The UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund is investing in 12 research hubs across the world over the next 5 years. One of these is the TRADE Hub, which aims to make trade a positive force for both people and nature conservation. The project, led by UNEP-WCMC and involving over 50 partner organisations including the University of Oxford, will study patterns of trade in wildlife, wild meat and agricultural goods to gain a more robust understanding of how different systems of trade affect biodiversity, with the aim of finding solutions for minimising these impacts. The TRADE Hub will focus its efforts primarily on eight countries: Brazil, Cameroon, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Indonesia, Republic of Congo, and Tanzania. More here.
Legal Atlas provides a highly specialized and customizable legal intelligence platform that can be used to gain insight into the laws governing illicit activities, including wildlife trade by enabling the rapid and comprehensive compilation and comparison of applicable sanctions. It is currently supporting the WILDS project (researching how sanctions against IWT can better reflect impacts to society) and the Legis-Ape project (a legal systematic assessment for the conservation and protection of great apes and gibbons). Legal Atlas has also recently been used to review wildlife cybercrime law and the application of anti-money laundering laws to wildlife trade crimes supporting the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
How anyone can help saigas, right now from their computer, without donating any money or major amounts of time?
Working in a saiga antelope consumer country I’ve become increasingly aware of one small truth, most consumers of saiga horn have never even heard of the word ‘saiga’. Now, this is none too surprising given the fact that saiga is the English common name (as well as Latin genus name), and many consumers do not speak English. But what may be surprising, is that many consumers in our study area, and beyond, have no idea what the animal is at all, let alone how the horns are procured, what countries it lives in, and what its conservation or trade status is. (FYI for soon-to-be converted saiga people, it’s a Critically Endangered antelope from Central Asia).
So how did this come to be? Especially given the fact that we live in a world where the globe is so interconnected on the internet, how is it that a consumer has no idea what product they’re buying?
It’s actually quite easy. If you are a consumer, you know of saiga only as ling yang (羚羊), a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) you purchase to treat ailments such as a fever or a cough. So when you search online for information regarding this medicine (what quantity to use, where to buy it, how effective it is), all you will ever see fed back to you is information from other sources referring to the product as ling yang.
Thus exists two parallel worlds. One with saiga, the ungulate under major poaching and disease impact, and one with ling yang, the medicinal product. And these non-overlapping realities just reinforce the gap between those interested in saiga versus ling yang.
How many other species live in such dichotomous perceptions? Where the consumer and conservationist view the same plant or animal in two entirely different ways, with little to no cross-over in information, discussion, or understanding. I can posit quite a few.
My call to saiga people the globe over is, therefore, to start integrating the pinyin and Chinese characters into everything: all saiga conservation and research webpages or posts that mention saiga horns as used in TCM, no matter the language. Our goal is for ling yang users to start seeing webpages, social media posts, and news about saiga, whenever they look up info on the horn as a medicine.
Combatting the entire issue of unsustainable demand will not, in truth, be solved by this little fix, but I would argue that it is a critical, and necessary, step to at least providing an opportunity for consumers to know more about the medicine in their medicine cabinet that we know of as saiga.
Add this text at least once to every webpage, and whenever possible in social media posts, when referring to saiga horn as a TCM product: (ling yang, 羚羊)
As a note, ling yang in Chinese usually means just antelope (or wild antelope), but in the context of TCM, it is almost always referring to saiga antelope horns.
A researcher working with ling yang consumers
Recent research into the UK trade of elephant ivory antiques found post-1947 ivory available to buy, leading the Government to conclude this trade was detrimental to wild elephants. It is currently legal to trade antique ivory (defined as pre-1947, i.e. from an elephant killed before 3 March 1947 – the date being defined in EU regulations for intra-EU trade of CITES specimens). However, a ban (with exemptions) on ivory is now proposed. As conservation issues for rhinos are similar, we examined the UK trade in rhino horn antiques to better understand whether this may be detrimental to wild rhinos.
We analysed all 300 rhino horn items offered for sale in 2017 through UK auction houses, to answer the following questions:
- Can we be certain all auctioned rhino horn antiques were pre-1947 and ‘worked’ i.e. carved, and of artistic merit?
- Were CITES’ regulations consistently flagged in the lot descriptions for potential buyers?
- Is the trade effectively regulated, and are suspect items appropriately investigated?
- Could the UK antiques trade be used to launder modern rhino horn?
The twelve-month survey followed auction house room sales for which online bidding was also possible via one or more of three sales platforms. It also included sales by one major auction house that sold a significant number of high-value items through its own online bidding system. The survey did not include items sold by antique dealers, antique shops or private sales, nor sales on the wider internet. We identified individual items, described as ‘definitely’, ‘probably’ or ’possibly’ rhino horn, offered for sale during 2017 at auction in the UK. We documented how they were advertised, which auction houses they were sold at, and the sale outcome. We did not purchase any items for testing, nor intervene in any of the sales.
The concerns arising from our findings are:
- There is no guarantee all items offered for sale were pre-1947; to our knowledge no radiocarbon-14 dating (the only method to accurately detect horn age) was carried out. In cases where age estimates were provided, they were given as very broad ranges. 89% of all items were listed without any detailed provenance (history) and 25% with no age estimate at all.
- It is uncertain whether all items described as rhino horn were in fact made of rhino horn; to our knowledge no DNA-testing was carried out. 66 (20%) of the 323 lots offered (some of the 300 items were offered for sale more than once during the year) were described as ‘possibly’ or ‘probably’ rhino horn.
- 63% of auction houses offered only one or two rhino horn items in 2017; thus expertise in identifying suspect items will be limited when so few rhino horn items are seen.
- Based on auction catalogue photographs, all items could be defined as ‘worked’ but, in some cases, the working appeared minimal or crude.
- CITES permit issues and export regulations were inconsistently flagged on auction houses’ websites, sometimes not at all.
- Four auction houses advertised some lots in Mandarin and 17 auction houses (58 of the lots offered) stated the weight of the rhino horn in catalogue listings.
- Proper vetting of rhino horn antiques is hindered by: the cost and complexity of having them radiocarbon-14 dated or DNA tested; the rapid turnover of lots for auctions; and the lack of expertise in rhino horn antiques in all but a few of the auction houses involved.
- Of the 242 lots sold, for which the sale price is known, 84 items were sold for up to £200, which is potentially substantially less than the ‘grind-down’ value of rhino horn.
- Professional associations such as the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers and the National Association of Valuers and Auctioneers work hard to promote and improve best practice, however, most auction houses (34 of the 51 surveyed) appear not to be members. This means if any stakeholder raises issues, engagement and resolution is on a one-to-one basis and reforms cannot be easily made uniform without regulation.
- Formal investigation of suspect items is hampered by lack of local experience, resources, professional input, technical back-up and time.
We invite stakeholders to join discussion of our survey’s findings and recommendations arising. Please see here for the full report with further details. Areas of further research have been identified. We suggest immediate ‘best practice’ improvements that do not require UK legislation, and we propose longer-term changes in legislative guidance, including the introduction of a ‘Lifetime Passport’ for rhino horn antiques and consideration of a ban (with exemptions) on the sale of rhino horn items. Auction houses are alert to any suspect item as they do not wish to break the law, nor contribute to the extinction of endangered species. We hope and strive for future collaborative action with auction houses, dealers and associations to ensure the UK trade in rhino horn antiques does not affect rhinos in the wild.
By: Meshach Pierre (Post-Panther Scholar, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford @agamiaagami) and Brian J. O’Shea (Collections Manager, Ornithology, North Carolina Museum of Natural Science)
The Guianas – Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, an overseas department of France – are nestled on the northeastern shoulder of South America. These are among the most forested countries in the world, with over 75% forest cover each, partly due to their low population density. Guyana and Suriname are avid actors in the international wildlife trade, particularly of birds and reptiles. Guyana’s trade has attracted international attention in the past, with pressure placed to encourage the development of adequate export laws, quotas and regulations. While some of the birds exported are species traditionally destined for the pet trade, such as toucans and parrots, the trade also includes the Chestnut-bellied (Sporophila angolensis; locally called towa towa or pikolet) and Large-billed (Sporophila crassirostris; locally called twa twa) Seed-Finches. These are used in competitions referred to, in Guyana as bird racing.
What is bird racing?
Bird racing doesn’t quite demand the speed that might first come to mind. Pairs of males are pitted against each other in a song contest to determine which is the first to reach a predetermined number of song notes. The first bird that does wins its owner fame and glory, while spectators win or lose bets. Well-trained birds can sell for high prices, ranging from $1000 to $5000 USD. Throughout Guyana’s coastal region, caged songbirds are a common sight, and the (predominantly male) owners have a close connection with their birds. Men often take their birds out, in hand or on their bicycles, spend time picking bird seed and playing tapes on repeat to train them. The network involved in the local trade extends from the coast, where wild populations were once present, to the interior regions, such as the savannas of the Rupununi, where the human population is far lower and mostly comprised of pastoral indigenous communities.
Bird racing, however, has not remained confined within Guyana’s and Suriname’s borders. Many Guyanese have migrated to the US and Canada, bringing the activity with them. Bird racing can be observed in places like Smoky Oval Park in Richmond Hill, New York, where Guyanese immigrants gather in the early hours of the morning. For them, bird racing can be a connection to their home country, and the culture they left behind, but also a way to meet other Guyanese and socialise. The presence of bird racing in North America, however, has caused controversy. There have been investigations, seizures and criminal trials in the US, and at airports in both the US and Guyana, attempts to get live birds through security have made international headlines. Although importing these species into the US is not necessarily illegal, the quarantine requirement is rumoured to affect their song, thus can promote smuggling, as the best trained birds attract the highest prices in the international market. Dedicated bird racers have been willing to risk fines and jail time to avoid this. Although there have been attempts to breed seed-finches for racing, there is a belief that wild caught individuals have better songs, so the demand for wild caught individuals persists.
Impacts to the species
Little population data exists for the species in Guyana and Suriname, but shifts in the demand for these species birds indicates that harvesting may impact their populations. Both the Chestnut-bellied and Large-billed Seed-Finches are declining in Guyana and Suriname and have been extirpated from habitats near to human habitation on the coasts. Racing birds in Suriname are now said to be sourced from Guyana, where the demand has shifted from coastal populations to those in the interior of the country, where indigenous communities have become involved in the trade for financial gain. Despite this, in other parts of their range, both species remain common, and there are still large areas of intact habitat in Guyana and Suriname, which provide opportunity for them to recover.
The international trade in seed-finches demonstrates how a human diaspora, attempting to maintain aspects of their native culture can drive international demand for a species. Bird racing, however, is understudied, and much of the knowledge on it, exists in unpublished reports and theses. Better understanding the human behaviour surrounding bird racing could serve as a model system to study the maintenance of culture aligned to the conservation of a species.
The glorious fanned tail display of the peacock, an ancient Indian symbol of mysticism and beauty, fortunately remains a common sight across much of the country, from humid forests to urban gardens. The iridescent blue, green and copper coloured tail feathers of peacocks, or male Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), also serve as important religious symbols, are popular decorative items, and have also found use in traditional medicine. A large market for peacock tail feathers thus exists, both within India and internationally.
The trade in peacock tail feathers in India represents an interesting and unique case from a legal and enforcement standpoint. Adult peacocks shed approximately 100-150 tail feathers at the end of each breeding season, and Indian law permits trade in shed feathers, even as India’s national bird benefits from the highest level of legal protection as a ‘Schedule I’ species under India’s Wildlife Protection Act (1972), akin to the elephant and tiger. This remains a notable exception in a legal system that otherwise bans trade in most Indian wildlife and their parts. However, there are growing concerns that the market for peacock tail feathers is also a driver of illegal hunting of peafowl. There are reports from some parts of the country of poachers poisoning peafowl by mixing powerful pesticides into waterholes frequented by the birds. Enforcement against this illegal trade is challenging for two main reasons. First, peafowl are widely distributed and are well adapted to living in landscapes dominated by humans, which limits the efficacy of conventional patrolling based approaches. Further, the only means of distinguishing naturally shed feathers from ones that are plucked in most cases is by examining the base of the feathers – a problem that poachers overcome by trimming the base.
The scale of this illegal threat is presently unclear, and warrants rigorous evaluation. We conducted a systematic review of online media reports over the 2013-2018 period and recorded at least 46 instances of illegal peafowl trade being detected by enforcement agencies. These included 32 cases of poaching of an estimated 400 birds, and 14 seizures of plucked feathers totalling over 370 kg. These seizures were distributed across 12 states, and on four occasions were made at international airports (Figure 1), clearly reflecting the large scale and organized, commercial nature of the trade. And yet, our results must only be interpreted as a highly conservative estimate of the trade, given that, only a fraction (perhaps around 10%) of illegal trade is detected by agencies, and an even smaller percentage is reported in media.
How does one tackle this tricky situation in which, on the one hand, protecting peafowl is strongly supported by animal rights, conservation and patriotic interests, while on the other hand, the various demands for feathers limits support for an absolute ban on trade in peacock feathers, as proposed by Ministry for Environment and Forest in 2010? The ban on exports imposed around 2013 appears to have worked to an extent, at least in terms of no reported feather seizures at international airports since 2015. However, it is the domestic scenario that poses the greatest challenge.
Are there lessons from evidently successful conservation projects for two other bird species in India, namely the Edible-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) in northeast India, both of which involve close and thoughtful engagement with local communities? In the case of the swiftlets, which are persecuted for their high-value nests across their range, an innovative programme involving local communities and nest collectors, with support from research groups and the government, has found success in reviving a formerly threatened population on the archipelago, by rolling back a ban on trade in nests. A community-led effort to stop the large-scale poaching of migratory Amur Falcons for meat in Nagaland, again with support from researchers and the government, now promotes a local tourism industry centred around the impressive migration of this charismatic raptor.
Could a similar community-based philosophy and approach, guided by research and backed by government, benefit conservation of Indian Peafowl while continuing to permit legal domestic trade in peacock feathers? A community-led effort could strengthen local resistance to illegal hunting and trade, while improving local opportunities for benefits to be derived from legal trade. A key advantage in the case of the peafowl is that such programmes would require no major changes to law or policy, given that legal trade in peacock feathers is already recognized. Another key advantage is that, unlike most other charismatic species in India, the Indian Peafowl is still abundant and widespread, and in fact even expanding its range in some regions. This allows some room for exploration and experimentation with alternate conservation models without the risk of inadvertently driving the species into a conservation crisis. By deviating from the conventional top-down approach to conservation, a community-based conservation programme for Indian Peafowl could set the platform for government and local communities to work together for conservation in the future.
By: Sarah Gluszek, Conservation Criminologist, Michigan State University* @SarahGluszek
Collaborators: Julie Viollaz (Conservation Criminologist, Michigan State University @julie_viollaz), Robert Mwinyihali (Urban Bushmeat Coordinator, WCS Central Africa @rmwinyihali), Michelle Wieland (Socio-Economic Advisor, WCS Africa @Pygmykingfisher), Meredith L. Gore (Associate Professor, Michigan State University @meredithgore)
Globally, cities are growing exponentially; there are currently more people living in urban centres than in rural areas. Urbanisation is globally associated with unprecedented change to both wild and human-dominated landscapes. For example, the impacts of urbanisation and urban populations on bushmeat consumption are not fully understood, although the scope and scale brings new conservation challenges as megacity appetite for wild foods (not to mention charcoal) remains. Specifically, the illegal and unsustainable urban bushmeat trade poses a threat for conservation and sustainable development. Although bushmeat consumption by urbanites is not new, little is known about the supply chains enabling illegal trade. To date, research has prioritised quantifying bushmeat availability and prices over exploring urban demand and the motivations underlying the sourcing of bushmeat.
By 2030 the number of Africa’s megacities (cities with at least 10 million residents) – and its number of secondary cities (those with populations up to 3 million) – is expected to double. Central Africa is unique in that it is home to Congo Basin’s immense forest, hosting a high sociocultural diversity and is interspersed with large urban populations living in cities like Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo). Studies on the bushmeat trade in Central African cities have also mainly focused on consumers and households. Yet, little is known about a key player in Africa’s urban bushmeat markets – restaurants. Further engagement with the restaurant community to understand the drivers and consequences of urban bushmeat trade could help increase benefits for conservation and sustainable development. To this end, our team at Michigan State University and the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a conservation criminology-based study of the urban bushmeat trade from the restaurateur perspective in the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Conservation criminology is an interdisciplinary approach integrating natural resource management, criminology, and the risk and decision sciences. It can be used to build policy-relevant science about environmental risks like that of illegal and unsustainable bushmeat trading in urban centres. Using this for our restaurant work, we: 1) identified the range of protected and endangered species traded for bushmeat, 2) applied crime prevention techniques to better understand trade dynamics, and 3) ascertained restaurateurs’ perceptions of the trade and how sourcing decisions were made. Six focus groups were held with restaurateurs in Kinshasa and Brazzaville in November and December 2017. Each focus group consisted of representatives from one of the three tiers of restaurant levels (i.e., upper, mid- and lower-priced). With each focus group, we led participants through a discussion identifying which bushmeat species were “hot products” in the urban trade and their connections with other supply chain actors in the trade.
Using the VIVA hot product analysis, we found monkeys were bushmeat “hot products” in upper- and lower-priced restaurants and collectively across all restaurant tiers in both cities (exampled in Figure 1). This group included monkey species protected by national and international laws, and vulnerable to extinction as classified by the IUCN Red List. Although not originally included in the study by researchers, participants identified elephant and hippopotamus meat as being occasionally traded in Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Linkages between restaurateurs and supply chain actors in the urban bushmeat trade were mapped and collectively analysed.
Mid-priced restaurants had the strongest networks, being the most connected with actors along different points in the supply chain. Lower-priced restaurants had smaller networks and were more dependent on local city markets for their bushmeat sourcing. Meanwhile, upper-priced restaurants were most reliant on supply chain actors operating as middlemen between them and bushmeat suppliers at the source.
Cities act as both transit routes and destinations for the urban bushmeat trade. This exploratory study suggests that certain types of bushmeat, such as endangered monkey species, are more at risk of extinction due to a combination of supply and demand side factors; they have threatened population numbers and are additionally vulnerable as ‘hot products’ in the urban bushmeat trade. Moving forward, a more comprehensive “hot product” analysis could be applied such as CRAVED/CRAAVED. With a better understanding of the relationships between restaurants and other supply chain actors in the trade, we can be better apply nuanced conservation responses, such as situational crime prevention techniques to prevent illegal wildlife trade opportunities. This study highlights the potential to involve the restaurant and catering industry, as well as local urban community members, with the recognition that they can play a role in combating urban wildlife crime. Not only in terms of law enforcement, but also by acting as agents of change with their purchasing power and menu selections. Among our study participants, restaurateurs from Kinshasa and Brazzaville were generally willing to participate and work towards creating a more sustainable trade to protect their livelihoods, a positive outcome paving the way for future collaborations and opportunities.
*current affiliation: Wildlife Trade Technical Specialist, Fauna & Flora International
By: Tim Boekhout van Solinge, Consultant and (Forest/Wildlife) Criminologist; Research Fellow, Department of Criminology, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Illegal wildlife trade not only concerns fauna, but also flora, such as tropical hardwoods. In a 2016 UNEP-INTERPOL report, the value of global forestry crimes, including corporate crimes and illegal logging, was estimated at 50-152 billion USD per year. This makes the illegal forest sector larger than other illegal wildlife trade such as in animal products (estimated at 7-23 billion USD per year) and the illegal fisheries trade (estimated 11-24 billion USD). Corruption in the forestry sector alone was estimated at 29 billion USD per year by INTERPOL. Forest crime occurs particularly in the tropics, where a substantial part of logging and deforestation is illegal. Satellite data from 2017 illustrates global deforestation occurring at the rate of 40 football fields per minute. Annually, this corresponds to forest loss the size of Italy.
Brazil experiences the greatest rate of deforestation: about one football pitch of rainforest per minute. In 2017, the country lost 4.5 millions of hectares of forest, three time more than DR Congo, and the country ranked second in terms of deforestation. Brazil and DR Congo also rank high in terms of forest-crime related murders. DR Congo has had the highest victims among law enforcers and park rangers. Globally, Brazil has the highest number of land and environmental defender murders, with a high proportion of crimes committed in the Brazilian Amazon, where gunmen threaten and kill resistance against illegal logging.
For fifteen years, I have been doing criminological research on illegal logging and tropical deforestation. Since 2010, I’ve conducted research in the Brazilian Amazon, initially as part of a green criminology project with Brazilian Universities and NGOs, funded by the Dutch NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development programme (2010-2016), in collaboration with public prosecutors. The research focused on identifying social and environmental crimes relating to deforestation. The development strategy focused on improving the rule of law, by increasing access to justice for traditional communities that oppose deforestation by loggers and cattle or soy farmers.
Traditional communities in the Amazon often fall victim to deforestation, but their presence in rainforests also offers opportunities for forest crime prevention. The so-called “crime drop” that several western countries have experienced is explained by an increased security and decreased opportunities for crime. Situational crime prevention, often by non-law enforcement actors, has reduced crime opportunities and led to drops in various types of crime. This poses the potential for a rainforest equivalent to be developed with the use of local intelligence to detect and prevent forest crime opportunities.
In 2014, I initiated a crowd-funded criminological pilot project for community-based forest crime prevention at several deforestation hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon (Forest Forces). Several communities were equipped with waterproof GPS-cameras. Those who did not have access to electricity and mobile phone network, were given power banks and portable solar chargers. The pilot tested whether GPS-referenced pictures of forest crime activities would reach the forest law enforcement system and be followed by successful law enforcement action. Of course, the pilot should not endanger the security of community members taking pictures of illegal forest activities.
Brazil’s forest protection system is satellite and GPS oriented – this sophisticated rapid-response satellite system can automatically detect and locate large-scale deforestation. Perpetrators have, however, adapted to the satellite enforcement system, by shifting to small-scale deforestation, acting during the night and more frequently during the rainy season, when clouds block the view of the main satellites.
The criminological pilot aimed to test whether remote forest communities would take GPS-referenced pictures of illegal forest activities to law enforcement and justice actors, located in a distant town. Over three years, positive results have been shown in some, but not all, of the five communities, with success dependent on the level of community organisation and leadership. The field experiment was very effective in the only indigenous territory. This was expected because Brazil’s Indigenous Territories have invisible GPS-borders, with outsiders not permitted to enter without permission. Indigenous Territories are regularly subject to trespassing by loggers or gold prospectors. Illegal loggers seek large, high value timber trees such as “ipé”, which is commonly exported.
A GPS-camera allowed a twelve-member surveillance team of Maró Indigenous Territory to collect GPS-evidence of illegal activities within their territory. The chief, Odair “Dadá” Borari, brought pictures with GPS-coordinates to the Environmental Inspection Agency, IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), in Santarém, Pará. The pictures showed stocks of logs and buildings of timber companies with GPS coordinates suggesting their location inside Maró Indigenous Territory. When GPS-coordinates were entered into IBAMA’s satellite system, IBAMA’s satellite pictures confirmed the location of the crime spot, showing the same timber stocks and buildings. This led to helicopter surveillance being initiated the same day to confirm the spot and hence the illegality. Eight logging concessions were cancelled and several timber companies were expelled from Maró Indigenous Territory, with impacts for long-term deterrence of illegal logging. This project exemplifies how local forest protection, even in remote areas without electricity and telephone, can be carried out effectively and inexpensively by supporting communities with access to trusted law enforcement actors. The model can be replicated in other areas, especially in indigenous and other protected areas with GPS borders.
By: Nafeesa Esmail, Tim Kuiper, Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Dan Challender, Amy Hinsley
The voice of research, how does Science → Policy?
The need for evidence-based policy is widely recognised in the scientific and policy-making communities, and the importance of this in the IWT space is no different. It is especially important considering the often emotive nature of discussions around ‘illegal wildlife trade’, and the potential for ineffective or even counterproductive policies to be developed based on biased personal viewpoints and values, or often-uniformed public opinion. Within IWT policy-making there are some excellent examples of research contributing to an evidence base that informs policy at the national and international level. Take, for example, the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) process, and the role of research in decisions around pangolin trade at CITES. However, these instances are more the exception than the rule. CITES still operates in a space where attention to different species is often driven by the priorities of individual countries and large NGOs. In the absence of systematic assessments of the threat IWT poses to different species, iconic and charismatic species tend to monopolise the debate.
We firmly believe that evidence and research has a critical role to play in IWT policy. But, to use the language of an insightful opinion piece – what counts as evidence and how does evidence count? How did evidence count in shaping the policy messages and the declaration emanating from the 2018 London IWT Conference? Whose evidence counted? Just how much does scientific evidence really matter to policy makers? The London Conference made it clear to us, if it was not already, that scientists are just one (rather small) stakeholder group amongst many. In London, we heard the voices of business and finance, civil society, communities, even royalty and a few celebrities. Loud, clear and centre stage, but academic (or even merely scientific) voices were featured minimally. As a policy maker, how might you respond? As emphasized by Professor Ian Boyd in his plenary address at the preceding Evidence to Action event, the relationship between evidence and policy is complex and messy and so requires the right type of evidence that can be readily-used. He clearly pointed out that “data ≠ evidence”, but outputs from exercises such as horizon scanning can be very valuable. He also emphasised the critical point that interventions must be co-designed with end-users from the onset.
As Bill Adams and Chris Sandbrook argue, science does not offer a “get out of politics free card”. It is wrong to think that poor policy decisions are simply an information deficit problem. If we could just do more research and communicate results effectively! This is to ignore the many other forces and stakeholders that influence decision-making independent of evidence. It is perhaps wiser to think of policy as being informed by, rather than based on, scientific evidence. Rather than thinking of ourselves as an independent and objective voice, we as researchers, should acknowledge our value positions and work with other stakeholders towards agreed goals. This is where we can be powerful agents for positive change, by using our evidence to help guide us on the path to achieve these goals. It’s ok if we let a little more than our own evidence count.
Communities and orchids or celebrities and elephants? Who sets the agenda?
Conservation action and discourse are inevitably political; those with power and influence tend to decide who benefits, and who loses out. Many discussions around IWT are firmly framed by the perspectives of those in Northern and Western countries. This can create homogenous approaches to IWT that simplify issues and rely on what has been done before to define future priorities, rather than recognising that policy responses and conservation interventions need to be as nuanced and diverse as IWT itself and the cultures within which it operates. For example, there has been (and continues to be) a tendency to refer to ‘Africa’ as one entity, but the continent hails 3000 distinct ethnic groups with up to 2000 languages spoken across 54 countries (that’s more than a quarter of the number in the world).
These broader IWT policy trends were still apparent in the much-anticipated London Conference. Attendance at the event included several presidents and senior ministers, demonstrating high-level support. The Conference as a whole highlighted a perceived need for IWT to play a significant part of political and private sector agendas. Although several of the panel discussions and plenary addresses were informative, it was not clear how they were selected and who set the agenda. Consequently, some of the discussions excluded potential dissenting views on topics for which there remains no clear consensus. For example, a view from the private sector that conflated illegal wildlife trade with sustainable legal trophy hunting that actually benefits conservation went unchallenged. In a few keynote addresses and panel sessions, we heard IWT being used alongside terms such as evil or disgusting. In some instances this framing discounts the social and economic realities of IWT, ignoring the fact that livelihoods can often be intertwined with IWT. Across Africa, there are evident contrasting views on the sustainable use of resources as a means of addressing IWT, with values expressed by Botswana and Namibia conflicting with stances taken in Kenya.
The London Conference also exhibited the clear contemporary shift from state-led initiatives to inclusive modern governance, in which civil society has an active voice. Collaboration between governments and private sector was clearly evident, highlighting the interests of certain players in the transport, information technology and finance sectors. While such engagement is certainly welcome and necessary, the interests of those sectors do not always align closely with socially inclusive conservation objectives, nor do they necessarily engage with evidence-based policy (as opposed to marketing goals). Yet these actors have the power to push their agendas regardless.
The Conference demonstrated an increased willingness to engage with local communities as critical stakeholders, providing a platform for community voices to be heard. However, the extent of this engagement appeared to lean more closely toward communities that accept a Western-dominated view of conservation: one that prefers approaches based on protected areas and wildlife tourism over any forms of consumptive wildlife utilisation, even that which is legal, sustainable and ultimately supportive of landscape conservation goals. Tokenism around community voices is a more general, but key, problem in IWT discourse and policy. The ‘community involvement’ mantra often results in hollow attempts, with community voices present, but shunted to the side. Greater effort is required to genuinely integrate community voices in to IWT policy and discourse such that they are listened to, heard and form part of the decision-making process.
Also, iconic megafauna, i.e. elephants and rhinos are too often the focus of IWT discussions and this event was no different in this respect. The Conference was an excellent opportunity to diversify the dialogue to other less recognised and neglected groups that are subject to illegal trade including cacti, orchids, myriad birds, reptiles, amphibians and marine fishes. Orchids for example, make up >70% of the CITES Appendices, but their widespread illegal trade wasn’t highlighted or discussed.
Despite widespread recognition of the need for IWT policy to be more strongly informed by evidence, it is clear we have a long way to go. Policy formulation and implementation is shaped by competing voices and values at individual, organisational and national levels. This highlights not only the need for evidence-based policy, but also for context-specific policy. More broadly, there is a need to identify strategies for giving less-powerful players (communities, non-charismatic species, and science) a more valued voice in global IWT policy. Realistically, this must involve more influential players acting on behalf of those who don’t have the same privileged access to resources and platforms for amplifying their voice. Everyone has a part to play, and even we, as researchers at an institution with comparatively more influence, share this responsibility.
Read the Evidence to Action briefing note on how research can be used to address the illegal wildlife trade.