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


The COVID-19 response and wild meat: a call for local context

By Stephanie Brittain, Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, University of Oxford

Originally published on the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause disease in animals. Covid-19 is one of several such viruses that have made the jump from animals to humans. So far, the evidence suggests that the virus was first transmitted to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, China. The Wuhan seafood market also sold wildlife, but despite extensive experimental work, scientists are still not confident about the transmission chain from animal to human, with links drawn to snakes, bats and, more recently, pangolins. What is clear, however, is that there is now unprecedented global attention focused on wild meat trade and consumption globally.

The ongoing covid-19 crisis may be the first time many people have heard of wild meat, or “bushmeat” as it’s commonly known. Wild meat is meat from wildlife species that are hunted for human consumption. It constitutes a primary source of protein for many rural communities globally, particularly in tropical forests, where it contributes to the food security of millions of people globally.  Across Central Africa, species hunted in rural areas are also sent to cities and large towns to satisfy the growing urban demand for wild meat. There, wild meat caters to both the growing number of upper-middle class customers who wish to consume high-value and sometimes rare species as a status symbol, as well as the urban poor who consume small species such as rodents which are often still less expensive than farmed animals. The drivers and impacts of hunting and consumption of wild meat are not homogenous, and should not be treated as such.

The impact of wild meat trade bans on people and conservation

In recognition of the importance of wild meat for food security and livelihoods, global conservation policy has focused on the need for sustainable use of species hunted for wild meat, and many experts agree that using wild species sustainably may still be the best way to save them. Yet, following the covid-19 outbreak, we are seeing a growing number of calls to ban the trade and consumption of wildlife globally.

The covid-19 outbreak has shown us that there is clearly a need to readdress our balance with nature. But, what lessons can we learn from past attempts at banning wild meat, and what are the possible realities for both conservation and for those who depend on wild meat for food and income?

  • While some of the proposed bans recognize the important role that wild meat plays for the food security and nutrition of indigenous peoples and local communities globally, wild meat also constitutes an important financial backstop across Africa, in particular during low seasons or when agricultural commodity prices fluctuate. The Ebola crisis and subsequent ban on the trade of wild meat markets across West and Central Africa resulted in unemployment for thousands of women, the primary traders of wild meat. The potentially unequal effects such bans could have on the financial security of different groups of people must be properly considered. Livelihood alternatives must be co-designed and led by those who will be affected in order to mitigate such effects and ensure alternatives are locally relevant.

    Women at the Moutuka Nunene bushmeat market in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Women at the Moutuka Nunene bushmeat market in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo.  Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

  • If alternative sources of food and income are not provided for those who need it, bans on wild meat trade and consumption could result in malnutrition among the young and most vulnerable, or push the trade of wild meat underground and worsen contributing factors to the spread of disease. Following the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak, a universal ban on wild meat markets was imposed across West Africa. Rather than being enforced, it pushed many wild meat markets underground, rendering regulation more complex and worsening food hygiene conditions, a key driver of disease spread. Further, past attempts to limit wild meat sales in Equatorial Guinea, were only transiently effective as the hunting ban was again not enforced and was quickly followed by a marked increase in wild meat hunting compared to hunting rates prior to the ban.  Poorly considered bans resulted in the erosion of food security and health and unintended consequences for conservation, ending in calls for a more nuanced understanding of how future spillovers could be prevented.
  • There is a common assumption that people in rural areas eat wild meat because they have no other alternatives. The Darwin Initiative project “Why Eat Wild Meat”, looks to understand individual level differences in wild meat preferences, hunting, and consumption and the reasons for doing so, in rural villages in southeastern Cameroon. The project is finding that yes, people eat wild meat because it is readily available to them, but also, and more importantly, because they like the taste. As such, it’s important that conservationists keen to devise protein alternative projects first understand why people eat and hunt wild meat. Alternatives are best when locally conceived, and when projects are co-designed, to ensure that subsequent alternatives meet local needs and have longevity.
  • It is also often assumed that livestock or poultry present culturally viable alternatives to wild meat. However, the “Why Eat Wild Meat” study identified greater concerns by some local people in rural Cameroon over the health of domestic animals than they did over many species hunted for wild meat. This is due in part to several outbreaks of disease relating to domestic animals, including most recently avian influenza, and personal experiences of livestock or poultry falling ill. Additionally, animals such as chickens and goats are kept for sale or for large celebrations in these villages, and are not routinely consumed for subsistence purposes. As such, encouraging a shift away from hunting and towards a dependence on livestock and poultry would require a deep cultural shift for some rural communities.
  • The impact of a shift to livestock or poultry raises concerns for many conservationists about deforestation; researchers estimate that if livestock such as cattle were to replace wild meat in the Congo Basin, 25 million hectares of forest would be converted to pastureland. Realistically, pigs or chickens would be seen as more viable replacements to wild meat, but again this would require an estimated additional 4.5 million tons of pigs or chickens, again unlikely to happen any time soon in the Congo Basin. We must consider the potential adverse impacts that calling for a shift to livestock could have, and whether such calls are realistic in the timeframe required.


Deforestation: A bird’s eye view shows the contrast between forest and agricultural landscapes near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil.  Photo by Kate Evans/CIFOR

We need local understanding

Much of the recent work on wild meat and disease has focussed on the international convention scale. If we are to change behaviours to protect against the emergence of further zoonotic diseases and encourage a shift away from any unsustainable or illegal behaviours, we must also have a local understanding of why people make the choices they do, as well as the pathways of trade and transmission, to help ensure that policy changes regarding wild meat are driven by evidence, and that subsequent actions are locally relevant and realistic.  As the “Why Eat Wild Meat” project is discovering, the reasons behind wild meat hunting and consumption, the types of biodiversity involved in trade and the pathways for disease transition are complex and varied. So then, should be the proposed effective ways to tackle the spread of new diseases such as covid-19.

Discussions on whether and how bans on the wild meat trade should occur will surely continue over the coming months. Dialogue between wildlife trade specialists, virologists, conservationists and public health experts are needed to assess the likely impact of policy responses for people and for nature and to try to fill existing knowledge gaps.  In the mean time, wild meat remains a vital source of protein and income for millions in rural areas, and banning trade will not be a silver bullet solution to the challenges raised by this virus. Rather, bans risk oversimplifying the reality of covid-19 and other coronaviruses that are sure to emerge in future, diverting attention away from the greater challenges, such as poverty, a lack of locally and culturally relevant and viable alternatives, and the external forces that incentivize people in rural areas to hunt to meet the additional demand.


A woman prepares duiker meat with chili sauce

A woman prepares duiker meat with chili sauce in Cameroon. Photo: Stephanie Brittain

We must learn from previous crisis responses to climate shocks, disease outbreaks and humanitarian disasters, where hurried response interventions led maladaptation and further damages to lives, livelihoods, and the environment. We need greater efforts to understand these local contexts and drivers of wild meat hunting and consumption, if we are to change patterns of use.

[With thanks to Emilie Beauchamp and EJ Milner-Gulland for their helpful inputs.]

Coronavirus: why a blanket ban on wildlife trade would not be the right response

By Dan Challender, Amy HinsleyDiogo VeríssimoMichael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Oxford Martin Programme on Wildlife Trade

Originally published in The Conservation

The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic have been linked to a “wet” market in Wuhan, in the Hubei province of eastern China. Wet markets are common in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, poultry, fresh meat and live animals, including wildlife. Reports initially indicated that the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 may have been transmitted to people from wildlife at this wet market because of unsanitary conditions.

The pandemic has led to some wildlife conservation organisations to call for blanket bans on wildlife trade on public health grounds. They include bans on commercial trade in wildlife for human consumption and the closure of these markets. More extreme calls from more than 200 organisations include ending the keeping, breeding, domestication and use of all wildlife, which also covers traditional medicine.

But blanket bans are unlikely to benefit people or wildlife, and are unfeasible because they overlook the complexity of the wildlife trade. The COVID-19 outbreak should not be used opportunistically to prescribe global wildlife trade policy. A more appropriate response would be to improve wildlife trade regulation with a direct focus on human health.


A fish market in Seoul, South Korea. Rodrigo Oyanedel

Wildlife is used globally on a daily basis, from medicinal plants and edible fungi, to wild meat in EuropeNorth AmericaSouthern Africa and elsewhere. Wildlife trade enables people in many parts of the world to meet their basic needs and can provide livelihood benefits from harvesting or farming.

Despite the way it is often presented, wildlife trade involves far more than animals harvested in tropical regions and sold in China. It includes species from land, freshwater and marine habitats, including fisheries, in production systems ranging from wild harvesting to captive breeding. It takes place at local and international levels, includes legal and illegal, sustainable and unsustainable components, and is measurable in billions of dollars annually.

Bans are seldom the answer

Unquestionably, wildlife trade regulations require review in response to COVID-19 for public health reasons. However, while bans may appear to be a logical solution, their impact on public health cannot be assumed to be positive. They could also do more harm than good for biodiversity. Typically, prohibition does not deter all traders in marketplaces. This would mean that trade in some products would likely continue illegally. Traders would be motivated by financial profits, with an increased risk of trade being controlled by organised crime.

Bans may not stigmatise consumption either, especially where products are socially desirable, meaning consumer demand for many products would persist. This is a public health concern because, unregulated, such trade would likely be clandestine and, if unsanitary, could pose the risk of transmitting disease from animals to humans. Bans, especially where they remove legal supply options, such as captive breeding, could raise perceptions of scarcity, and drive up black market prices and increase incentives for poaching. This could accelerate the exploitation and extinction of species in the wild.

The outcome for wildlife economies would also be uncertain. For example, the wildlife “breeding economy” in China is estimated to involve 14 million people and be worth more than US$74 billion annually. The fate of animals under human care and the people employed in these industries would require consideration. In China, bamboo rat and badger farmers are to be compensated and given grants for new businesses following the closure of almost 3,000 farms in response to COVID-19.


Scientists have discovered a virus similar to COVID-19 in the threatened pangolin, which is heavily trafficked for its meat and scales (Shutterstock),

To be effective, bans would need to be largely in step with local social norms and well enforced. But this is unrealistic in many parts of the world where law enforcement is cripplingly under-resourced in terms of technology and manpower. Local people may also challenge the legitimacy of any bans. Requiring agencies to enforce comprehensive bans in these circumstances would most likely overwhelm them.

Even where there are strong laws and enforcement, implementation is challenging and illegal trade still occurs frequently, such as the harvesting and trafficking of the European eel in Europe. It is also unlikely that law enforcement would receive the financial investment necessary to enforce bans in the long term, due to political constraints on spending and other more urgent priorities.

Better regulated trade

Banning all wildlife trade is a knee-jerk and potentially self-defeating measure. A more appropriate response would be improving regulation of wildlife markets, especially those involving live animals. This should include full consideration of public health and animal welfare concerns to ensure there is low risk of future animal-to-human disease outbreaks.

This could be achieved by focusing on highest-risk species and improving conditions along supply chains and in markets, such as health and safety and sanitation, and regular animal health checks. These practices could draw on existing standards that apply to regulations for transporting live animals by air.

Like bans, any new or revised regulations would require enforcement. But approaches such as “smart regulation” could be used to aid the process. This could ensure that new measures are culturally appropriate and incentivise local people, traders, buyers and law enforcement agencies to comply. Devising regulations in this way would mean they are more likely to be effective, rather than undermined which a blanket ban would do.

Rushing to indiscriminately ban all wildlife trade in response to COVID-19 would not eradicate the risk of animal-to-human disease outbreaks. It could also have a severe impact on livelihoods and biodiversity. Improved regulations that focus on health, if implemented well, would avoid these effects while ensuring a low risk of future disease outbreaks.

On COVID-19, and rebalancing our relationship with nature

By Hollie Booth, Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science, University of Oxford

Originally posted on the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science

2020 was supposed to be a super year for nature. Instead we got a pandemic.

Arguably, it is our strained relationship with nature that got us in to this mess. The evidence is fairly conclusive that the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 first made its way in to a human vector in a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. The original animal reservoir for the virus was probably bats. Available evidence suggests the virus first passed from bats to an unconfirmed intermediary host (maybe pangolins) and then from the intermediary to humans (Fig. 1), probably because someone ate the intermediary host.

Fig. 1. Socio-ecological system of food production

Fig. 1. A simplified schematic of how the socio-ecological system of food production lead to COVID-19 in humans

This zoonotic infection was therefore made possible due to two human follies: first, expanding human populations (and associated agribusiness) into undisturbed ecosystems, leading to the step 1 interface. Secondly, consumption of animals, leading to the step 2 interface. Note I use the word ‘animals’ here, since while many have been quick to point the finger at ‘wildlife trade’ and China’s ‘exotic’ eating habits, domestic animals such as poultry and livestock cannot be entirely ruled out as vectors (as they have been for previous zoonoses). Live animal markets, and inter-mingling of live animal trade with food products, likely doesn’t help.

So, what does this mean for our relationship with nature?

It reminds us how intertwined we are with nature, and how the choices we make about our food systems and broader human-nature relations can have rippling global impacts. COVID-19 evolved in the socio-ecological system of food production in China, which has undoubtedly been influenced by global market forces. It is a co-product of relentless human innovation for consumption and trade, and nature’s relentless capacity for adaption and evolution.

It reminds us that nature is not caring, kind and simply here for our benefit. In certain socio-ecological systems, nature has the capacity to be terrifying and destructive to humans, just as we can reap destruction on nature.

It reminds us how dependent we are on a habitable planet, and that the current globalised economic system is not de-coupled from nature and immutable to its impacts. Rather, our relationship with nature needs to be re-balanced. Some argue that this is sufficient justification for increasing separation of humans and nature, for example through closing wildlife markets in their entirety. Yet this fails to sufficiently acknowledge the complexity and precariousness of human-nature relations. Humans depends on wildlife for food security and livelihoods, just as some species depend, in part, on human use for their survival. This creates a false dichotomy and decoupling of ‘natural’ and ‘human’ systems, yet the two do not operate in isolation, and we are often required to trade one off against the other. As such, stopping use of wildlife would have negative impacts for nature and people. For example:

In turn, this may exacerbate risks to human health due to increased food insecurity, increased interfaces between animal agriculture and undisturbed ecosystems (more of step 1), and potential increases in illegal and unregulated wildlife trade (more of step 2).

Fig 2. Factors that increase the risk of zoonoses are complex and inter-twined

Fig. 2. The factors that increase the risk of zoonoses are complex and inter-twined, changing one aspect of our human-nature relationship will inevitably impact another. Source: UNEP.

Whether to increase regulation of wildlife markets in response to COVID-19 is an open question and requires examining the likely impact of different policies on public health, biodiversity, animal welfare and broader socio-economic issues. Moreover, it requires a critical analysis of the proximate vs. ultimate causes of zoonotic disease emergence. Other factors such as urbanization, population density, socio-economic status and agriculture play major significant roles in zoonotic disease emergence. Interestingly, while many are quick to point the finger at China’s eating habits in this instance, the majority of human infectious diseases emerged for the first time in northerly latitudes, with a hotspot in Europe. As such, regulation of wildlife markets is not a panacea for preventing emergence of zoonoses, it is one piece in the complex puzzle of our human-nature relationship (Fig. 2).

It also reminds us that while nature can be cruel, it can also provide solace during times of distress. With an estimated 2.9 billion people in some form of lockdown, we may not be able to interact with people, but at least we can find solitude in nature (at least we can in the UK, during our ‘one exercise per day’ allowance), and appreciate the simple things in life (Fig. 3). This may provide an opportunity to reconnect with our values, reflect on the sustainability of our choices, and transition towards new ways to live, work and organise the global economy.

Fig. 3. Reconnecting with nature

Fig. 3. Reconnecting with nature can help us to cope with social isolation, and reflect on what’s important

Our relationship with nature got us in to this mess, but it can also get us out of it. On an individual level, for those of us who are lucky enough to be fit and healthy, we can disconnect from the hubbub of our work lives and reconnect with ourselves and nature. On a societal level, we can learn lessons from this tragedy, to reset our relationship with nature, and find creative ways to live more happy and sustainable lives, which can benefit public health, nature and our ever inter-twined socio-ecological system.

[With thanks to Dan ChallenderMunib Kahnyari and E.J. Milner-Gulland for their helpful inputs to an earlier draft] 

China’s Announcement on Wildlife Trade – What’s New and What Does It Mean?

By Yuhan Li and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade team, University of Oxford

Originally published on the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science

A “wild” public health issue

Menu of a wild meat restaurant in the seafood market, where civet, bamboo rat and other animals were sold. Photo source: weibo

Menu of a wild meat restaurant in Wuhan Huanan seafood market, where civet, bamboo rat and other animals were sold. Photo credit: weibo

To date, COVID-19 has caused over than 2800 deaths in China and has spread to 50 countries [1,2]. The evidence currently suggests the virus was first transmitted to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, as many early confirmed cases involved individuals that had contact with this market, and 93.9%(31/33) of environmental samples taken from the western region of the market were found with COVID-19 [3]. In addition to seafood, fresh meat and live wild animals were being sold and slaughtered in this market, and coronaviruses are known to jump from some species (e.g., bat, camel, civet) to people [4]. These indicate that the virus might have stemmed from wild animals on sale at the market [3]. However, the intermediate host of COVID-19 is still unclear at this stage. Following the outbreak, the market was shut down by the government on January 1st, 2020, but the consumption of wildlife in China has drawn unprecedented public attention ever since, both within China and internationally, given the severe public health implications of the outbreak.

On February 24th 2020, China’s top legislature adopted a decision to “thoroughly ban the illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.” The decision has binding force and it took effect on the same day as its promulgation, i.e., February 24th [5,6].

This article provides a detailed explanation of this decision and is based on discussions within the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford and consultations with Shanshui Conservation Center, based at Peking University in China.

Consumption of terrestrial wild animals for edible uses prohibited

As COVID-19 is assumed to have close links with the consumption of wild animals, the new decision prohibits the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purpose of consumption is also prohibited [6].

This is a big move. Previously, only the 402 species on the List of Wild Animals Under State Priority Conservation were banned from consumption as wild meat in China [7]. However, this list is outdated and does not correspond to the conservation status of some species [8]. Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals was permitted, subject to obtaining appropriate certificates (e.g., hunting, breeding, quarantine, trade) from the government. However, this certification system was sometimes poorly implemented. Buying a certificate and using it for “laundering” of wild-caught animals was possible [9].

Which species which are currently consumed are not included in these new measures?

Although this new ban was quickly celebrated by the media and some in the international conservation community, there are several nuances and exceptions that must be clarified.

  • Aquatic wildlife, expect these banned from edible use by the Wildlife Protection Law (2018), is exempt, because the National People’s Congress (NPC) views “fishing as a natural resource and an important agricultural product, as well as a common international practise” [5]. This means, for example, sea cucumbers and other widely consumed species will continue to be traded under the same rules as before.
  • Wild plants are not included in the ban.
  • Farmed amphibians and reptiles on the List of National Key Protected Aquatic Wild Animals for Farming and the List of National Key Protected Economic Aquatic Animals and Plants Resources, such as the giant salamander, softshell turtle and crocodile, currently can still be consumed, until new regulations from the Ministry of Agriculture are annouced[17].
  • Farmed, terrestrial animals on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry can now be traded for food consumption. A publicly available version of this list can be found in a report to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and includes various breeds of pig, chicken, duck, goose, special poultry (e.g., ostrich), cattle, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, rabbit and deer [10]. Mink and raccoon dog are also on the list, possibly due to demand for their pelts. Previously, some species not in the list could be farmed (e.g., civets and bamboo rats) but farming these species is now illegal, if they are to be consumed as food. The Chinese government plans to revise this list and the changes would impact certain species and industries.

What about non-edible uses?

The saiga horns are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Photo credit:  the Saiga Resource Centre

Saiga horns are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Photo credit:  the Saiga Resource Centre

Non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals, such as scientific research, medicinal use, and display, are still regulated by existing laws, such as the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016) [5]. For example, it remains legal to use processed pangolin scales from a certificated source, or bear bile from legal farms for medical purposes, or stockpiled saiga horn. This means that a substantial number of species of conservation concern are unaffected by the ban.

What about the illegal trade?

Some wildlife trade is already illegal (e.g., tiger, ivory) in China, and the Chinese government has announced it will clamp down further on such trade with “aggravated punishment”, suggesting stronger penalties will be used for illegal wildlife trade. In the existing Criminal Law and its interpretation (2014), if the circumstances are especially serious, life imprisonment or death shall be sentenced [11].

Further details are not currently available but should become clear in forthcoming legislation. Since the rise of COVID-19, the Chinese government has investigated over 600 cases of wildlife crime [12], and hopefully, this greater focus on law enforcement will become the norm.

What about the Chinese public’s views?

"Say No to Wild Meat Consumption", a poster from Shanshui Conservation Center

“Say No to Wild Meat Consumption”, a poster from Shanshui Conservation Center

Since the outbreak of the virus, several Chinese conservation organisations have developed a questionnaire to understand public attitudes and circulated it on Chinese social media (e.g., wechat, weibo), receiving over 100,000 responses. Among the respondents, 88% resided in urban areas, 32% have seen people eating wild animals in the past year, and 96.4% said they supported a ban on consumption of all wild animals. Those against the ban believed that “the industry of some wildlife farming is very mature”, and that  “some wildlife farming can bring income.” In terms of banning all trade in wild animals, including food consumption, medicinal use and others, more than 90% of the respondents expressed a willingness to support this [13]. Whether this is a short-term attitude because of the current situation, and whether it is shared by more rural, less internet-savvy people, remains to be seen.


Winners and losers

Certain species will definitely gain from this decision, assuming that it is well enforced. These are terrestrial wild mammal species which are legal to hunt and consume, and which are currently potentially being threatened due to this consumption. Species which fall into this category include civets and bats (both of which, by the way, have been implicated in previous epidemics). Others (particularly aquatic species and those used legally in Traditional Chinese Medicine) will not benefit from this legislation. The crack-down on breaches of existing laws may also help species traded illegally. However, the markets have not been permanently closed as yet, and so the public health, animal welfare and conservation concerns which they produce are still there.

A wild civet. Photo credit to Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance

A wild civet. Photo credit to Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance

People in the farmed wild animal industry could face severe economic losses as a result of this new legislation. Previously, the farming of certain wildlife species was encouraged by the government to help alleviate poverty [14]. The wildlife farming industry is estimated to have created employment for more than 14 million people and worth over £56 billion, with pelt production (e.g., mink, raccoon dog, fox) representing 74.8% and food consumption involving species such as the giant salamander, frog and blue peacock, 24% [15]. The National People’s Congress spokesman stated that local governments should guide these farmers towards other industries and provide compensation for their losses [5]. Meanwhile, what happens to the captive-bred animals remains uncertain, with potential implications for animal welfare.

What next?

Using pangolin scales is still legal in China. Photo credit: Gregg Yan, wikimedia commons

Using pangolin scales is still legal in China. Photo credit: Gregg Yan, wikimedia commons

This decision may be just the start of a series of new pieces of legislation, which authorize provincial and city-level governments to implement their own measures. For example, one day after its promulgation, the Shenzhen government released a draft proposal for regional management, suggesting that the ban on animal consumption might extend to pet animals, such as cats and dogs [16]. The National People’s Congress also plans to revise the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and other wildlife-related laws this year, which will have a long-term impact. These forthcoming legislative changes will need continued attention and efforts by Chinese NGOs and the public to make sure that the changes are as effective as possible.

It has taken so much human suffering to bring attention to this issue. However, the speed with which this new decision has been taken offers hope that the lessons of COVID-19 will be learned.

Special thanks to Melissa Arias, Dan Challender, E.J. Milner-Gulland, Xuesong Han, Amy Hinsley, Xilin Jiang, Zhi Lu, Xiao Mao, Jessica Philips, Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, Terry Townshend, Lingyun Xiao, for their valuable comments and edits to this blog. 


[1]      新冠肺炎病例实时地图 Live map of COVID-19 in China. The Paper. /2020-02-28. https://projects.thepaper.cn/thepaper-cases/839studio/feiyan/.

[2]      The world gets ready – Covid-19 is now in 50 countries, and things will get worse. The Economist. 2020/2020-02-28. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/02/29/covid-19-is-now-in-50-countries-and-things-will-get-worse.

[3]      China detects large quantity of novel coronavirus at Wuhan seafood market. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-01/27/c_138735677.htm.

[4]      Cohen J. Mining coronavirus genomes for clues to the outbreak’s origins. Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2020.

[5]      全面禁止非法野生动物交易 革除滥食野生动物陋习——全国人大常委会法工委有关部门负责人答记者问Interview with the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2020-02/24/c_1125620750.htm.

[6]      China’s legislature adopts decision on banning illegal trade, consumption of wildlife. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-25. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-02/24/c_138814139.htm.

[7]      那些没有且无法被检疫的肉,你真的敢吃吗?Meat without quarantine certificate, you dare to eat? Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-25. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1961/.

[8]      野生动物保护名录,一把刻度模糊的卡尺 Wild animal protection list, a ruler with blurred numbers. Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1906/.

[9]      养殖技术成熟,就可以开放市场了吗?Can the market be opened if farming techniques are mature? Shanshui Conservation Center. /2020-02-28. https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/HuguwEKlm35qO80sWpCCwg.

[10]    中华人民共和国农业部 Ministry of Agriculture P R of C. 中国畜禽遗传资源状况Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry of China. 2003.

[11]    最高人民法院最高人民检察院关于办理走私刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释 Interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on several issues concerning the application of law in handling criminal cases of smuggling. 2014/2020-02-28. http://www.court.gov.cn/shenpan-xiangqing-7081.html.

[12]    新华时评:用法治革除吃野味的陋习 Xinhua commentary: use the rule of law to remove the bad habits of eating wild animals. Xinhua. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2020-02/24/c_1125620829.htm.

[13]    野生动物修法调查 | 22天,10万份问卷,聊聊这些民间的声音 Survey on the revision of laws on wildlife: 22 days, 100,000 responses, voices from the public. Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1926/.

[14]    野生动植物产业助力江西省林业精准扶贫 Wildlife industries help poverty alleviation in Jiangxi. 2018/2020-02-28. http://www.forestry.gov.cn/main/5383/20180111/1066442.html.

[15]    中国工程院 Chinese Academy of Engineering. 中国野生动物养殖产业可持续发展战略研究Research on Sustainable Development Strategy of Chinese Wild Animal Farming Industry. 2017.

[16]    关于《深圳经济特区全面禁止食用野生动物条例(草案征求意见稿)》公开征求意见的公告Announcement on the public consultation on the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone Regulations on the Comprehensive Ban on Eating Wild Animals (Consultation Draft). 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.szrd.gov.cn/szrd_zyfb/szrd_zyfb_tzgg/202002/t20200225_19026852.htm.

[17]    甲鱼等还能吃吗?农业农村部:将进一步明确养殖两栖爬行动物禁食范围 Can softshell turtles still be consumed? Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs: will announce further clarification on farmed reptiles and amphibians. 2020/2020-02-29.http://www.xinhuanet.com/2020-02/27/c_1125634919.htm

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

Solutions for managing shark and ray trade through molecular species identification techniques

By: Andhika Prima Prasetyo, Researcher, Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Indonesia; Doctoral student, University of Salford


Located between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Indonesia is at the epicentre of marine biodiversity, making it a priority area for global conservation efforts. About one-fifth of all Chondrichthyes species (the cartilaginous fish: sharks, rays, skates and chimera) are found in this region, with more species still awaiting discovery.

Indonesia is one of the world’s major fishing countries, consisting of approximately two-thirds ocean; it is also the world’s largest producer of sharks and rays (Figure 1). Sharks and rays are mostly caught as bycatch in other fisheries, but their economic value cannot be underappreciated. Even as bycatch, sharks and rays are valuable and marketable. In some places, a shift from bycatch to target catch has been observed.

Figure 1: Shark and ray landing in Indonesia 1950-2016 (Credit: A. P. Prasetyo; Source: DGCF-MMAF, 2018; FAO, 2018).

While fins are notoriously the most prized product derived from sharks and rays, every part of the animal is valued in Indonesia, including the meat, skin, cartilage, liver oil and offal. Products are processed in several ways and produced into a variety of products, such as hisit (shredded collagen fibres of fin), peeled fin, shark steak, salted meat, fish ball, squalene oil, cartilage powder, dog treats, belts, samurai sword handles and other accessories. Many of these non-fin products are used domestically. In 2016, shark and ray landings amounted to 132,746 tonnes while only 3,003 tonnes of shark products were recorded as exports (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Landing and export amounts of Indonesian sharks and rays in 2016 (AFQQI-MMAF, 2017)

Sharks and their cartilaginous relatives are subject to escalating global capture and trade.  Their slow life history traits make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing and thus sharks are recognized as one of the world’s most threatened species groups. Aimed to curb trade-driven over-utilization and population declines, 30 shark and ray species have been listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and with the possibly of this increasing in the near future. This means international trade restrictions are applied, such that contracting countries to CITES are required to ensure trade is sustainable, without impacting wild populations.

However, in practice, export restrictions present a challenge for the authorities to ensure compliance with such international trade measures. This is particularly the case in Indonesia, considering its large volumes of products, diverse species and processed products, and many fishing and trading ports. Many products are highly processed, which subsequently loses key visual identification characteristics, making monitoring and implementation very challenging (Figure 3 & 4).

Figure 3: Shark derived products. (Source: A. P. Prasetyo/MMAF/Seafdec)

Figure 4: Ray derived products. (Source: A.P. Prasetyo/MMAF/Seafdec)

In Indonesia, the Coastal and Marine Resources Management Body (CMRMB, locally called “Balai/Loka Pengelolaan Sumberdaya Pesisir dan Laut”), is the Governmental technical unit tasked with shark and ray trade monitoring. There are 6 CMRMB offices located across Indonesia, with 17 regional operating units (Figure 5). Staff at these units are responsible for issuing trade recommendation letters, which authorizes shipments for transportation (domestically and internationally). This is a difficult job and requires high volumes of fisheries products to be handled, with the necessity of rapid species identification to ensure that CITES-listed species are not illegally and unsustainably traded.

Figure 5: Summary of shark and ray trade handled by CMRMB (Muttaqin et.al., 2018).

Between 2014 and 2017, the Serang CMRMB unit in Java successfully stopped, predominately through visual identification, approximately 250,000 individuals of 4 CITES-listed species:  oceanic white-tip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), hammerhead shark (Sphyrna sp.), thresher shark (Alopias sp.) and silky shark (C. falciformis).

A key challenge is that for many of these products, it is impossible to distinguish species by visual identification alone. CMRMB does not currently have molecular facilities to aid species identification, but since 2015 they have contracted other organizations to conduct genetic investigations to support CITES implementation. However, genetic testing is both time-consuming and financially unfeasible for regular use. It takes 3+ weeks to receive results and costs £110 per sample. Some CMRMB offices are located far from laboratory facilities and since the exporters are pushed to ship their cargo as quickly as possible, these time scales are not compatible with industry. The turnaround time for results also depends on the type of product. Some products need extra protocols to extract the DNA, such as dried fin, mixed hisit, dried skin, cartilage and oil.

Acknowledging this capacity gap, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), in the UK, has been working with the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Salford since 2018, on a project funded by the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, to tackle the illegal and unsustainable shark trade in Indonesia. One component of the project is the development of a cost-effective molecular technique to rapidly identify shark species in trade, which can be practically implemented at export, and support CITES implementation and combatting of illegal trade.

At present, there are three types of genetic techniques used to identify shark and ray products: DNA Barcoding, Mini-DNA Barcoding and Species-specific PCR. DNA Barcoding involves sequencing a unique stretch of DNA for species identification. DNA Barcoding nearly always works on wet or dried, unprocessed fins, but often fails with dried, processed fins or other highly processed products that are likely to contain highly degraded DNA. For such samples, mini-DNA Barcoding is more suitable where two short DNA fragments are sequenced. A species-specific polymerase chain reaction (ss-PCR) is an approach that does not involve DNA sequencing and could reduce analysis cost. This approach amplifies DNA from target species and can identify 9 species of CITES-listed sharks. 9,200 shark fin by-products were tested by mini-DNA Barcoding in Hong Kong and revealed that CITES-listed sharks are still commonly being traded, such as scalloped and smooth hammerheads.

Over the next 3 years, this collaborative project will focus on applying, modifying and improving the existing molecular approaches in search of a cost-effective genetic approach that is suitable for Indonesia, and potentially other regions.

Andhika Prima Prasetyo is a researcher at the Center for Fisheries Research, Agency for Marine and Fisheries Research and Human Resources, Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries – Republic of Indonesia. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD as an Industrial Sponsored PhD student in the School of Science, Engineering and Environment, at the University of Salford under the supervision of Professor Stefano Mariani, Dr Allan McDevitt and Dr Joanna Murray. A sincere thank you to Dr Adeline Seah, Ms Hollie Booth and Ms Nafeesa Esmail for their valuable review and contribution.