998). Although poaching often results in the death of an animal, it also encompasses illegal live trapping of animals that are later sold or traded for profit. Consequently, poaching is not simply hunting out of season or with the wrong type of weapon; it can also be the killing or trapping of endangered, rare, or protected species. Wildlife crimes also include activities that affect wildlife more indirectly, such as pollution of waterways that results in damage to fish or other wildlife, or the destruction of protected wildlife habitats.

Animals are illegally harvested within the United States, or illegally imported into the country, for a variety of motives. They may be used or sold as food, displayed as trophies, or sold simply for economic gain. Frequently, illegally obtained animals are sold for use as exotic pets or for entertainment in circuses, road shows, and so forth. Further, sometimes it is the animal parts, rather than the entire animal, that are more valued. For example, rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory are often used to make ornamental household items. Other animal parts, such as tiger genitals, bear paws and gallbladders, and some fish fins have medicinal uses in Asia and Africa (Warchol, Zupan, & Clack, 2003). In addition, illegally obtained animal skins and furs are sold or traded for use in apparel, wall hangings, and rugs. Within the United States, species such as the paddlefish have had to be protected because poachers will illegally harvest the fish for their eggs and market the eggs as “fake” caviar (Graham, 1997). These are just some examples showing how wildlife offenders can bring in significant revenue by supplying animals or animal parts to meet the demand for these types of items.

History of Wildlife Crimes

The first laws regulating hunting and fishing were implemented in England in the 1600s in an effort to protect the wildlife and property of landowner and the aristocracy. Such laws allowed the aristocrats to preserve game animals and fish on their property by prohibiting others from hunting and fishing there without permission (see Palmer & Bryant, 1985). While game wardens were appointed in some American colonies in the 1700s, fishing and game hunting were not well regulated in the United States until the late 1800s, when state legislatures began to create fish and wildlife protection and conservation agencies (Sherblom, Keranen, & Withers, 2002).

Prior to the late 19th century, lawmakers in the United States did not deem it a priority to place controls over hunting and fishing because wildlife resources were plentiful across sparsely populated land. However, as the human population increased and more land was developed or farmed, wildlife resources began to decline. In addition, conflict developed as individuals would often hunt or fish on property that was owned by other persons.

Movements to preserve wildlife in the United States arose in the early 1900s. During this time, federal and state parks, along with other wildlife preserves, were created to manage fish and game populations, some of which were in danger of becoming extinct (see National Park Service, 1940). Similarly, state regulations and restrictions were created to regulate hunting and fishing. While the regulations varied somewhat from state to state, one commonality is that states began to require individuals to purchase a license to hunt or fish. States also set mandates concerning the types, size, and number of fish and game animals that may be taken. In addition, they began to designate hunting seasons, or particular times of year when each type of animal could be legally hunted (see Blair, 1985). Other common state wildlife laws concern property regulations (e.g., hunting is not allowed on any property without permission from the owner), specific hours per day during which hunting is allowed (e.g., daylight hours only), and type of weapon that may be used during certain hunting seasons.

Typical State Wildlife Crimes

As with virtually all criminal laws, each state has adopted its own statutes or ordinances related to wildlife crime. Part of the reason for the differences among state laws stems from the difference in wildlife resources. For example, some states have bear or elk hunting seasons, while others do not provide such seasons simply because the animal is not present (or is present in low numbers) in the state. While individual laws may vary somewhat from state to state, they are similar in many regards. In spite of the sometimes vast differences in the amounts and species of particular forms of wildlife across states, wildlife laws and hunting regulations are created to protect plant and animal populations and wildlife resources in each respective state.

Each state is responsible for identifying the game species that may be legally hunted and for adopting the restrictions that are imposed relating to when and how such game may be taken. Specifically, state gaming departments select specific dates when hunting may occur, determine what weapon(s) may be used, and place restrictions on the size and number of animals that may be taken by each hunter. In addition, limitations are imposed with regard to the times hunting may occur, the gender of the animals harvested, and the locations for hunting activity. Hunters are expected to follow the state’s guidelines, which includes the purchase of a hunting license. For most large game animals such as deer, elk, and moose, hunters are also required to tag each animal harvested, report the kill either in person or by phone to the appropriate regulatory agency, and complete and display all required forms or paperwork (see Johnston, Holland, Maharaj, & Campson, 2007).

Across all states, one of the most commonly reported and detected wildlife crimes is hunting or fishing without a valid license. This crime defrauds the state of valuable revenue that would be used to protect and improve wildlife resources. Another common state wildlife crime is hunting out of season or hunting animals for which there is no legal hunting season. These violations can have significant detrimental impact on a wide variety of wildlife populations. A third common state hunting crime is failure to tag hunting kills, which results in inaccurate counts for the state. The primary reason hunters do not tag or report their activity is so they may engage in harvesting more animals than are permitted. Unfortunately, taking more than the limit of game kills is another crime familiar to state fish and wildlife officials. Other common crimes include shooting from the road, hunting with an illegal weapon or firearm caliber, spotlighting to hunt, and trespassing to hunt or fish. Since only a small percentage of state wildlife crimes are treated as felonies, many individuals claim that they are not a serious problem, especially when compared to other types of crime. What they fail to realize is that even misdemeanor wildlife crimes may ultimately threaten fish and wildlife populations (Eliason, 2003, 2004).

Typical Federal Wildlife Crimes

At the federal level, Congress is empowered by the U.S. Constitution to enact appropriate legislation, and create government units to enforce such legislation, for any and all wildlife crimes for which there is a national, or federal, interest. Accordingly, Congress has enacted a wide variety of federal criminal statutes relating to wildlife crimes and vested enforcement of these statutes in a number of federal agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). At the federal level, it is the USFWS that primarily focuses on protecting wildlife resources throughout the country. The USFWS contains an office of law enforcement that investigates federal wildlife crime and regulates interstate and international wildlife trade. They focus on identifying and apprehending international and domestic smuggling rings that deal in endangered or protected species, protecting wildlife and habitats from environmental hazards, enforcing federal migratory bird and game hunting laws, and monitoring legal domestic and international wildlife trade to ensure that regulations are followed (USFWS, 2007).

Intelligence and general investigative resources are typically superior at the federal level compared to most state levels. For instance, the USFWS compiles information concerning species, port of entry, mode of transportation, and time of year to monitor the illegal wildlife trade. This information has been used to develop a risk assessment system that aids in targeting illegal animal trading.

The USFWS sometimes works with states to protect game animals and enforce state wildlife laws. (Just over 2% of the USFWS’s 2006 investigative caseload was spent on state law violations.) However, most of the USFWS’s investigative efforts are spent working on cases involving endangered species and enforcing laws regulating importation and exportation of wildlife. For example, a great deal of federal resources are committed to enforcing the Lacey Act, which prohibits the exportation, importation, sale, transportation, or purchase of fish and wildlife taken or possessed in violation of any federal, tribal, state, or foreign laws. Recognizing the investigative limitations imposed by the reduced number of federal agents in the field, the USFWS works very closely with state agencies and many state wildlife enforcement personnel cross-designated as federal USFWS agents in an effort to increase the number of wildlife offenders who may be prosecuted in federal court (USFWS, 2007).

Types of Wildlife Offenders

Individuals are motivated to perpetrate wildlife crimes for a wide range of reasons. Several different typologies have been established to profile and describe the motivations that influence people to commit wildlife crimes. Overall, there are four broad categories that can be used to portray the various types of individuals who commit these crimes.

The “Back Door” Wildlife Criminal

The term back door offender refers to individuals who illegally hunt on their own property. They do not purchase a hunting license, and they often take animals out of season and with techniques that are not normally permitted. Even if they are aware that their behavior is illegal, they rationalize the act by claiming that it is acceptable for them to kill animals on their own property because they “own” the animals. Back door offenders may use their kills for consumption for themselves or their families, sell the meat to others for profit, or simply mount the animal on the wall as a trophy. This type of offender can be extremely difficult to detect since the person does not hunt beyond his or her own property. In fact, back door hunters are rarely discovered unless they are reported by a neighbor who witnessed the event or by another individual with whom the suspect discussed the illegal activities—or more likely to whom they have bragged about their efforts (Eliason, 2008).

The Opportunist Wildlife Criminal

The opportunist offender does not commit wildlife crimes on a regular basis, but will do so if the opportunity is available. For example, an opportunist may be legally hunting deer in a particular area when an elk approaches. The hunter may kill the elk simply because the opportunity presented itself. Unless the hunter had a permit to kill elk during that particular season, he or she has committed the crimes of hunting out of season and hunting without a license. Another common crime committed by opportunist offenders is taking more than the legal limit of game. Like the back door offender, opportunist offenders may commit wildlife crimes for a variety of reasons. They too are difficult to detect because their actions are so irregular—they typically do not have the motivation or intent to commit a wildlife crime until the opportunity is present.

The Habitual or Chronic Wildlife Offender

This category includes those individuals who engage in wildlife crime on a regular basis. They may participate in a broad array of wildlife crimes, or they might focus on one particular type (e.g., hunting endangered species or other animals for which there is no designated hunting season). While some animals taken by chronic wildlife offenders are used for personal consumption, these offenders are more likely than back door or opportunist criminals to be motivated by profit. Their bounties are often sold to others, domestically or internationally, for consumption or for use in making goods containing animal pelts. Offenders who illegally smuggle wildlife or animal parts into the United States are often habitual offenders (Eliason, 2008).

Experienced wildlife offenders usually become very skillful at their craft, as they simply get better through experience. Those who have not been apprehended get better over time through practice, and those who have been previously arrested tend to improve their abilities after learning from the mistakes that led to their apprehension. Many chronic offenders go as far as purchasing police scanners or other listening devices in order to monitor law enforcement activities and movement in the immediate area. Though habitual wildlife offenders are apprehended more often than back door or opportunistic offenders, their apprehensions typically come after they discuss their activities with someone who later reports the crimes. Those who do not discuss their actions with others are rarely detected (Eliason, 2008).

Trophy Poachers

Trophy poachers differ from the other three types of wildlife offenders in that their only motivation is to obtain animals to be used as trophies. Pictures of the “biggest and best” hunting and fishing trophies are often published in magazines, shown on Internet Web sites, and shared among sportspersons. These pictures often lead to competitions among hunters to establish who can obtain the best trophy of a particular animal. Since trophy animals are often extremely difficult to take legally during hunting seasons, trophy poachers frequently hunt them through illegal means (e.g., hunting out of season, spotlighting while hunting at night, trespassing, and using illegal weapons). Interviews with trophy poachers have revealed that most will keep the illegally obtained trophies for themselves, while a few will sell them to other hunters who will claim them as their own kills. Like habitual wildlife offenders, trophy poachers often commit a wide variety of wildlife crimes while hunting their trophy animal (Eliason, 2008).

Conservation Officers: Policing Wildlife Crime

Each state and the federal system has its own force of specialized law enforcement agents to investigate wildlife crimes and apprehend offenders. Such conservation officers, often called game wardens, are charged with enforcing laws that regulate hunting, fishing, and other environmental concerns including protected plant species. Some jurisdictions also commission conservation officers to enforce boating regulations and police waterways.

The predecessor of American conservation officers were the gamekeepers in Europe. Gamekeepers were appointed by the kings to enforce hunting and trespassing regulations on their property and the property of the nobility. The main role of the gamekeepers was to keep peasants from hunting on land owned by the aristocrats.

The first record of a position resembling a modern-day conservation officer in the United States was a forest ranger in Yosemite National Park. He was appointed in 1866 with the main goal of enforcing quotas on game hunting. Around the same time, the government commissioned 150 U.S. Army cavalry troops to patrol the park. These troops served to help the ranger enforce the quotas and other hunting regulations in the park (see National Park Service, 1940). Today, the USFWS assigns special agents and wildlife inspectors throughout the United States, including wildlife inspectors at all border crossings, major international airports, and other ports of entry. Federal wildlife agents often build partnerships with state conservation officers to conduct joint investigations and training programs.

At the state level, the rank of conservation officer was first created in Michigan in 1887. Missouri later established game wardens in 1905. Other states implemented their own fish and wildlife departments and installed conservation officers throughout the early 20th century. Today’s conservation officers are similar to traditional law enforcement officers in that they are responsible for investigating crimes and arresting offenders. However, game wardens also differ from conventional police officers in several ways. First, there are far fewer conservation officers than other types of law enforcement agents in the United States. There are currently fewer than 10,000 state and federal conservation officers, which is equivalent to about 1 game warden for every 10,000 sportspersons. The ratio of traditional law enforcement officials to the general population is about 24 to 10,000 (see Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008).

Since conservation officers focus first and foremost on violations of wildlife and environmental laws, their work inherently involves concentrating most of their investigative efforts in remote rural areas that are often unoccupied. Because of the limited number of game wardens, many of them are expected to cover large amounts of remote territory alone. The closest backup conservation officer may be more than 100 miles away. Further, the vast majority of individuals that conservation officers come into contact with will have a firearm or some other type of weapon. Therefore, it is important for game wardens to develop relationships with other local agencies so that they can get assistance quickly if necessary.

Though conservation officers specialize in violations of fish and wildlife laws, they might also encounter other types of crimes and criminals during their daily activities. For example, while in the woods on daily patrol, conservation officers might inadvertently discover active methamphetamine laboratories or even a homicide victim. Consequently, today’s game wardens are well trained concerning what to do if they come across a nonwildlife crime. Most states instruct conservation officers to preserve such a crime scene until other local authorities arrive, but also give them full law enforcement powers in the event an active crime is discovered and an immediate arrest should be made. As a result, conservation officers are sometimes forced to serve the role of both game warden and traditional police officer (Eliason, 2007; Falcone, 2004).

Conservation officers face many unique challenges and obstacles not encountered by traditional law enforcement personnel in their quest to eradicate wildlife crime. Conservation units often find themselves limited in their enforcement efforts by the small number of officers available and the large ratio of hunters to officers. Officers are handicapped by the vast areas they are expected to cover—large hunting areas can make it easy for poachers to evade capture, especially since they are almost always wearing camouflage and often are far more familiar with the terrain than the officers trying to catch them. Further, conservation officers often find themselves using unique equipment (ATVs, aircraft, boats, GPS systems) and investigative techniques (ground and aerial surveillance, “trick” decoy animals) rarely employed by other enforcement agencies. Nonetheless, conservation officers as a whole do an excellent job performing their duties given their limited resources and frequent need to engage in covert investigative methods (see Grosz, 1999).

As mentioned previously, many wildlife offenders do not get caught unless they discuss their crimes with others who later report them. Only a small portion of wildlife crimes are actually detected (Green, 2002; Green, Phillips, & Black, 1988). For that reason, it is important for conservation officers to develop positive relationships with members of the communities in which they patrol. These relationships can often lead to tips that result in the apprehension of wildlife offenders.

Punishing Wildlife Offenders

It is important to consider what type of punishment(s) convicted wildlife offenders should receive. There are four different traditional philosophies of punishment that may be used in the American criminal justice system: (1) retribution, (2) deterrence, (3) incapacitation, and (4) rehabilitation. The first philosophy, retribution, simply serves to punish offenders for their crimes. That is, they are subject to some penalty that should be equal to the crime that was committed. Because offenders should be punished for their crimes, retribution generally sets the overall structure for sentencing. One or more of the other three goals of punishment may then be used within the framework of retribution.

The latter three philosophies of punishment are all aimed at preventing offenders from committing future crimes, though the means for achieving the goal may be very different. Deterrence is based on the premise that an individual will not commit future crimes if the punishment is certain, swift, and severe enough. That is, offenders will be deterred from additional crimes if they believe they will certainly be detected and apprehended and then swiftly and severely punished for the crime.

Incapacitation for traditional crimes typically involves incarceration in prison or jail. While incapacitation may be used as part of a deterrent or retributive goal, the use of incapacitation alone serves to prevent crime because the offender is locked up and therefore incapable of committing new crimes on the outside. Since wildlife crimes are typically not viewed as a serious threat to humans, long terms of incarceration are rare for wildlife offenders. However, sentences involving “quasi-incapacitation” in the form of forfeiture of hunting privileges or the loss of weapons or vehicles are frequently imposed.

Rehabilitation involves identifying and addressing the factors that contributed to an offender committing a crime. If those causes can be addressed through correctional programming, the offender should not commit additional crimes. Rehabilitative treatment for any type of offender, including wildlife offenders, may be as simple as participation in educational and vocational programs, or as extensive as cognitive-behavioral therapy or psychiatric treatment. While rehabilitation can be effective at preventing crime, it can also be expensive and time consuming. Accordingly, it is not used frequently as part of a sentence for many types of crimes, especially wildlife and environmental crimes.

In order to determine which philosophy of punishment should be used for a particular offender, the motivation of the offender should be considered. For example, if an offender committed a wildlife crime simply because he or she did not understand the wildlife regulations in the area (such regulations may be complicated—see Hall, 1992), that offender can probably be rehabilitated by completing an educational program concerning hunting and fishing regulations along with the standard retributive punishment. Conversely, a chronic wildlife offender that is motivated by profit or thrill may need extensive rehabilitation and therefore may be more efficiently punished through deterrent measures such as steep fines and a short jail sentence.

Ultimately, most wildlife crimes are misdemeanors and do not typically involve the imposition of a jail sentence. Misdemeanor wildlife crimes are most often punished with loss of hunting and fishing privileges for a period of time, the forfeiture of any illegally obtained fish or game animals, heavy fines, or a period of probation or other community corrections sentence. Felony wildlife offenders may receive any or all of those penalties but may also be subject to terms of incarceration in jail or prison or the loss of hunting or fishing equipment (including weapons and vehicles) that was used in the commission of the crime(s) (see Musgrave et al., 1993).

As with traditional crimes, wildlife crimes prosecuted at the federal level tend to carry heavier sentences than those prosecuted by the state. For example, an Arizona man was apprehended in 2006 by federal fish and wildlife agents for killing and selling eagles for profit. He was convicted and sentenced to 3 years of probation and required to pay $10,000 in fines. Likewise, a man in Washington State was convicted of smuggling in more than $30,000 worth of reptiles from Thailand and was sentenced to 2 years in federal prison (USFWS, 2007). Still, ramifications (such as fines) for wildlife crimes are important at the state level. Not only may the consequences play a role in deterring future crime and protecting natural resources, but a few state-level wildlife enforcement agencies (e.g., in Kentucky) also fund their entire agency budget from the fees collected from licenses and fines imposed on violators—they operate on no tax dollars whatsoever.


While it is not known exactly how many fish and wildlife resources are lost each year because of wildlife offenders, estimates indicate that more than $200 million are earned annually from wildlife crimes in the United States alone. Authorities never find out about the vast majority of wildlife crime. Estimates of the ratio of wildlife crimes discovered to actual crimes committed range from 1 in 30 to 1 in 80, with deer poaching detection rates being as low as 1.1% (Eliason, 2003).

The fact is that environmental laws, including hunting and fishing regulations, are enacted to protect plant and animal species and breeding cycles. Without these wildlife laws and regulations, wildlife resources in the United States would be put at risk. Illegal hunting and fishing activities can quickly reduce, or even eliminate, animal populations.

Consider the fact that the elephant population in Africa was reduced by over 50% from 1979 to 1989, primarily because of the illegal hunting of elephants to harvest their ivory. Similarly, although Kenya made the trade of rhinoceros horns illegal in 1975, the rhinoceros population declined from about 20,000 in 1975 to only 500 in 1990. This dramatic decline was largely caused by poachers motivated by profit from the sell and trade of the horns. These examples show how quickly the number of animals in an entire species can be reduced through poaching and trafficking (see Warchol, 2004; Warchol et al., 2003).

Wildlife trafficking is actually the second-largest form of black market commerce (between drug smuggling and illegal weapons) (Warchol, 2004). The illegal commercial wildlife trade poses a significant threat to plant and animal species around the world. Still, it is expected that noncommercial wildlife offenders pose about the same threat to wildlife resources because they significantly outnumber commercial poachers.

To preserve the environment and prevent the reduction of plant and animal species, it is important to educate people about the negative consequences of wildlife crimes. This type of education should be offered not only to sportspersons, but to the general population as well. After all, jeopardizing wildlife resources affects hunters and anglers as well as others who enjoy the natural world. Specifically, nature watchers, photographers, and other ecotourists are affected by depleting resources. Educating individuals about the consequences of wildlife crime can help to protect natural resources by (a) making potential wildlife offenders truly aware of the impending results of their actions and therefore deterring them from committing the crime and (b) informing the general public of the costs of wildlife crime, thereby making them more likely to report wildlife violations to local conservation authorities. The social context of the early 21st century provides a perfect milieu for bringing attention to wildlife crime because there is increased awareness of environmental conservation and a focus on preserving the environment.

It is also important to continue to seek knowledge through research regarding the types of people who commit wildlife crimes and their motivations for offending. Fortunately, after many years of scarce literature, scholars are beginning to empirically examine the world of wildlife offenders and conservation officers (Eliason, 2004; McMullen & Perrier, 2002; Muth & Bowe, 1998). Future research should include surveys of or interviews with known wildlife offenders in order to gather insight into the types of activities in which they engage and why they engage in them. Understanding the motivations for wildlife crime can lead to policies and practices that will aid in detecting, arresting, and properly punishing wildlife offenders and ultimately preventing at least some wildlife crime. Positive steps toward preserving wildlife resources will help to conserve plant and animal species and the recreational opportunities they provide.