Reflecting on wildlife trade research

by Dan Challender, Friday 6th August 2021

Originally posted on the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science

Overexploitation is a major threat to biodiversity. It threatens many species and one of the reasons I got into conservation science was to help solve this problem. I conduct research on pangolins, which are threatened by trade-driven harvest, and I have seen first-hand pangolins being killed in restaurants so I am acutely aware of what wildlife trade can entail. To me such events also signify how much remains unknown about wildlife trade, including consumer tastes and preferences for many species, and the size and structure of markets for wildlife products, and what particular characteristics might mean for conservation interventions to ensure that where trade occurs it is ecologically sustainable. Thankfully, there has been an increase in research on wildlife trade in the last decade that is helping to fill these knowledge gaps. I expect this will continue in the future, especially given purported links between wildlife trade and the emergence of COVID-19.

Sunda pangolin Manis javanica which is threatened by overexploitation. (c) Dan Challender/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

In this context, accurately characterising wildlife use and trade, including whether it poses a threat to species—and if so the severity of the threat—is important to informing conservation actions and policy at various scales. In an article published this week in Conservation Letters, I and a group of co-authors discuss three issues that we identified in recent publications on wildlife trade. These involve mischaracterising wildlife trade and the threat that it may pose to species, and misrepresenting policy instruments and how they work. As an example, one of the papers we highlight misinterpreted data from The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and assumed that species in trade are thereby “threatened by trade”. Other studies concluded that species are likely negatively affected by trade when there is a lack of evidence that this is the case.

This is concerning because such research may inform the adoption of policies which restrict trade in particular species despite it not being a threat to them. Such policies may also reduce or remove benefits to people along wildlife supply chains and undermine the contribution that particular markets make to achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of course, equally concerning would be research that overlooks the potential detrimental impact of harvest and use on species where it does a pose a threat to species. Based on this we call for researchers to take great care when analysing and interpreting data on wildlife use and trade and making associated conservation recommendations. For example, we suggest that researchers pay particular attention to the language they use and consult the resources available that accompany wildlife trade-related databases and/or consult with database managers or other experts to ensure that data are being interpreted in the correct manner when conducting analysis. We also make related recommendations for journal editors, database managers, policymakers and civil society organisations.

Reticulated python Malayopython reticulatus which can be traded in large volumes without trade posing a threat to the survival of the species in the wild. (c) Dan Natusch

I expect that the article may frustrate some researchers—and I have therefore been apprehensive about it being published—but the motivation for the article was not to openly criticise other researchers who work on wildlife trade. Rather, my co-authors and I are genuinely concerned that research which mischaracterises wildlife trade could inadvertently result in measures that do more harm than good for biodiversity conservation and people who benefit from wildlife trade, many of which may have few alternative livelihood options. The reality is that wildlife trade research can be challenging because it often involves complex datasets while at the same time, we often lack data on many species (e.g., population parameters), which makes evaluating the impact of harvest and trade difficult. I suspect that most researchers have probably made—or will at some point in their careers make—mistakes in their research. I know I have. I am hopeful that our article will help nudge things in the right direction for wildlife trade research. I also hope it will not lead to distracting arguments which so often characterize the wildlife trade discourse, for example the simplification of issues to anti-trade vs. pro-trade perspectives, which does not reflect the reality or complexity of wildlife trade.

The conservation of biodiversity requires robust science to underpin policies and interventions, which requires high-quality research and more collaboration, rather than conflict, between researchers. I’m confident that I speak for my co-authors as well when I say that we are ready and eager to collaborate to meet this challenge regarding wildlife trade research.               

Read the article discussed here:

Characterising wild meat consumers in Vietnam

Conservation litigation could help tackle illegal wildlife trade

Complex interactions between commercial and noncommercial drivers of illegal trade for a threatened felid

New paper out, on 19.3.2021 by Arias et al., in Animal Conservation discusses the drivers of the Illegal Wildlife Trade in jaguars in Bolivia based on interviews with local communities.

Illegal trade and human‐wildlife conflict are two key drivers of biodiversity loss and are recognized as leading threats to large carnivores. Although human‐wildlife conflict involving jaguars (Panthera onca) has received significant attention in the past, less is known about traditional use or commercial trade in jaguar body parts, including their potential links with retaliatory killing. Understanding the drivers of jaguar killing, trade and consumption is necessary to develop appropriate jaguar conservation strategies, particularly as demand for jaguar products appears to be rising due to Chinese demand. We interviewed 1107 rural households in north‐western Bolivia, an area with an active history of human–jaguar conflict, which has also been at the epicentre of recent jaguar trade cases. We collected information on participants’ experiences with jaguars, their jaguar killing, trading and consuming behaviours and potential drivers of these behaviours. We found that the relationships between local people and jaguars are complex and are driven largely by traditional practices, opportunism, human–jaguar conflict and market incentives from foreign and domestic demand, in the absence of law awareness and enforcement. Addressing jaguar trade and building human–jaguar coexistence will require a multifaceted approach that considers the multiple drivers of jaguar killing, trade and consumption, from foreign and local demand to human–jaguar conflict.

Watch the video here (in English)

Watch the video here (in Spanish)

Link to the full paper (open access)

On the IWT horizon: Reshaping Africa’s role of wildlife trade and its relationship between economic systems and nature

Andrea Athanas

Two years and a lifetime ago when we embarked as a community on a horizon scan process to identify possible game changing issues that would shape tomorrow’s decisions on illegal wildlife trade (IWT), Africa was growing at 3-5% annually and the continent’s leaders had just signed the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, setting out a path for free movement of goods and people across the 54 nations of Africa. Africa’s development path and the extent to which wildlife is accounted for in its plans was identified as one of the top 20 emerging issues prioritised through the horizon scan process deemed to significantly affect the future of IWT.

Horizon scan issue no. 7: Managing wildlife trade in the context of Africa’s economic growth policies. Illustration Credit: Sofiya Shukhova

Covid-19 has transformed how we, humanity, live on this planet. In a matter of weeks our transport, trade and health systems has been radically altered in a desperate attempt to halt the spread of a pathogen that likely originated in the wild and spread through contact between species. As a result, the rules, customs and systems around wildlife trade are changing. How they change and who has a say in how they change matters.

Africa’s strategic growth plans to open up the continent are now on hold and the April 2020 International Monetary Fund projections place Africa’s growth rate at a record low of 1.6%[1]. Field reports from colleagues from DRC to Zimbabwe express rising food and fuel prices[2] and increasing insecurity. A situation also experienced in urban centers. According to the World Bank, agriculture production across the continent may decline by as much as 7% due to supply disruptions. This coupled with this year’s infestations of locusts and flooding events across parts of the continent is creating serious concerns about food insecurity. Tourism, once a cornerstone of funding for wildlife conservation, has ceased overnight. The sector is facing an unprecedented crisis which has ripple effects in protected areas, conservancies and communities dependent on revenues for operations.

Contemplating Africa’s future. Photo Credit: AWF Andrea Athanas

The current global economic meltdown has put a fork in the road for future progress of many African countries – providing a moment of pause before moving forward in one or another direction. How Africa’s leaders respond to the current crisis will shape Africa’s development for decades to come. There is a possibility this decision point will be used to transition into a system that is more inclusive, green and restorative, but equally the opposite could be true. In our horizon scan paper (see Supplementary Material Appendices 2 & 3 in particular) we posited that future African free trade presents opportunities to combat IWT by providing stronger governance over trade, systemised border crossings and cross-border law enforcement collaboration. Together as a global community we should concentrate efforts to enhance the management and coordination of wildlife trade while also investing in sustainable rural jobs that provide legitimate economic opportunities for rural youth. These approaches will incentivise communities to combat IWT while at the same time ensuring that wildlife products are managed through robust rules and institutions embedded in Africa’s growth strategies, investment plans and trade agreements. Covid-19 has made it clear that strong and effective governance over trade, systemised border crossings and cross-border law enforcement are not just requirements for vibrant, resilient economies, but also essential for protecting public health and wellbeing in the age of global pandemics.

Navigating the challenges of finding space for wildlife in Africa’s development road ahead. Photo Credit: AWF Peter Chira.

The role of wildlife trade and the relationship between economic systems and nature is continuously being redefined, even on a personal individual level for many. Africa needs to play a central role in reshaping these relationships and global agreements have an important place in creating a more robust framework for managing risks and creating incentives for green growth opportunities. While historically the tendency in global dialogues has been for a few dominant perspectives to dictate conditions on such issues, there is a growing effort to meaningfully engaging a wider set of stakeholders to address interconnected transcontinental challenges.

As African leaders and youth assert their ownership over development pathways, Africans will choose their own development path. As we begin to think about how to recover from this pandemic, it is more important than ever that we deepen and broaden our partnerships, jointly define solutions, and strengthen our collective capacity to address challenges we will face, together.

This is a part of the On the IWT horizon series for proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world.

Read the full paper in Conservation Letters, Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: A global horizon scan.


With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail for her leadership throughout the Horizon Scan process and thoughtful review of the piece, to Catherine Workman and Zara Bending for their helpful inputs, and to Kaddu Sebunya for his vision and tireless advocacy for African voices for wildlife and wild lands.


[1] 2020. IMF. Regional economic outlook. Sub-Saharan Africa: COVID-19: an unprecedented threat to development. Washington, DC. ISBN 9781513536835

[2] Despite fuel price drops elsewhere due to over supply and falling demand, in remote areas where AWF operates the case is different, with fuel prices rising perhaps because of challenges to do with supply chains.



On the IWT horizon: Social Media – an emerging marketplace for ideas, (mis)information, and illegal wildlife trade

Zara Bending

With one million users joining platforms every day, co-authors of the first global horizon scan on illegal wildlife trade (IWT) call for further research into social media’s influence on wildlife trafficking networks and consumer behaviour.

From orchids to otters, cheetahs to chimpanzees, social media offers another perspective of species endangerment. Initiated in 2018, our horizon scan of emerging IWT issues identified:

“Social media is relevant to traders, consumers, researchers and law enforcers, as a platform for sales, influence (both negatively and positively), and data source.” Subsequently, it was prioritised as one of the top issues of future importance.

Social media acts as both a marketplace and a forum where behaviours associated with IWT can be stimulated or deterred. Two years on, our findings hold even greater significance as online wildlife trade continues, with new challenges (including COVID-19 induced shifts) multiplying the need for proactive action.

Brokering deals & establishing networks

Increasing mobile device and social media usage enables sellers to connect directly with buyers, and co-ordinate with other actors along supply chains 24/7. For example, live great ape trafficking is described as an ‘expanding extractive industry’ and valued between USD 2.3-18.8 million annually. Animals are advertised even before transport and pricing are agreed upon, often via private, encrypted messaging platforms. Hashtags and key words are often employed to maximise ad searchability for prospective buyers.

During our initial assessment in 2018, regulating IWT activities (including advertising and transacting) was largely left to users, with host platform companies offering minimal response. IWT was not within-scope for moderators, and users had virtually no reporting mechanisms. In recommending a path forward, scanners stressed that tackling IWT on social media ought to be embedded in broader conversations around transnational e-governance, with companies themselves assuming leadership and contributing more than ad-hoc responses, particularly as algorithms typically connect actors along supply chains faster than moderators can action ‘take-downs’.

With calls for intelligence-led wildlife cybercrime enforcement and co-ordinated policy responses across e-commerce, search, and social media companies, WWF, TRAFFIC and IFAW launched the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online in 2018. This year, the Coalition (which boasts 30+ companies including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tencent and Weibo), reported removing or blocking 3,335,381 endangered species listings from their platforms as well as isolating 1000+ suspicious code words. However, with the dark figure of crime looming, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the precise extent of impact.

Now Trending: social media promoting extraction and exploitation

A listing for one-month old, female ‘black leopard’ kittens posted to a Russian online marketplace. Photo Credit: Zoo-ekzo

At CITES CoP18, parties considered a range of species listings and one notable topic was “CITES in the selfie era”. In fact, social media isn’t only a virtual marketplace for IWT but a means to promote activities driving the wild extraction and/or exploitation of wildlife for commercial purposes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than unethical wildlife tourism, where tourists continue to put themselves and wildlife at risk for ‘shareable’ content. A quick online search will no doubt generate images of tourists riding or bathing elephants, cuddling cubs, drinking kopi-luwak…whatever is on-trend.


Otter sold via Instagram from Indonesia. Photo Credit: Instagram

One of the latest trends sees wild animals including otters, meerkats, slow lorises, pygmy marmosets and sugar gliders held in close quarters to service Japan’s Exotic Animal Café scene- frequented by Youtube vloggers and Instagram influencers. The scene has also fuelled the illicit market for exotic pets. A recent study found that an increase in social media activity between 2016-2018 may not have only driven an increase in otter popularity, but also created and disseminated misinformation about their suitability as companions.

Misperceptions of wildlife as ‘domesticated’ through the normalisation of close contact in characteristically human settings has impacted wild populations. TRAFFIC identified the pet trade to be the most pressing threat to the survival of otters in South-East Asia despite domestic and international law. In response to evidence presented at CITES CoP18, parties voted to add two more species to CITES Appendix I, affording them the highest level of protection with respect to international trade controls. However, with regulators like CITES generally operating reactively to evidence of species decline, it is clear more needs to be done to target behaviours that create permissive attitudes to illicit wildlife trade.

Horizon scan issue no. 13: Social media influencing IWT networks and consumer behaviour. Illustration Credit: Sofiya Shukhova

Online traders profiting off misinformation

As demonstrated in the otter trade, misinformation circulates just as quickly as fact online. Rhino horn continues to be the subject of countless myths, from the false belief that it was widely used as an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to more recently being touted as a COVID-19 cure marketed on social media by sellers in China and Laos. The use of misinformation in policy and practice (Issue 5) was one issue canvassed in our scan where social media acted as a force-multiplier. Indeed, one of the key strengths of our methodology was spotting where issues intersected, paving the way for future scans to expand on these linkages towards integrated solutions.

A tool for good?

It’s not all bad news though. Social media can be central to campaigns promoting a culture of safety and respect for wildlife. In recent years, social media has also given users a place to mobilise conservation action from frustration, for example, following the loss of Cecil the Lion or the last male Northern White Rhino, Sudan. It also provides a plane for behaviour change researchers to plot out interventions aimed at influencing individual users (including traffickers), networks, and larger institutional actors. Given the demand-driven dynamics of many IWT products and derivatives, investment in research and education campaigns are well-placed to yield positive impacts.

The purpose of horizon scanning isn’t merely to identify what lies ahead, but to gather intel to change course before the storm strikes. With species continuously vulnerable to endangerment or extinction, evidence-based action must prevail before time runs out.

This is a part of the On the IWT horizon series for proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world.

Read the full paper in Conservation Letters, Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: A global horizon scan.

With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail and Catherine Workman for their helpful inputs into this piece.

Zara Bending is an Associate at the Centre for Environmental Law, Macquarie University and an expert with Jane Goodall Institute Global’s ‘ForeverWild’


On the IWT horizon: Species discoveries and descriptions that fuel wildlife trafficking

Catherine Workman

It is tragic, but true that scientists cannot always be honest in describing where newly discovered species live, as that information can be – and has been – used by wildlife traffickers.

With scientific research increasingly available and open to the public online, poachers are more easily able to use scientific publications and other media outlets that describe commercially valuable new species and their locations for their own benefit. Beautiful and unique plant and animal species, especially those with small home ranges endemic to islands or specialized habitats are particularly vulnerable. This isn’t alarmist speculation: a newly discovered Vietnamese orchid was wiped out by commercial collectors less than a year after researchers identified and described it; similarly, a turtle from the Indonesian island of Roti was nearly driven to extinction shortly after scholars published its description and location. These are just two instances; examples abound.

The problem is not only restricted to species collected for the pet trade. Plants and animals collected for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine and animals desired for the bushmeat trade are also targeted once discovered. For example, the silver-backed chevrotain, a so-called ‘mouse-deer’ was rediscovered in 2019 in Vietnam after 30 years of the scientific world believing it had been driven to extinction. The authors withheld detailed geographic information, given the region’s extensive commercial wildlife trade, and the chevrotain’s popularity as wildlife meat.

Limestone karsts have been called arks of biodiversity for harboring endemic species, many newly described in recent years. Photo Credit: Catherine Workman

If locality data are endangering species scientists themselves want to protect, why not omit such information altogether? There are valid reasons to publish species discoveries and descriptions. Describing new species encourages additional research that is needed to develop conservation measures on what are often endangered species. Species discoveries are also a fantastic way to excite the general public about the natural world.

Unfortunately, there has yet to be a unified approach by scientists, journals, or media outlets (or much coordination in general) in reporting discoveries and sharing species descriptions. For instance, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stores nonpublic maps of some endangered species threatened by trade; some journals do the same. While publishing, some scientists and scientific journals withhold sensitive, detailed data from species descriptions, while some authors provide that information only upon request. Others have called for scientists to exercise self-censorship and only share detailed locality information with governments. Yet, some still refuse to withhold such details entirely.

Given this fragmented approach to publishing location information, how can scientists and publishers resolve and realign objectives? There is an inexorable push towards more open access data, exasperated by the scientific desire to be complete and factually descriptive, but along with that data need, there are paramount policy concerns of confidentiality. If all organizations could adopt and adhere to a single framework of policies to limit access to sensitive information, it would make it more difficult for illicit traders to find newly described (or rediscovered) species. This would certainly ensure the tools and information of scientists aren’t used to harm the species that they seek to study. Given that some mediums do not yet exclude or discourage geographic coordinates, now is the time for new policies and the adoption of formal guidelines to withhold locality data, especially for those species likely to be in high demand due to their beauty or uniqueness.

Horizon scan issue no. 14: New species discoveries or descriptions affecting illegal wildlife trade of those species. Illustration Credit: Sofiya Shukhova

In our recently published Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: a global horizon scan, we highlight species discoveries and descriptions aiding and increasing trafficking as one of the top 20 significant issues affecting the illegal wildlife trade. Since the initiation of the horizon scan in 2018, a co-author helped write and publish another paper stressing the importance of security considerations in publishing conservation spatial data. That paper proposed using geo-indistinguishability to preserve location privacy, a novel approach in conservation, which should be encouraged and if widely adopted by the scientific community could avoid future harm.

Our paper (see Supplementary Material Appendix 3) offers other solutions, such as conducting market research to address taxa or groups that are particularly vulnerable (such as orchids mentioned above) and adapting strategies accordingly to minimize the risk of illegal commercial exploitation. We also suggest that risk communications be targeted to value chain participants, being careful not to unintentionally increase desirability to consumers. Here’s to the hope that in the coming years scientists and publishers take more concrete, standardized action to close gaps with effective policies and realign competing demands: to publish and share data whilst conserving imperiled species.

This is a part of the On the IWT horizon series for proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world.

Read the full paper in Conservation Letters, Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: A global horizon scan.


With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail and Jack Lam for their helpful inputs into this piece. 


On the IWT horizon: Haiwei—Identifying the connection between a global demand for dried seafood and marine conservation

By Jack Lam


The largest ever dried shark fin seizures were made by Hong Kong authorities earlier this month in May 2020; the combined volumes of the two shipments from Ecuador more than doubled last year’s total volume. However, sharks are not the only marine wildlife trafficked transnationally. The persistent demand for their fins is but one side of a multi-dimensional global trade network of Haiwei.

Culturally significant

The Chinese phrase Haiwei (海味) translates literally to “sea flavours,” and refers specifically to edible seafood products that have been preserved by dehydration. Although the consumption of dried seafood is widely documented throughout Asia and the rest of the world, here the term Haiwei is used to establish the identity of a specific culture of consumption and trade in dried seafood. Such a distinction is necessary because evidence is increasingly supporting that, if left unregulated, Haiwei represents a significant threat not only to the few targeted, endangered marine wildlife, but also to marine resources and ecosystems worldwide.

While the use of the phrase in literature dates as far back as the Southern Qi period (479-502AD), and its consumption has been documented across China throughout history, the current Haiwei culture is more commonly associated with Chaozhou, Shantou, Hong Kong, and other cities along China’s Southern and South-eastern coasts where historic connections to fisheries are part of cultural heritage and identity. Haiwei products are consumed for both culinary and medicinal values, and are generally considered tonic foods consumed for their alleged effectiveness in, for example, anti-aging, libido-aiding, miscarriage prevention, and haemorrhage healing.

Haiwei store in Hong Kong

Haiwei store in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: J. Lam

Connecting Haiwei to conservation

The term Haiwei is not widely known to the conservation community, but conservation issues directly linked to Haiwei trade and consumption have made international headlines over the past two decades. Examples include unsustainable fishing practices of shark-finning, transnational trafficking of abalone, overexploitation of sea cucumber, and the imminent extinction faced by the vaquitas as a result of illegal fishing of the totoaba for their maws (dried swim bladders). These are all “top-of-the-range” products in the Haiwei culture known colloquially as bào shēn chì dù (鲍参翅肚—abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin, and fish maw), a phrase that has become a Chinese idiom for extravagance. At the luxury end of trade, the per-gram prices of Haiwei products are comparable to that of rhino horn and elephant ivory, and similarly considered as investment assets.

The prevalence and impact of Haiwei extend beyond political borders, and the conservation implications of Haiwei is not limited to just a few taxa. Genetic analyses and official trade statistics on fish maws in retail markets of Hong Kong and Guangzhou have identified a global trade network of over 110 countries, and a growing connection with Central American, South American, and African suppliers.

Despite an increasing awareness of, and effort to address Haiwei in marine conservation, available literature provides only a glimpse to the bigger picture. This is in part due to the scale and complexity of the Haiwei culture, where an array of marine animal parts is extensively diversified to fulfil market niches. For example, fish maws are differentiated from low-value to expensive varieties. At the high-end of the market, trade literature identifies up to 66 genera under the Sciaenidae family as “prized fish maw varieties”, yet their trade names and their sources remain unclear. This disconnect between trade knowledge and conservation knowledge implies an absence of baseline data on which to form policy and management decisions. The conservation implications of such knowledge gaps are a cause for concern. Decisions to suppress the trade of one maw variety could perceivably fuel the demand in another to fill vacant market niches. This is especially alarming considering only one species (the totoaba, Totoaba macdonaldi) of the 66 named sciaenid genera is listed under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Similar complex market structures have been reported for shark fins, mobulid gills, seahorses, and sea cucumbers.


Horizon scan issue no. 10: Rapidly expanding demand for a global supply of Haiwei to China and Chinese communities worldwide. Illustration Credit: Sofiya Shukhovaa

Providing context for proactive conservation

Awareness of the Haiwei trade has increased since it was identified as an emerging IWT issue in 2018 as part of the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) Horizon Scan. Simultaneously, Haiwei-related conservation issues have been increasingly addressed at a policy level. At the 18th CITES Conference of the Parties (Geneva, 2019), two sharks and one sea cucumber—all of which are known to be harvested for the Haiwei trade—were listed under CITES Appendix II to increase trade regulations. Efforts to facilitate international cooperation to address seahorse and totoaba trafficking were also renewed. However, the overexploitation of marine wildlife for the Haiwei trade continues to decimate global biodiversity.

Our IWT horizon scan prioritised this topic as one of the top emerging issues, demonstrating the importance of addressing these knowledge gaps and the trade-conservation disconnect of marine taxa and marine ecosystems in the context of Haiwei culture. Without doing so, significant challenges to marine conservation and resource management will only continue. Although greater market research and genetic studies are beginning to bridge these gaps, the misalignment between trade and conservation knowledge persists due to a combination of cultural and language barriers, on-going product diversification and shifting trade dynamics, underpinned by the difficulties of studying and sampling high-priced, rare, and illegal products.

Greater proactive efforts are necessary to address and understand Haiwei as a conservation issue. Specific approaches proposed in the IWT Horizon Scan project (see Supplementary Material Appendix 3) include reviewing and analysing global dried seafood trade data to assess the extent and impact of trade, conducting market surveys as well as genetic studies along trade chains to supplement global trade data and maintain conservation awareness. With a better understanding of Haiwei, efforts can be made to optimise behaviour change campaigns, develop sustainable harvesting and consumption guidelines to curb overexploitation, inform enforcement agencies to assist in the implementation of trade regulations, and address policy gaps and loopholes.

This is a part of the On the IWT horizon series for proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world.

Read the full paper in Conservation Letters, Emerging illegal wildlife trade issues: A global horizon scan.


With thanks to Nafeesa Esmail and Andrea Athanas for their helpful inputs into this piece. 


Proactive engagement with wildlife trade issues in an unsettled world

By Nafeesa Esmail

In the belief that we need to move beyond crisis management and towards proactive measures and solutions, we conducted a horizon scan of significant, emerging issues in the global illegal wildlife trade (IWT). The resulting paper, identifying potential future risks and opportunities, and offering insights on how to respond to them, has recently been published in Conservation Letters.

Horizon scanning was initially developed to better understand future political movements and capitalise on budding business opportunities. It has been used in multiple fields, including emerging health technologies and infectious diseases, aging populations, and for other conservation-related topics, such as Myanmar forest conservation. The end goal of horizon scanning is to prevent limited resources from being misdirected, and to highlight both the costs of ignoring emerging threats and the need to implement decisions and policies to mitigate such threats before they potentially reach crisis levels.

There are many historic instances (including the current pandemic) that illuminate how ill-prepared we have been for such crises. Looking back at examples, it seems plausible that more of us could have foreseen a problem emerging if only we had been actively considering it, thereby prompting us to act to reduce future impact, ahead of time.

Can this crisis help reframe our thinking and provide a wake-up call both for the health of our global population and our planet to act more preemptively?

Top issues on the IWT horizon

Issue number 11: Increasing demand for substitute species and products through globalisation and intensified trade restrictions.

We use the term ‘issues’ to refer to challenges/risks/threats that may exacerbate IWT or opportunities/advancements that may help us to tackle IWT. To come up with the list of top issues, we adapted existing horizon scanning methods, systematically examining future possibilities in an open, inclusive, and global participatory way. We used a democratic and transparent iterative process to identify and prioritise ideas from various sources, involving 150+ people across diverse backgrounds and geographies (including 38 nationalities) with a core working group of 25 individuals.

The top 3 ranked issues identified in our scan highlight China’s role as a critical player in the global IWT, a perception that has been reinforced with it being the apparent source of the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the exact mechanism of the original virus transmission to humans remains unclear, an early link to the Wuhan wet market (which sold a range of animal products, including wildlifehas raised the profile of the IWT activity and unsanitary conditions often associated with such markets.

While global IWT policy making involves a range of decision-makers and stakeholders, efforts have often focused on enforcement, technical assistance, and capacity building. However, effective measures to counter IWT ultimately hinge on the political will of nation states; wildlife trade policy discussions need to incorporate a deeper understanding of complex market and trade dynamics (including consumer demand), as well past and future trends to be effective.

The top 20 horizon scan issues related to three different, but interconnected themes: developments in biological, information and financial technologies; changing trends in demand and information; and socio-economic and geopolitical shifts and influences (Figure 1: To find more about each specific issue, see our paper (particularly the supplementary material for their descriptions and policy relevance)).

These issues illustrate that we live in a networked, but dynamic and rapidly changing world. Understanding the associated complexities can guide us toward actions and processes that effectively address IWT.  Our analysis suggests that these should be locally led, but encompass broader geopolitical and socio-economic considerations, with a focus on critical regional trade centres.

The top 20 issues with linkages drawn between them. Numbering represents the rank order of the issues. Those outlined in black are cross-thematic issues

The publication of this paper comes 2 years after the project started (early 2018) and we have since seen increasing awareness of many of the top issues, previously relatively unknown, or merely not at the forefront of IWT discourses. Examples of how issues have continued to emerge are numerous – here is one:

Africa and East Asia have long been the focus of IWT priorities, but over the last few years Latin America has emerged as an underrepresented node of high IWT activity, though our understanding of the mechanisms behind increased poaching and trafficking still lag (Issue 20). The frontier of IWT in Latin America has since increased, with more attention brought forth by both the conservation community (October 2018) and global political leaders. Peru hosted the First Americas Regional Conference on the Illegal Trade in Wildlife in Lima (October 2019), during which the Lima Declaration was enacted alongside commitments and statements made to curb future regional IWT activity.

Thinking ahead

One key achievement of this project was its success in bringing together researchers and practitioners from different sectors and disciplines to amplify a topical global conversation. The ability to remotely engage dispersed groups across the world has already become more important, as we continue to adopt new ways of connecting virtually.

Crises like COVID-19 or the 2008 global financial crash have forced our society and markets to adapt and innovate. Businesses and individuals have found interesting ways to reinvent themselves, often bouncing back stronger. However, adaption and innovation are not just reserved for goods and services; they can be used to reshape our thinking as conservationists too.

This analysis can support national governments, international bodies, researchers and non-governmental organisations as they develop future strategies for IWT. It can guide greater coordination of preemptive interventions, integrated across sectors and policy arenas. We are optimistic that such future-orientated exercises will influence conservationists to actively shift their focus from responding to crises to preparing for what lies on the horizon. 


Interested to know more?

Contact the authour, Nafeesa Esmail, here.

Access the full paper here.

Over the next few weeks, a series of posts on top emerging issues within the illegal wildlife trade will be shared through our ‘on the IWT horizon’ commentary series. Watch this space for:

You can also read the CITES CoP18 policy briefing document for strategic IWT decision-making based on this IWT horizon scan.

With thanks to E.J. Milner-Gulland, Mike ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Catherine Workman and Zara Bending for their helpful inputs. And special thanks to all those who contributed to this project, without whom it wouldn’t be possible.


What are the origins of novel human infectious diseases like COVID-19?

By EJ Milner-GullandLauren CoadYuhan LiKelly MalschMunib Khanyari, Hollie Booth from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Sciencem University of Oxford

Originally published the UKRI website

Sunda pangolin. Photo by Dan Challender and Save Vietnam Wildlife

Several of the earliest reported cases of COVID-19 were linked to a wet market in Wuhan city, China, which sold a range of fresh food produce, including wildlife. Although there is not enough evidence yet to say how the new coronavirus jumped from its original host (probably a bat) to humans, there have been previous examples of viruses originating in wild animals causing disease epidemics in people. Understanding the link between wild and domestic animals and COVID-19 is important for managing the current pandemic and future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Several of the earliest reported cases of COVID-19 were vendors at a “wet market” in Wuhan, China. It has been reported that the virus was first transmitted from an animal host to humans at this market, though this has not yet been proven.[1]

“Wet market” is a term used across various parts of the world, notably in China and Southeast Asia, for a food market in which individual retailers sell fresh products such as vegetables, fruits and fresh meat, providing an essential food source to many. The “wet” here is historically to distinguish from “dry markets” that sell non-perishable goods such as fabrics, electronics, grains, dried food (e.g. dried mushrooms) and household products, and also because of the use of water for cooling the produce and cleaning floors and surfaces. Chinese “wet markets” include some that sell fruits and vegetables in a setting more like a European farmer’s market, while others sell a wider array of meat and live animals, both wild and domestic, often kept in crowded and unhygienic conditions. “Wet markets” have been implicated in SARS (via civets) and H5N1 influenza (“bird flu”) via domestic poultry.[2]

Beyond “wet markets”, a wide variety of other markets that sell live, wild animals operate across the world. The animals sold in these markets can be wild-sourced or captive-bred, for use as food, medicine, pets and ornaments, and the markets are of varying degrees of legality, biosafety, sustainability and social legitimacy. Wildlife markets range from live bird markets for poultry and pets (e.g. in Indonesia, Vietnam and Egypt), to bushmeat markets for subsistence (e.g. in Cameroon and Ghana) to Traditional Chinese Medicine markets (e.g. in China and Singapore). Markets such as these can make substantial contributions to food security and livelihoods. For example, the Chinese Academy of Engineering stated in 2016 that captive-bred wildlife sold for food in China contributed $14 billion to the economy, and employed six million people. The Wuhan market which is at the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak predominately sold seafood, along with other animal products including live, wild and domesticated species for meat.

One proposed route of transmission for COVID-19 involves bats and pangolins, although it is not known whether pangolins were being sold at the Wuhan seafood market at the time. Bats are natural reservoirs of coronaviruses[3]; a pangolin could have been the intermediate host, although the exact route of transmission of COVID-19 to humans remains unknown.[4][5] Further research is needed to be sure of how the virus got into humans, and to understand the role of wildlife and markets in transmission.

Historically, over two-thirds of zoonotic viruses (viruses that are transmitted between animals and humans) have originated in wild animals, most frequently rodents, bats and primates.[6] The transmission of zoonotic diseases primarily occurs when there is close contact between humans and animals. Even dead animals can pass on diseases to people and other animals if their carcasses are fresh and if people consume the meat or handle the dead animals in an unhygienic way. These risks have led to calls for more stringent bio-safety rules in relation to the sale and trade of live animals, as well as calls to stop wildlife being traded in markets altogether. As a result of COVID-19, the Chinese government has now banned farming and trade of almost all terrestrial wild animals for human consumption; only a few species (such as those on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry) are exempt.[7]

While there are clearly disease risks from the wildlife trade, wildlife markets are only one source of infections from animals. Human health is intricately connected to wildlife and their habitats. The destruction of natural forests brings people and wildlife into contact in a way that can promote the spread of zoonotic diseases, such as Nipah virus infection which is carried by fruit-eating bats in Asia.[8][9] In addition, nearly half of all the infectious zoonotic diseases that have emerged in humans since 1940 have come directly from domestic livestock, even if they originated in wild animals.[10] For example, the 2009-10 swine flu pandemic came from domestic pigs. International food supply chains, the movement of people globally, and unprecedented changes in pathogen life cycles due to climate change, further facilitate the conditions for emergence and spread of diseases.[10]


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  3. Maxmen A. Bats are global reservoir for deadly coronavirusesNature. 2017 Jun;546(7658):340. DOI: 10.1038/nature.2017.22137.
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  7. Xinhua News Agency. China’s legislature adopts decision on banning illegal trade, consumption of wildlifeXinhua Net. 2020 Feb.
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  10. Rohr JR, Barrett CB, Civitello DJ, et al. Emerging human infectious diseases and the links to global food productionNature Sustainability. 2019 Jun;2(6):445-456. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-019-0293-3.