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.


Position statement: managing wildlife trade in the context of COVID-19 and future zoonotic pandemics

By the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, University of Oxford.

COVID-19 is causing widespread human suffering, as the most acute global public health emergency of our generation. While the origin of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID‐19 remains uncertain, several wild species (particularly bats) are known to be important hosts for this family of zoonotic diseases. More generally, there is strong evidence that zoonotic disease emergence is linked to human activities which bring wildlife, domestic animals and humans into increasingly intense contact. This includes destruction and degradation of natural areas; intensive livestock rearing; and hunting, trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife (e.g. bats and primates).

To minimise the risks of future zoonotic outbreaks, whilst also protecting wildlife, ecosystems and human well-being, we need to rebalance our relationship with nature, using an evidence-based approach to manage the risks associated with global food systems. With specific reference to zoonotic animal-origin viruses such as coronaviruses, we therefore recommend the:

  1. Prevention of illegal, unsustainable, unhygienic and high-stress use of domestic and wild animal species. This will improve animal welfare, support conservation and reduce public health risks. This is regardless of end-use (whether it be for food, medicine or pets).
  2. Support of well-regulated, sustainable and cruelty-free trade in wildlife, based on evidence that a particular trade is helping to protect wildlife and their habitats against threats whilst meeting livelihoods and food security needs.
  3. Limitation of destruction of natural ecosystems for agriculture, mining, infrastructure development and urbanisation, working towards halting further loss and restoring nature.
  4. Better management of industrial agriculture, to prevent disease outbreaks in humans and livestock, animal welfare issues, pollution of the land and watercourses, and antibiotic resistance.

In contrast to our recommendations, many conservation and animal welfare organisations are now calling for complete, long-term bans on wildlife trade and consumption, as a means to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics. We recognise that trade in some wild species represents a risk to public health. However, we express concern at the dominant discourse which focusses solely on the links between zoonosis emergence and wildlife trade and caution against a blanket approach to wildlife trade regulation. Instead, we advocate for a more nuanced and evidence-based approach which could better serve both people and wildlife. Our reasons are:

  1. There is a need to address all the root causes of zoonotic disease emergence, as opposed to taking a narrow focus on wildlife trade. Available evidence suggests that wildlife use is one of a growing number of anthropogenic drivers, such as industrialised livestock farming (particularly in temperate regions), agricultural intensification and land use change (particularly in tropical regions, where wildlife biodiversity is high). These issues lead to increases in wildlife-livestock-human interfaces and declines in biodiversity, both of which increase disease transmission, and are further exacerbated by climate change and  global supply chains (i.e. the trade and movement of people and animals). Policy interventions need to address all of these root causes if they are to be successful in reducing the transmission of zoonotic diseases globally.
  1. Long-term policy change should be based on sound evidence: While some organisations are claiming that wildlife trade should be banned on public health grounds, there remains no conclusive evidence about the relative impact of banning all wildlife trade in preventing the emergence of zoonotic diseases in the future. Different organisations are taking slightly different views on what “wildlife trade” is, and which elements should be banned, but the trade in wildlife is multifaceted and heterogeneous. Poorly considered blanket bans could therefore result in unintended negative consequences for both people and wildlife. Past attempts at bans on all wildlife trade and consumption across Africa following the 2013-2016 Ebola crisis resulted in a loss of trust between local communities and conservation NGOs. Other past bans were only transiently effective due to a lack of enforcement capacity and viable alternatives, and were quickly followed by a marked increase in wild meat hunting compared to hunting rates prior to the ban.
  1. Overly hurried interventions can inadvertently do more harm than good. Immediate crisis management responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, such as closing China’s urban wildlife markets, are warranted. However, longer-term policy change, particularly where policy interventions seek to be scalable and generalisable (e.g. across geographies and zoonoses) should not necessarily be based on extreme cases. Further information should be gathered on the public health risks of wildlife trade, and the potential perverse consequences of new laws and regulations on other aspects of public health, human well-being, and environmental sustainability. For example, banning all wildlife trade and consumption could damage the livelihoods and food security of millions of people, threaten biodiversity, and drive further land-use intensification for agricultural and livestock production. Conversely, maintaining well regulated, legal trade for species that can be safely and sustainably harvested can help to secure wildlife habitats in some areas, thereby avoiding the very land use changes that drive emergence of zoonoses.
  1. Global problems need international solutions. The wildlife trade can be conceptualised by people living in Europe and North America as something that other people do, which makes it easier to call for draconian action. However, wildlife is used all around the world; including game hunting for food and recreation in Europe and North America. The real issue is the way that we use natural resources as a species – whether this be our use of agricultural products such as Soy and Palm oil, our production and consumption of livestock, or our use of wildlife. We no longer mainly eat what we produce locally, and consumer decisions in affluent countries have large impacts on land use change in wild habitats on the other side of the planet. The ecological footprint of consumers in the Global North is much higher than those in the Global South. Viewing the emergence of COVID-19 as an issue that has been created ‘over there’ absolves us of the need to reevaluate our own consumption. The truth is that consumption choices in affluent countries can have huge impacts on the spread of emerging zoonotic diseases on the other side of the world.
  1. Conflation of issues, misinformation and opportunism. We note that the organisations calling for bans on wildlife trade are primarily conservation and animal welfare organisations. These calls can seem like opportunistic use of COVID-19 to further their own objectives, which are only tangentially related to public health. Public health, illegal wildlife trade, biodiversity conservation and animal welfare are all important issues, but they are not completely overlapping. There is a need to disentangle the relationships between these (sometimes competing) priorities and consider difficult and context-specific issues relating to sustainability and ethics, rather than calling for one-size-fits-all policies at a time when people and governments are in crisis-management mode.
  1. Consider the voiceless – bring the people affected to the discussion table. The loudest calls for bans on wildlife trade come from NGOs in the USA and the UK. However, the people who will be affected by these bans include indigenous groups and local communities in poorer countries who rely on the wildlife trade for their livelihoods. No policy should be made without their active, prior involvement. It is not enough to say that their needs will be considered after the fact.

If we are to protect people around the world against the emergence of further zoonotic diseases, we must learn from past experience. We must better understand the pathways to infection and the various ways in which our activities contribute to pandemic disease risk, to help ensure that policy changes are driven by evidence, and that subsequent actions are both socially just and realistic. At this time of global emergency, we need to focus on controlling the pandemic and alleviating the suffering being endured by people worldwide. Now is not the time to be calling for global bans on wildlife trade, but when the time is right a more nuanced and evidence-based approach can be taken, which will both reduce risks to public health, conserve wildlife and natural systems, and improve the welfare of domestic and wild animals.

This position statement was jointly prepared and agreed by members of the the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade and Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, with particular contributions from E.J. Milner-Gulland, Hollie Booth, Lauren Coad and Stephanie Brittain. Members of the team have also written more detailed blogs on this topic, which are available here:




For enquiries related to this position statement, please contact ej.milner-gulland@zoo.ox.ac.uk


Targeting wildlife crime interventions through geographic profiling

By: Stephanie S. Romañach (Research Ecologist, U.S. Geological Survey), Sally C. Faulkner (Lecturer, Queen Mary University of London), Michael C. A. Stevens (PhD Student, Queen Mary University of London), Peter A. Lindsey (Conservation Initiatives Director, Wildlife Conservation Network), & Steven C. Le Comber (Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary University of London)


Seeing an animal hanging lifelessly from a snare is a heart-wrenching experience. Knowing that most animals caught in snares are left to rot without being used for meat or any other purpose might be worse.

Over an eight-year period, 2001 – 2009, we recorded 10,231 incidents of illegal hunting in a wildlife conservation area in southeastern Zimbabwe, the Savé Valley Conservancy (SVC). Sixty-three percent of these incidents used snares, which is an illegal form of hunting in Zimbabwe. Almost fifty-nine percent of animals caught in snares were left to rot on the snare lines. What if we could prevent these unnecessary losses?

The SVC is home to many iconic wildlife species such as elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes, and buffalos. However, with the onset of political turmoil in the early 2000s, large sections of wildlife fencing surrounding SVC were removed, enough to make over 400,000 wire snares, many of which were recovered by anti-poaching teams. We found illegal hunting to be widespread throughout SVC. During the period of our study, we discovered the deaths of at least 6,454 wild animals, equating to a minimum of USD 1 million in financial losses annually – the ecological and financial scale of the problem is massive. However, in an area like SVC, which covers 3,450 km2, tackling the problem of illegal hunting is challenging.

Lioness with snare around her neck and visible snare wound (Photo credit: E. Droge, Zambia Carnivore Programme)

We recently successfully tested the application of geographic profiling, a statistical technique used originally in criminology, to help prioritize search areas where illegal hunters might live. The method is typically used by law enforcement agencies to help prioritize lists of suspects undergoing investigation, based on the pattern of serial crimes (e.g., murder). Typically, for example, criminals commit crimes within a reasonable distance of their homes or places of work. In the case of wildlife crime, illegal hunters are more likely to live outside protected areas, but travel into protected areas to hunt. We modified our use of geographic profiling to address this issue of “commuter crime”, where illegal hunters are likely to reside outside of SVC, but “commute” to the conservancy to setup their snares. We did this by testing decreasing probabilities of the poachers living inside compared to outside SVC. In general, a geoprofile results from two processes: spatial clustering of the poaching locations, and finding the sources of the clusters, or where poachers are likely to live. The iterative process we implemented initially randomly assigns poaching incidents to clusters, and then based on the clustering, the model estimates the sources of these clusters. Secondly, depending on the source locations, poaching incidents are then reassigned to clusters. These steps are repeated thousands of times until the model fits the data well.

Example geoprofile with lighter areas highlighting the areas that should be prioritized for search (S. Romañach)

Using geographic profiling, we were able to identify where 50% of the illegal hunters reside after searching only 11% of the area. To do this, we used a subset of our illegal hunting records where the identity of the hunter was known, allowing us to test the methodology. We found that we could successfully identify the villages where the hunters were coming from, based on the locations of the snares. Given the size of most protected areas, having a system to narrow down potential search areas for the sources of illegal hunting can greatly reduce required resources and more effectively focus conservation actions.

Interviews we conducted with illegal hunters surrounding SVC revealed that although some respondents expressed a desire to purchase alcohol (15%) with the income they made from illegal hunting, most respondents used the money to buy food (97%) and clothes (44%).  Understanding the drivers of illegal hunting can direct us to solutions to the problem. Information about where illegal hunters may live can help us target villages, streamlining and effectively utilizing law enforcement and community engagement efforts. This is particularly valuable because resources for law enforcement in Africa are already scarce. By employing techniques like geographic profiling, in combination with local intelligence, the use of limited resources can be much more easily prioritized.

We dedicate this article to our friend and colleague, Steve Le Comber, who left this world much too soon.

Disclaimer: Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Is the demand for vulture parts in Nigeria affecting regional vulture populations?

By: Steffen Oppel (Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science @SteffOpp @RSPBScience); Cloé Pourchier (Program Officer, Sahara Conservation Fund @Sahara_CF), Joseph Onoja (Director, Technical Programmes, Nigerian Conservation Foundation @ojay_78 @ncfnigeria); Solomon Adefolu (Principal Conservation Officer, Nigerian Conservation Foundation @NatureSolomon); Adejo Rose Wisdom (Student Intern, AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute)


Vultures are globally threatened and populations in Africa have plummeted over the last three decades. Unlike in Asia, where vultures have disappeared largely due to a single cause (poisoning from ingesting a painkiller medicine fed to cows), African vulture populations have succumbed to a variety of human threats – including the illegal trade in vulture body parts.

Vulture body parts are purchased for traditional medicine and other belief-based uses. Consumers expect relief from a variety of physical and mental ailments and greater success in life as they absorb the vultures’ abilities to ‘see into the future’. Vultures are therefore often the most sought-after bird species in trade. While the trade in resident African vultures has long been known and acknowledged to be a concern to these populations from Nigeria to South Africa, it is so far unclear to what extent migratory populations are affected by the demand for vulture body parts in Africa.

Head of a White-backed Vulture offered for sale at a market in Nigeria (Photo credit: J. Onoja)

The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is the only long-distance migratory vulture in Africa, Asia or Europe, and its populations have not only declined in Africa, but also in parts of its European breeding range. Since 2011, BirdLife partners from the Balkans have been working to protect and study Egyptian Vultures, and in 2016, a new project was launched to address threats to the species in 14 countries along its flyway. Based on satellite-tracking of birds from the Balkans, the wintering range of Egyptian Vultures includes Niger and Nigeria – and  evidence shows that the direct persecution for the market trade in Nigeria affects Egyptian Vultures from Europe. Until now, however, we have had little information about the potential magnitude of the threat of the trade.

In 2018, we conducted surveys on several markets in Nigeria and Niger to determine the magnitude of the vulture trade with a particular focus on Egyptian Vultures. During the surveys, we first assessed how many stalls at each market sold any vulture part, then quantified the number of stalls that either have in the past or would sell Egyptian Vulture parts in the future. Sellers were asked about the origin of vulture parts on sale. Lastly, we asked about trends of vulture populations and what the sellers’ perceptions were about the causes of these trends.

Bird wing offered for sale as ‘Egyptian Vulture’ in Niger (Photo credit: A. R. M. Zabeirou)

As expected, the vulture trade was about 10 times more prominent in Nigeria than in Niger. Among the 19 markets surveyed in Nigeria, comprising ~26,000 stalls or sellers, 397 (1.5%) offered vulture products for sale. Although no Egyptian Vultures were available at the time of the survey, all sellers stated that they would sell Egyptian Vultures if their suppliers would deliver them. In contrast, in Niger, only 3 of the 2950 stalls found among the 3 markets surveyed (0.1%) offered Egyptian Vulture parts, some of which were clearly not Egyptian Vultures, but actually other species.

Market sellers in Niger and Nigeria perceive the most likely reason for declining vulture populations in these two countries to be the trade of vulture parts (Source: S. Oppel)

The main reason why we found no Egyptian Vulture parts on markets in Nigeria is because they have become very rare. All sellers agreed that the number of Egyptian Vultures had decreased and that they had become too difficult to find. Although sellers were willing to sell the species, the hunters that supply the sellers no longer encountered Egyptian Vultures. According to the sellers themselves, the main reason why the species has disappeared is because of direct persecution for trade, medicine, rituals or food. In Niger, most people also recognised that much of the hunting and trade that decimated local vulture populations was driven by demand and hunters from Nigeria.

Map illustrating the locations of the markets surveyed in Nigeria and Niger (blue dots) and the source countries of the three vulture species, as perceived by market merchants (white to red color gradient) (Source: S. Oppel)

When sellers were asked where the vultures they sold originated from, only a fraction was reported to come from Nigeria directly. Because Nigerian vulture populations have now become scarce, market stalls in Nigeria are being supplied with vultures hunted not only in the neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, but also from further afield, including Mali, Senegal, and the Central African Republic. Thus, the high vulture demand in Nigeria is likely to be affecting vulture populations in a large part of sub-Saharan Africa.

In Nigeria, vultures are technically protected by law, with both the killing and trade of vulture species being illegal. However, this law is not enforced and without a reduction in demand, it is unlikely that the persecution will cease in the near future. To put this threat in context, if all the 397 Nigerian market sellers willing to sell Egyptian Vultures sold even just one bird a year, the entire eastern European population of Egyptian Vultures (only around 60 pairs) could go extinct rapidly. A new project has recently started to reduce the trade in vulture parts in Nigeria.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Illegal international trade in seahorses continues despite CITES regulations

By: Ting-Chun Kuo (Assistant Professor, Institute of Marine Affairs and Resources Management, National Taiwan Ocean University, @TingChunKuo); Sarah J. Foster (Project Seahorse, Institute for Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia @sjanefoster @ProjectSeahorse); Anita Kar Yan Wan (School of Life Sciences, Sun Yat-Sen University); Amanda C.J. Vincent (Project Seahorse, Institute for Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia @AmandaVincent1)


Seahorses (Hippocampus spp.) are a group of marine fishes that are unique in their body shape, life history and uses. With a bony body of a fish, head of a horse and tail of a monkey, seahorses have attracted many people’s curiosities. In contrast to many other animals, male seahorses become pregnant and some seahorse species are seasonally monogamous (having only one mate at a time). Seahorses are also used in traditional medicine, which is believed to be effective against infertility, asthma, and many other illnesses. Thus, seahorses have become an important income source for many fishers and traders.

Seahorses have faced increasing pressures from various anthropogenic impacts. More than 37 million seahorses per year are estimated to be extracted globally, mostly as incidental catch from non-selective fishing practices. A majority of the seahorses caught are traded for traditional medicine, for curios or to be kept in aquariums. This large-scale global seahorse trade has resulted in the whole genus (Hippocampus spp.) being listed in the Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means all international exports of wild seahorses are only permitted when export countries can ensure the trade is sustainable. Subsequently, after listing seahorses on CITES, many countries have banned their seahorse exports. Most notably, Thailand, the biggest seahorse source country on record, decided to suspend their exports in January 2016.

Dried seahorses in the traditional Chinese medicine store, Hong Kong (Photo credit: A. K. Y. Wan)

But, have the widespread export bans in the historic seahorse source countries affected the trade worldwide, and if so, how? To investigate if such bans are enforced and to ascertain the impacts, at the end of 2017 our team carried out a survey in Hong Kong, the world’s largest known seahorse importer. We interviewed 189 traders, including traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) retailers, wholesalers, and importers. We asked the traders who had bought stocks of dried seahorses in 2016 and 2017 where these seahorses originated from. We also asked the traders to quantify their seahorse purchase volume for each year, and also the volume from each source.

Strikingly, we found that a majority of the dried seahorses in Hong Kong might be illegally imported. Traders reported that their biggest sources included Thailand, Philippines, mainland China, Australia, and India – yet most of these countries have banned their seahorse exports. After considering the trade volume, we estimated that at least 98% of the dried seahorses in Hong Kong might be illegally sourced.

Dried seahorses in the traditional Chinese medicine store, Hong Kong (Photo credit: A. K. Y. Wan)

These results are not completely surprising, considering dried seahorses are known to be very easily carried across borders. Because of their small size and form (being dried), smugglers can simply transport seahorses in their suitcases or pockets. This means the enforcement of any trade regulations is becoming increasingly difficult and requires strong surveillance. When countries declare bans without appropriate enforcement in place, this can lead the trade to move to black or illicit markets rather than reducing it. During our survey, some respondents reported that they could no longer buy seahorses from legal importers – so they had to turn to “the people with suitcases on the street” for new supplies. Such changes in the import and domestic supply chain makes the monitoring and management of trades even more difficult. Our findings provide evidence that current legislation is not well enforced and the magnitude of trade in seahorses may have remained the same as it was before the bans.

More importantly, if non-selective fishing practices are left unregulated, sustainable use of seahorses is not possible. The greatest threat to seahorses is bycatch of indiscriminate fisheries, such as trawling. Therefore, as long as fishing practices continue as usual, seahorses will still be caught even if demand can be reduced. Improving current fishing management and practices is likely to be more critical for sustainable seahorse trade than imposing a ban without the adequate enforcement measures in place.

Original article publication: Foster, S. J., Kuo, T. C., Wan, A. K. Y., & Vincent, A. C. (2019). Global seahorse trade defies export bans under CITES action and national legislation. Marine Policy, 103, 33-41.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Understanding the global Illegal caviar trade: CITES labelling system not implemented

By: Hiromi Shiraishi (Programme Officer, TRAFFIC) and Lindsey Harris (former Programme Officer, TRAFFIC) @TRAFFIC_WLTrade


Although it has been 20 years since all sturgeon and paddlefish species were listed on the CITES Appendices and the international trade of caviar has been regulated, the conservation status of sturgeons does not seem to have improved. What should be done to assist in the recovery of sturgeon populations?

Sturgeon and paddlefish (Acipenseriformes spp.) are an ancient group of fish that is found in coastal and inland waters across the northern hemisphere. For people around the world, caviar (unfertilised sturgeon and paddlefish roe) is a gourmet delicacy and is one of the most expensive wildlife products. However, populations of sturgeon and paddlefish have declined globally due to, among other threats, habitat degradation and overexploitation, including illegal fishing for caviar and meat. Of the 27 species of sturgeon and paddlefish, 85% are on the brink of extinction. In response to this, and to ensure trade is sustainable, all species of sturgeon and paddlefish have been listed in CITES Appendix I or II since 1998.

Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), Black Sea, Tendra, Ukraine (Photo credit: A. Nekrasov / WWF)

In addition to the CITES listing, systems have been established to support the effective implementation of the listing; one of these is a universal labelling system. A CITES Resolution recommends that all Parties implement this system for sturgeon caviar (wild sourced and derived from aquaculture) for international and domestic trade, so the commodity is traceable. Although CITES Resolutions are not directly legally binding, the labelling system has been transposed into national legislation, and thus is mandatory, in some countries, including within the EU.

Global caviar production and trade dynamics have changed over the last decades with the rapid growth of aquaculture production. According to CITES trade data, caviar sourced from aquaculture accounted for 95% of total global imports by weight in 2015. However, caviar sourced from wild sturgeons is still traded and there is little information available to determine whether this is legal, sustainable and traceable.

In fact, despite the introduction of CITES regulations and the rapid growth of aquaculture production, illegal fishing of sturgeon and the illegal trade in wild caviar have remained a serious threat to sturgeon and paddlefish. The Caspian Sea sturgeon population has reportedly continued to decrease dramatically despite the CITES listing. Anecdotal evidence suggests the occurrence of poaching in the Russian Federation, and a recent study indicates that consumer preference for wild caviar is a key factor driving illegal trade. Prevalence of the illegal caviar trade has also been linked to corruption.

In order to obtain a better understanding of current global caviar markets, TRAFFIC and WWF conducted a study to identify geographic hotspots for the legal and illegal trade in caviar and to review compliance with the CITES caviar labelling system. Rapid assessments were then carried out in six locations (China, France, Germany, Japan, the Russian Federation and the USA) between December 2017 and February 2018, through online and physical market surveys and a review of the available information on relevant legislation.

This research found that of these six countries, only two (Germany and France) have implemented the CITES caviar labelling system for domestic trade, even though all of these countries are Parties to CITES. In addition, even where the CITES caviar labelling system has been implemented for domestic trade, there were several instances suggesting the caviar labels did not fully comply with the CITES labelling requirements. These included instances where: i) the containers appeared to have no seals or packaging to show visual evidence of opening, and ii) the required lot identification number was missing from the label.

Caviar for sale in Geneva, Switzerland (Photo credit: H. Shiraishi / TRAFFIC)

Furthermore, the study highlighted that, even when applied, the current implementation of the CITES caviar labelling system and related registration requirements may not be sufficient to combat illegal trade effectively, thus requiring further and more thorough examination. As global caviar production and trade dynamics continue to change, CITES Parties also need to consider making changes to the labelling system by revising the CITES Resolution to ensure consistency of quality of the labels and to minimise the risk of fraud.

While many people regard illegal fishing and trade in caviar as problems of the past, issues continue to persist. Strong support from the international community is needed to combat this illegal trade to help ensure the trade is not harmful to wild populations and to subsequently promote the recovery of global sturgeon populations.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail