Photography by Eric Risberg, AP
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Smuggled leopard and tiger heads are stored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a repository in Colorado.

Photography by Eric Risberg, AP

Seven of the Year’s Biggest Wins Against Wildlife Exploitation

From the death of Cecil the Lion to the arrests of the ‘Ivory Queen’ and the 'Devil,' 2015 was a big year for spotlighting dangers to wildlife.

This was the year of Cecil the Lion. The enormous male, the leader of his own pride, was well known among researchers and tourists for his shaggy black mane. But when Cecil was killed by an American dentist visiting Zimbabwe on a big game hunt, the lion became famous around the world. For weeks after, the public heard over and over how Cecil had been illegally lured out of a national park, wounded with an arrow, stalked for 40 hours, then shot dead.

The public was outraged. “Justice for Cecil” became a rallying cry. Debates over trophy hunting ensued, and donations to conservation groups soared.

Cecil’s death changed the public’s perception of wildlife exploitation, but growing awareness wasn’t the only victory this year. There were presidential pledges, major arrests, and citizen-led movements for change. Even the Pope got in on the action. Here, Wildlife Watch rounds up some of 2015’s biggest victories.

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Chinese customs officers measure tusks seized in in Xiamen in November. Several weeks earlier, China and the U.S. made a joint pledge to end the ivory trade.

China and the U.S. pledge to end the ivory trade. In September, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama made a joint pledge to put an end to the ivory trade, both legal and illegal. For years the Chinese government has encouraged the legal ivory market, but the government had begun talking of a crackdown. This pledge—though it’s unclear how exactly the phase-out will happen—is a watershed moment, especially coming from China’s head of state. It also follows on the heels of new rules proposed in the U.S. to further restrict what little legal ivory trade remains, such as in antiques and sport-hunted trophies.

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The death of Cecil the Lion was a watershed moment for raising public awareness of trophy hunting. In Minnesota, protesters left stuffed animals at the door of hunter Walter Palmer’s dental clinic.

Public awareness of trophy hunting reaches a fever pitch. After Cecil the lion was shot dead in June by a dentist from Minnesota, trophy hunting became a hot topic in the Western world. In response, France banned the import of lion trophies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed African lions under the Endangered Species Act, and U.S. lawmakers have proposed a bill to limit trophy hunting. More than 40 airlines, including several major U.S. ones also stopped transporting trophies to the U.S. In the same vein, the documentary Blood Lions, which investigated canned lion hunts in South Africa, further galvanized the public against lion hunting and prodded South Africa’s professional hunting association to withdraw support for the industry.

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Indonesian police present four suspects arrested for trading in illegal wildlife products. Several weeks earlier, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution expressing concern that illicit trafficking in protected species is becoming an increasingly sophisticated.

United Nations adopts resolution on wildlife trafficking. In July, more than 80 countries signed a resolution committing to step up efforts in the fight against wildlife trafficking. The resolution involves anti-money laundering measures, inter-agency task forces, stronger law enforcement and judicial processes, and plans to help vulnerable communities develop alternative livelihoods to poaching. “It’s recognition at the highest political level of the seriousness of the wildlife crime situation,” said Richard Thomas, the spokesman for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring organization.

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A Russian customs officer inspects timber at the Chinese border. Russian timber sent by way of China to Lumber Liquidators was later found to be sourced illegally, resulting in the flooring company agreeing to a $13 million plea deal.

Lumber Liquidators pleads guilty to buying illegally harvested timber. The Virginia-based flooring company agreed to pay more than $13 million—the largest fine ever under the U.S.’s Lacey Act, which prohibits the trade in wildlife products from illegal sources. The case also marks the first time a U.S. company has been convicted of a felony under the timber provisions of the Lacey Act. The timber Lumber Liquidators bought came from the Russian Far East, the last remaining habitat for the critically endangered Siberian tiger.

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A German tourist peers at a mammoth ivory tusk for sale in San Francisco’s Chinatown. California passed a ban in 2015 outlawing the elephant ivory trade in the state.

U.S. states take wildlife crime into their own hands. By late 2015, four states—Washington, California, New York, and New Jersey—have put their own legislation in place to prohibit or further restrict the trade in wildlife products. California’s legislation was signed into law in October, and Washington’s, which was passed by a direct vote of the people in a ballot initiative, became law in November. Three of the country’s biggest ports (Southern California, New York-New Jersey, and Seattle-Tacoma) are now closed to the ivory trade.

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Chinese national Yang Feng Glan, also known as the “Ivory Queen,” is escorted by police from court in Tanzania. She is charged with smuggling almost 1.9 tons of illegal ivory.

Law enforcement agencies focus on kingpins rather than low-level smugglers. High profile arrests and legal cases demonstrate that governments are starting to take wildlife crime more seriously. In October, Tanzania arrested the “Ivory Queen,” a Chinese woman charged with smuggling more than 700 tusks. Several weeks later, Tanzania also arrested the “Devil,” a man suspected of managing up to 15 poaching and trafficking syndicates. That same month, a Vietnamese timber trader was convicted and sentenced to 22 months in prison for trying to smuggle a record-breaking amount of ivory out of Togo last year. Interpol’s Environmental Crimes division has also been taking a lead. In June, an operation led by Interpol ended in the arrest of a Kenyan a business tycoon and his two sons. They were linked to a several multi-ton seizures of ivory hidden in tea shipments going to Asia. And the prosecution of an ivory kingpin, Feisal Mohamed Ali, began in Kenya earlier this year after Interpol featured him on a “most wanted list” of suspects linked to environmental crimes.

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On trip to Africa in November, Pope Francis spoke out against the ivory trade.

Pope Francis earns his name. The Vatican doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to ivory, but Pope Francis—who took his name from the patron saint of animals—seems ready to change that. On a landmark trip to Africa, he spoke for the first time about humanity’s moral obligation to end the harmful trade in wildlife products.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to