Hiding under the shell: not enough to protect the ploughshare tortoise

By: Angelo Ramy Mandimbihasina, Conservation Scientist, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust


A Malagasy proverb, “Sokatra ilatsaham-baratra, henoy izany ry hazon-damosiko” means “the tortoise is well protected inside their shell and even thunder will not affect them”. However, not all tortoises can protect themselves from harm. The ploughshare tortoise is one example.

The ploughshare tortoise is terrestrial and endemic to an area of 160 km2 inside Baly Bay National Park, North-western Madagascar. This species (Astrochelys yniphora), has been classified by IUCN as Critically Endangered (CR), listed on Appendix 1 of CITES and protected locally by law – it is not permitted to harvest, captively rear or sell individuals. Its CR status is because the species’ natural population size is less than 1000 and continuously declining. Our recent research, a population study using distance sampling, in combination with seizure data, has concluded that the wild ploughshare tortoise population has declined from 1100 to close to 500 in about 10 years, because of poaching. These findings suggest that most of the trafficked animals supplying the illegal international wildlife trade originate from the wild, and are mainly destined for Southeast Asian countries.

Ploughshare tortoise. Photo credit: A. R. Mandimbihasina

Another driver of the drastic decline in ploughshare tortoise populations is the anthropogenic Allee effect. In other words, this species’ rarity is causing a high demand in destination countries, which raises prices locally. Rather than continuing to invest in farming, people living around the tortoise’s habitat may prefer to search for even just one tortoise, which has a greater value than their annual agricultural production, although this action can be very risky. Combined with other threats such as human-induced fires, ploughshare tortoise poaching may lead to the species’ extinction in the wild.

If we draw out the system of ploughshare tortoise poaching, we can distinguish the different actors involved. Locally, some people, known as “poachers”, search within the tortoise’s natural habitats for individuals. These poachers sell any harvested tortoises to intermediaries who are from either a nearby village or larger town and have connections enabling them to supply bigger customers or traders with the means to export tortoises.

In 2012, a conservation and management plan for the species was created, approved by the Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forest, and adapted to fit the local situation. Captive breeding, scientific research, anti-poaching patrols as well as political advocacy have since been undertaken. Public awareness has also been used as a tool to explain to local villagers that they are losing their valuable biodiversity, which poses other ecological consequences to the ecosystem. An intact ecosystem is necessary to attract tourists and ultimately improve the region’s economy.

As an example, to reduce the threats, discourage poachers, and to better understand what is happening in the ecosystem, patrolling by local villagers, park rangers and military was initiated using smartphones to record patrol data. Data are uploaded into SMART, a package used to store, analyse and report results to support the planning of subsequent activities to reduce threats. This package can also be used to record any law enforcement actions taken and compile all results to evaluate the efficacy of the conservation interventions.

Ploughshare tortoise. Photo credit: A. R. Mandimbihasina

During village meetings and public awareness sessions, income-generating activities relating to farming or fishing practices were proposed to local villagers to increase their incomes and yields. The belief is that, if villagers are better off, poaching numbers will decrease because they will not want to continuously risk their lives.

To increase law enforcement and curb associated corruption, advocacy must be carried out locally, regionally and nationally, to convince people and the responsible government authorities at all levels to act to reduce this threat. Support is needed for an international campaign to reduce ploughshare tortoise demand and increase illegal wildlife trade control measures in airports and border crossings.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Towards sustainable African elephant conservation in a changing environment: a case study of Zimbabwe

By: Edson Gandiwa (Professor and Dean, Chinhoyi University of Technology) and Never Muboko (Professor and Chair, Chinhoyi University of Technology)


People are concerned about the survival of large mammals like the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) not only because of their charismatic attributes, but because of their important role for humans and nature. The social-ecological and economic significance of the African elephant are well documented, such as here and here. Economically, the African elephant (one of the big five alongside buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino) is of significant importance for consumptive (trophy hunting) and non-consumptive (photographic) tourism. Tourism in most African countries is wildlife-based and contributes greatly to national economies. In Zimbabwe alone, between 1989 and 2006 hunting contributed about 90% of communal areas management programme for indigenous resources (CAMPFIRE) revenue and of that revenue, about 70% was from African elephant hunts. The African elephants’ social significance is rooted in African tradition and cultural heritage, featuring high on the system of African totemic and spiritual philosophy, contributing to both African cohesion, Ubuntu, and species conservation. Throughout Africa, people do not eat the meat of an animal which is an embodiment of their totem, providing protection in areas where people must co-exist with such animals.

Despite the ecological and socio-economic values of the African elephant, its population is threatened by habitat loss, human-elephant conflict, illegal hunting and trafficking of ivory. The recent Great Elephant Census (2014) results estimated about 352,300 African savanna elephants in 18 countries, indicating approximately a 30% decline in the past seven years. However, some countries in Southern Africa have had stable and/or increasing population trends. Zimbabwe has the second largest African elephant population in Africa (82,000) after Botswana (130,000). The sustenance of the African elephant population in Zimbabwe could be attributed to the benefits local communities and landholders derive from having wildlife on their properties making it possible for people to co-exist with wildlife.

Elephants in Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe. Photo credit: T. Kuiper

Our research has focused on the drivers and nature of illegal hunting (poaching), and determinants of sustainable wildlife conservation in human dominated landscapes, with a particular focus on Gonarezhou and Hwange National Parks and adjacent areas, Zimbabwe. This research has revealed that in communities with disgruntled local people because of diminishing or no wildlife benefits and characterised by high poverty levels, there is generally a noticeable increase in wildlife crimes associated with diversified illegal hunting methods (including the use of firearms, snaring, poisons e.g., cyanide, which not only have negative impacts on target species, but also others such as vultures and carnivores). Hence, our findings point to the importance of ensuring greater involvement of local communities in wildlife management decision-making processes and diversification of benefits attributed to wildlife to ensure the species’ survival (particularly that of the African elephant). Given the sophistication of illegal hunting methods and increasing global demand of ivory, it is essential that adaptable and robust law enforcement efforts to protect this iconic species is developed in partnership and through collaborative arrangements with local communities and landholders. These findings are in line with recent work, in Africa and beyond, which conceptualises local communities as the First Line of Defense (FLoD) against the illegal wildlife trade.

The recent CAMPFIRE review, carried out between 2016 and 2018 by the Government of Zimbabwe in conjunction with the European Union, has provided an opportunity to strengthen community involvement in wildlife management with the African elephant as a focus in terms of trophy hunting and photographic tourism. Emergence of robust conservation actions at the community level and associated management models are essential to ensure the habitat range of the African elephant is extended beyond the protected areas and to local communities living with wildlife so as to enhance benefits from the species conservation, and create harmonious conservation relationships among stakeholders across communal, state and private lands.

Elephants in Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe. Photo credit: T. Kuiper

African elephant conservation is riddled with conflicts especially regarding its conservation outside designated protected areas. These conflicts mostly arise as a result of differing views on the management choices and decisions about its conservation. For instance, some stakeholders are against trophy hunting and trade as a conservation tool while others support trophy hunting. The controversies surrounding the management have implications for wildlife policies. For instance, the continued existence of wildlife outside protected areas is possible when benefits to local communities outweigh costs and in areas where photographic tourism is not viable, trophy hunting potentially provides the much-needed benefits. Hence, the importance of broadening options of sustainable resource use and the necessity of decision-makers at different levels to make well-informed policy decisions that meet both ecological and socio-economic interests in situations where there are competing claims on wildlife resources. Such policies should be case specific as no one policy is a fit for all situations. Thus, providing scientific evidence for decision-makers through robust research related to African elephant conservation options across the diverse landscapes is essential.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Today’s role of horticultural societies in Colombian orchid trade and conservation

By: Tatiana Arias, Laboratorio de Biología Comparativa, Corporación para Investigaciones Biológicas & Sociedad Colombiana de Orquideología @TatianaAriasGar


Colombia has the highest number of endemic orchids in the world, approximately 4,300 species which represents about 15% of the global total. In the country, orchids have long been commercialized as ornamentals, either in the horticultural or floricultural trade. Tropical orchids were collected intensively for export to Europe during the Victorian orchid fever, after the tulip mania bubble crisis (see our movie, Orchid Hunters to be released soon). Orchid hunters are still common in Colombia, mainly to supply private collectors who pay local people and farmers to extract orchids from tropical forests.

Although all orchids are currently included in Appendices I and II of CITES, commercial collection and illegal trade contribute to existing population declines. Many orchid species are endemic to small regions and as a consequence they are not only threatened by rapid habitat loss, but also illegal extraction. This leaves a great need to implement different conservation strategies to help maintain this resource and generate sustainable development alternatives for local communities. Ideally such strategies should integrate into economic, social and scientific activities.

Private collectors play a major role in the conservation of orchid species because of their impressive ex-situ living collections. In the city of Medellin alone there are six commercial and 44 amateur orchid growers. The most impressive collection from this region consists of about 2,500 Colombian species and 6,000 species found globally, accounting to approximately 200,000 live orchids. Amateur collectors have smaller (100-1,000 species) and more specialized collections. In Colombia it is still common to find growers collecting wild orchids to enhance their private collections. Illegal trade may also be relevant, albeit there is little publicly available information about it. However, private collectors are starting to be recognized as a solution rather than only a problem for orchid conservation. Most of these collectors belong to the biggest horticultural society in Colombia, Sociedad Colombiana de Orquideología (SCO).

The Colombian orchid society (SCO) is the largest horticulturist association in the country. Members are starting to play a major role in orchid conservation. Photo credit: Tatiana Arias

Some of the orchid conservation initiatives SCO members have led include: hosting the largest orchid show in Colombia to sensitize the general public about orchid diversity, “Orquídeas, artesanías y flores”; producing the 2014 book publication, “Orquideas del Valle de Aburra” with pictures dating back to 1960; implementing in-vitro cultivation of the Odontoglossum naveium species in response to it facing near extinction; and the recent acquisition of 200 ha of cloud forest dedicated to preserve orchids and educate the general public and local communities about their importance.

These initiatives have served, for example, to understand the decline of orchid diversity in Medellin where about 80% of photographed species still exist in the city, but about 25 species no longer grow in natural habitats. However, most of these locally extinct species still persist in private collections and could potentially be reintroduced back into their natural environments within the city. A second example of how horticultural collections from SCO members have been crucial to save species from extinction is Odontoglossum naveium. This species was considered extinct in the wild since 2014 with only a single plant, living in Europe. However, during an orchid show in Ecuador, a second grower was found with a different clone of this species. This allowed individuals to be in-vitro cultivated; the species is now slowly being reintroduced and is widely available for legal trading.

Since 2017, The Center for Biological Research formed a partnership with SCO. This partnership was initiated to preserve orchids of the Colombian Andes and their ecosystems by involving local communities to create in-situ and ex-situ conservation strategies and availing an alternative mode of subsistence through legal orchid cultivation and commerce. We are providing the communities with the knowledge from private collectors and creating a partnership between collectors, communities and scientists in order to protect orchids, a flagship taxon for the Andean forests.

Through this partnership, the same approach has been taken for other endangered species and population genomics has been used to inform reintroduction strategies with a better understanding of their genetic diversity. For these reintroduction experiments, Masdevallia hortensis was adopted as the flagship species for La Reserva Orquideas. Aspects of biotechnology, conservation and citizen science have been integrated into this collaborative project as well.

Scientists need to help bridge the gap between private orchid collectors (even if they may also be involved in illegal orchid collection) and conservationists. One way to do this is through building trust. Institutions and scientists that work with private collectors do not often share results or involve them in the whole research process. However, if they actively involve them to identify relevant the research questions and subsequently share results, the collectors may be more inclined to share their knowledge and provide access to their collections, which is invaluable to conserve Colombian orchid diversity.


Orchids are flagship species that can help to promote Andean forest conservation and ecosystem services. Photo credit: Luis Eduardo Mejía


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Protecting the Bengal tiger in the Bangladesh Sundarbans: are SMART patrol and public information measures effective?

By: Nasir Uddin, PhD Student, Landscape Ecology Group (Wildlife Trade), Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences @NasiruD50913815


Few know the world’s largest mangrove forest is in the Bangladesh Sundarbans and provides livelihoods for three to five million people from the southwest coastal belt of Bangladesh. The Sundarbans is also the home to the Bengal tiger, a great source of pride for Bangladesh. As a top predator and flagship species, the tiger plays a significant role to protect Sundarbans biodiversity. The latest tiger status report (2015) estimates there are only 106 tigers in the Sundarbans remaining.

SMART team destroying poacher’s camp in the Sundarbans. Photo credit: Md. Khairul Islam

The Bangladesh Forest Department conducted a tiger threat assessment indicating tiger and prey poaching and trade as the top factors affecting tiger populations. It has been understood that local forest users, professional poachers and pirates are directly and indirectly involved with tiger and prey poaching in the Sundarbans. A gang of over 30 jungle pirates were found to be actively involved in tiger killing and illegal fee collection from local forest resource collectors, operating in both Bangladesh and the India Sundarbans.

The Bangladesh Forest Department is the steward of wildlife and natural resources of the Sundarbans with camps throughout the mangroves to protect biodiversity. However, this is a dangerous area that is difficult to traverse, has limited survival resources (i.e. no potable water) and communication facilities and the teams have minimal logistical support and security to conduct their work. Despite these challenges there are potential effective ways to tackle the tiger decline. USAID’s Bengal Tiger Conservation Activity (Bagh) implemented by Bangladesh Forest Department, WildTeam, the Smithsonian Institution, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and Panthera to implement innovative monitoring techniques from 2014-2018. One of the priority interventions identified was to advance patrol monitoring systems in the Sundarbans. A pilot patrol monitoring system following Spatial Monitoring And Reporting Tools (SMART) approaches was tested in a small area the Sundarbans west wildlife sanctuary of Bangladesh.

With the SMART approach, data collected by patrollers along with community information (print and electronic media) and GIS portal-based intel were used to identify poaching hotspots and patrol targets throughout the sanctuary. Two mobile patrol teams arrested 242 intruders and deterred many more resource collectors who previously used the west sanctuary. Resource collection in the Sundarbans is regulated by national park laws and is practically difficult to monitor due to the landscape’s tidal nature, the presence of dangerous animals and pirate activities along the Bay of Bengal. Previously, anyone wishing to collect resources was required to pay ransom money to the resident pirates to enter forest areas, indirectly supporting their poaching activities and allowing poaching to persist.

Pirates group surrendering arms to Law Enforcement Agency. Photo credit: Mohsin UL Hakim

Over the last 23 years, Mr. Keramot, a local villager in the Khulna division of Bangladesh, and many others who have been collecting various forest resources from the west sanctuary have started to avoid these areas when SMART patrols began, shifting their efforts elsewhere. Resource collectors perceived that with the west sanctuary now protected, they needed to identify legal resource collection to sustain their livelihoods. This enabled law enforcement within one and a half years to dramatically change the illegal behavior of resource collectors who, like Keramot, are now looking into obtaining appropriate permits through the Forest Department for Sustainable Resource Collection. As SMART teams patrol the west sanctuary and the entire Satkhira range (one of four Sundarbans administrative units), fewer people are inclined to illegally harvest in the area (and thus provide less financial support to pirates). With SMART team present inside the area, pirates began to revert back to their normal lives and surrender their arms to law enforcement agencies with negotiation support from journalist and law enforcement agencies. Since May 2016, 264 jungle pirates from 26 groups surrendered and the Sundarbans was declared a pirate-free zone. This SMART approach has also had a clear positive correlation to the sustainability of the ecosystem, providing it with relief from resource extraction necessary to regenerate and maintain its biodiversity, including the Bengal tiger. Tiger populations have increased from 106 in 2015 to 121 by 2017 in the Sundarbans. People like Keramot believe it is these changes that will save the tiger and are thus more incentivized to protect the biodiversity of the west sanctuary and Sundarbans.

The Forest Department and the Bangladesh government consider the implementation of SMART as one of the best sustainable practices, with benefits for biodiversity. The government has now developed long-term plans to implement SMART patrolling in almost all protected areas of Bangladesh. Integrated SMART approaches using multi-sourced information can be cost-effective for protected area management to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking, as well as for use in wider landscape conservation planning.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Traditional medicine and IWT in Southern Africa: a roaring trade?

By: Vivienne L. Williams, Freelance Academic and Senior Visiting Researcher, School of Animal Plant & Environmental Sciences, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa


Ten minutes drive from my office is the biggest traditional medicine market in southern Africa. On any one visit, thousands of plant species, and hundreds of vertebrates, can be seen in a sweeping glance – but rarely are the ‘Big 5’ African mammals that dominate the #IWT debates, found. Instead, millions of plants harvested from rapidly declining populations are piled on pallets and sold to customers ranging from self-medicating citizens, to urban and rural traditional healers. As one walks through the market, the air is punctuated by the distinctive smells of the herbal medicines and odorous animal parts in various stages of decomposition.

Reflecting on 27 years of monitoring wildlife trade in southern Africa, I’m bewildered by the seemingly unquenchable and exponential trajectory of pernicious trade that threatens thousands of species across continents and cultures. At times, my science feels impotent to address the pressing issues pertaining to species risk in the context of rural and urban socio-economic factors driving trade and exploitation.

An inyanga (herbalist) and a chief’s son selling medicinal plants from a pavement in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 1916. Photo credit: Flint 2008

Historical records for South Africa show that by 1915 the herbal medicine trade had become commercialised. By 1898, several species had become locally extirpated due to collection. The trade was further entrenched with the migrant labour system from the late 1800s, which prompted a corresponding trade in culturally familiar species from ‘home’ to supply an urban demand.

In 1933, an observer wrote: “One shop I visited…contained 250 bottles of medicine…Hanging around the shop were numerous fresh bulbs, roots, branches, leaves and portions of bark, besides the skin of a porcupine and lizard and the skull of a small mammal, a dead bird and a sand shark”. By 1946, Reverend Gerstner, having witnessed 40–50 large bags of bark railed more 265km to Durban, expressed concern for the impacts commercial sales of 100–200 species of medicinal plants were having on wild populations by thousands of herbalists.

Currently, more than 2100 South African plant species are used for traditional medicine, of which a third are regularly traded in markets. Additionally, over 230 vertebrate species are traded. Over the last century, medicinal wildlife use has evolved from being the restricted domain of traditional healers, to a thriving trade and the principle source of household income to a multi-national network of harvesters and traders.

A medicine man on the streets of Johannesburg in the early 1900s. Photo credit: Callinicos 1987

Persistent harvesting of preferred species, however, has put many species at risk of extinction. Since ethnomedicine is also a source of income to healers, harvesters and traders, resource scarcities consequently affect primary healthcare provision (especially in areas lacking western practitioners) and livelihoods.

The 2001 survey of 100 market traders challenged my views on IWT and led to my appreciation of the personal circumstances and motives of people directly involved – many of whom are from the most marginalised rural communities. I also became cognizant of needing to suspend judgement; disapproval over exploitative practices does not support families or influence constructive dialogue – especially when most market traders are widowed/single/female and from impoverished single-income households. These trends are similarly evident in other markets, but differ along the continuum of subsistence to commercial use and trade.

In southern Africa, economic uncertainty, high rates of unemployment, high values of traditional medicines, and other factors, have exacerbated the problem and contributed to the unsustainable harvesting of economically valued natural resources. Hence, conservation is as much about people as it is about species – which introduces multi-faceted social complexities into solutions necessary for conservation problems.

Judging from the voluminous trade in hundreds of millions of individual plants and animals, harvested and hunted, the sale of wildlife is undoubtedly a roaring trade – whether it be the thousands of cycads stems cut down and debarked, or hundreds of vultures poisoned, pangolins descaled, and leopards hunted. It’s an incessant trade that extends to hotspots throughout Africa, and globally – a consistent challenge.

Clockwise from top left to right: Merwilla plumbea bulbs; Whole vulture; Pangolin skin; Encephalartos sp. stem pieces; Siphonochilus aethiopicus (wild ginger), harvested in Zimbabwe; Cheetah skin. Photo credit: V.L. Williams

Part of the challenge is confronting the grim realities. It’s also a field disturbingly fraught with dichotomous debates, worldview clashes, uncorroborated judgements by social media, critics, scientists, lay stakeholders and others alike. In the face of such censure, I often wonder how many critics have invested uncounted hours conducting primary research and engaging with harvesters, hunters, healers, and consumers to hear their perspectives. Regardless of one’s personal opinions though, a prerequisite for good science is assimilating information in an unbiased way across the spectrum of stakeholder opinion.

Since most conservation problems are embedded in complex socio-ecological systems, they are essentially ‘wicked’ and generally “lack clear solutions because each problem is linked to other problems”. Furthermore, the “multitude of conflicting perspectives…and management goals can make the problem almost impossible to…solve, to the satisfaction of all stakeholders”. Wicked problems are also characterised by solutions that should be viewed as “better’ or “worse” by consensus. However, proponents of particular solutions frequently only acknowledge one side of the problem and will vigorously defend that side. This represents a challenge to those seeking to determine appropriate management actions by way of collaboration, especially if some stakeholders are “personally invested in pursuing a particular solution”.

Is there a solution to this complexity? I do not know. However, I view IWT as a multi-faceted Rubik’s cube, where solving for ALL sides of the problem in a logical and persistent manner is necessary. That said, confronting the drivers may require all interested parties to explore both scientifically and socially popular and unpopular views and agree that not all components are necessarily accessible to, nor solvable by, them alone.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Towards a sustainable, participatory and inclusive wild meat sector

By: Lauren Coad and John E. Fa, Senior Research Associates, Center for International Forestry Research, Indonesia @johnfasierra1


The meat of wild species or ‘wild meat’ is the subject of the recent report, Towards a sustainable, participatory and inclusive wild meat sector published by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The report, led by Dr. Lauren Coad and Prof. John E. Fa both from CIFOR, and in collaboration with many international experts in the field is an essential source of protein and a generator of income for millions of forest-living communities in tropical and subtropical regions. Invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are eaten across the world; some of them also hold an important place in traditional cultural values and practices. However, unsustainable harvest rates currently endanger the integrity of ecosystems and threaten the livelihoods of many vulnerable households. This report, produced in response to a call from the CBD, is a technical tool to help users guide actions towards a more sustainable wild meat sector. It is an extensive compilation of the current knowledge on wild meat use, drivers and impacts, and provides recommendations on how to improve wild meat governance and management.

Village hunter sets a cable snare for arboreal species, Central Gabon. Photo credit: Lauren Coad

In all tropical and subtropical regions, greater wildlife offtakes are being enabled by advances in hunting technologies, as well as the increased penetration of new lands by infrastructure, logging, mining and agriculture. Consumers in fast-growing urban centers largely drive demand for wild meat, where it is eaten as a luxury item rather than as a food staple. This greater pressure from large towns and cities has had significant impacts on wildlife populations and ecosystem integrity. In turn, this jeopardizes the financial ‘safety nets’ and food security of remote rural and indigenous communities, for whom wild meat can account for much of their dietary protein, as well as an important source of other nutrients.

Key to the success of sustainable management is ensuring that wild meat use is considered a cross-sectoral issue; firmly incorporated in national resource and land-use planning. The success of management strategies will depend on an enabling environment at the national level. Political support for sustainable wild meat management is more likely if the circumstances for legitimate consumptive use of wildlife are recognized and formalized. In many countries a key first step will be the revision of national hunting laws and land tenure governance systems in consultation with multiple stakeholders. Research efforts must focus on producing science-based evidence that governments, communities, NGOs and industries can use to improve management policies and practices.

Hunters return with their catch, Nyanga Gabon. Photo credit: Christopher Orbell/Panthera

The creation of a sustainable wild meat sector requires interconnected interventions along the entire value chain – focused on local hunting communities, urban consumers and wider society.

For some tropical wildlife species harvested in rural settlements with low human population densities, well-designed community management approaches could align local demand with sustainable levels of hunting offtake.  However, the naturally low wildlife productivity, wild habitat loss and growing urban populations in many tropical and sub-tropical regions mean that wild meat is unlikely to be supplied sustainably to large towns and cities. Governments and development agencies should recognize the urgent need to develop viable alternative foods (such as domestic meats) for newly urbanized areas, where nearby wildlife populations are severely depleted, but where alternatives to wild meat are not yet available in large enough quantities. In large metropolitan areas, wild meat is generally consumed as a luxury product, and only small amounts eaten per person. However, the large number of city dwellers can result in a significant aggregate consumption of wild meat. In this case, approaches for reducing wild meat use will depend on changing consumer motivations, involving targeted behavioral change campaigns, alongside adequate law enforcement of the trade and sale of wild meat.

Although the sustainable management of the tropical wild meat sector is challenging and complex, many of the examples given in this document suggest that, with the right enabling environment and political will, well-designed and participatory multi-sectoral approaches could effectively manage wild meat supply and reduce demand to sustainable levels for some tropical species in some places.

Wild pig meat drying in the sun. Cardamom mountains, Cambodia. Photo credit: Lauren Coad

However, this is highly unlikely to be a panacea that ensures food security for all communities currently hunting wildlife for food. Urban population growth, declining space for wildlife, historical over-exploitation and the lucrative trade for luxury use, all diminish the likelihood of widespread uptake and success of sustainable management policies. It is essential that governments and development agencies recognize the urgent need to develop viable alternative food supplies for newly urbanized areas without reliance on wildlife. For people, communities and nations engaged in the sustainable management of tropical wildlife, there is hope. However, the pathway to long-term sustainable use will be highly challenging.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Illegal ivory in the UK: what do traders need to comply with regulations?

By: Lindsey Harris, Conservation Science Group, Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London

Collaborators: Meredith Gore (Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife) and Morena Mills (Conservation Science Group, Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London)


A new article in Conservation Biology reports on our research study, aimed to determine which factors could help to influence United Kingdom (UK) traders’ compliance with domestic ivory market trade regulations. Our findings conclude clearer regulations that facilitate easier detection of illegal ivory products and stronger prosecution of violations would be effective.

To help mitigate decline of the African elephant (Loxondonta africana), countries with legal domestic ivory markets, such as the UK, were recommended by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to close domestic markets for commercial trade. However, implementing stricter regulations on wildlife trade does not necessarily mean compliance with rules will automatically follow.

The UK was historically and remains today one of the largest ivory markets in the world. The British Antiques Dealers Association (BADA) estimates there are more than two million objects containing ivory in British homes and approximately 20,000 antiques dealers are believed to be working in the UK today. Although the majority of objects containing ivory in the UK are legal worked antiques, including furniture with ivory inlay, sculptures and pianos with ivory keys, the UK continues to seize ivory either on transit from Africa to Asia or re-exported en route to Asia. Newly poached ivory (post-1990) has been found to be traded under the guise of synthetic, ‘bone’ or treated to appear antique. Without DNA analysis is it almost possible to tell the difference.

Using an online questionnaire, we assessed what influences UK ivory traders’ compliance with ivory trade regulations, focusing on whether the proportion of people complying with regulations is influenced by:

  • Perception of punishment and prosecution;
  • Social norms, morals and values;
  • Knowledge, respect, and confidence in the regulations;
  • Legitimacy of the regulations.

Traders are an important intermediate actor in the ivory trade chain as they can be involved in sourcing goods, financial links, coordinating logistics and directly communicating with consumers. Understanding their needs and the barriers to compliance can help support decision makers in crafting and evaluating regulations designed to conserve threatened wildlife.

The African elephant is poached for its ivory tusks. Photo credit: M. Gore

We found that although most traders support regulations, 61% of traders did not always check that they comply when trading objects containing ivory. All traders (98%) believed they had some knowledge of the regulations with 57% stating they were extremely or very familiar with the regulations.

The main factors influencing compliance with ivory trade regulations were:

  1. Traders’ ability to follow and understand the regulations. About half of traders did not find it easy to follow regulations (51%). Current UK regulations were viewed as complex, ever changing, and included confusing definitions, such as for “worked‟ ivory. It was also mentioned by respondents that it is difficult to find the right regulatory information.
  2. Traders’ perceptions of the regulations and punishments to deter illegal trade. We found that traders felt it was difficult for enforcement to detect illegal ivory weakening the perceived strength of the regulations. Results indicated that traders felt that providing law enforcement officials with sufficient resources to ensure they can identify legal ivory and monitor trade should be a priority over further trade restrictions.

Compliance could be improved by clearer regulations that facilitate easier detection of illegal ivory products and stronger prosecution of violations. This is consistent with the findings and recommendations from other studies of wildlife crime in the UK. In the UK, wildlife crime enforcement demonstrates some best-practice globally however there is a threat of uncertain funding, lack of prioritisation against other crimes and lack of specialist training. Recent targeted ivory operations demonstrate an increased focus on the issue however due to the historical nature of the UK ivory market and the diverse range of traders involved, it is difficult for law enforcement authorities to monitor all illegal trade.

Conservation criminology is an inter-disciplinary framework which combines insights from the disciplines of criminology, conservation, and risk and decision-making science to advance knowledge and practice relating to environmental crimes, harms and risks. These findings apply this framework by using an online questionnaire to fulfill the need to obtain accurate data on non-compliance and understand the drivers of this behaviour to guide the design of more effective interventions and thereby improve wildlife trade regulations. Although we considered the case of ivory trade regulations in the United Kingdom, our results have implications for wildlife trade regulations more generally in other geographies and conservation contexts. Please see the full article with further details.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Sounding the horn: a survey of rhino horn antiques at UK auction

By: Sue Brace and Cathy Dean, Save the Rhino International @savetherhino


Recent research into the UK trade of elephant ivory antiques found post-1947 ivory available to buy, leading the Government to conclude this trade was detrimental to wild elephants. It is currently legal to trade antique ivory (defined as pre-1947, i.e. from an elephant killed before 3 March 1947 – the date being defined in EU regulations for intra-EU trade of CITES specimens). However, a ban (with exemptions) on ivory is now proposed. As conservation issues for rhinos are similar, we examined the UK trade in rhino horn antiques to better understand whether this may be detrimental to wild rhinos.

We analysed all 300 rhino horn items offered for sale in 2017 through UK auction houses, to answer the following questions:

  • Can we be certain all auctioned rhino horn antiques were pre-1947 and ‘worked’ i.e. carved, and of artistic merit?
  • Were CITES’ regulations consistently flagged in the lot descriptions for potential buyers?
  • Is the trade effectively regulated, and are suspect items appropriately investigated?
  • Could the UK antiques trade be used to launder modern rhino horn?

The twelve-month survey followed auction house room sales for which online bidding was also possible via one or more of three sales platforms. It also included sales by one major auction house that sold a significant number of high-value items through its own online bidding system. The survey did not include items sold by antique dealers, antique shops or private sales, nor sales on the wider internet. We identified individual items, described as ‘definitely’, ‘probably’ or ’possibly’ rhino horn, offered for sale during 2017 at auction in the UK. We documented how they were advertised, which auction houses they were sold at, and the sale outcome. We did not purchase any items for testing, nor intervene in any of the sales.

The concerns arising from our findings are:

  1. There is no guarantee all items offered for sale were pre-1947; to our knowledge no radiocarbon-14 dating (the only method to accurately detect horn age) was carried out. In cases where age estimates were provided, they were given as very broad ranges. 89% of all items were listed without any detailed provenance (history) and 25% with no age estimate at all.
  2. It is uncertain whether all items described as rhino horn were in fact made of rhino horn; to our knowledge no DNA-testing was carried out. 66 (20%) of the 323 lots offered (some of the 300 items were offered for sale more than once during the year) were described as ‘possibly’ or ‘probably’ rhino horn.
  3. 63% of auction houses offered only one or two rhino horn items in 2017; thus expertise in identifying suspect items will be limited when so few rhino horn items are seen.
  4. Based on auction catalogue photographs, all items could be defined as ‘worked’ but, in some cases, the working appeared minimal or crude.
  5. CITES permit issues and export regulations were inconsistently flagged on auction houses’ websites, sometimes not at all.
  6. Four auction houses advertised some lots in Mandarin and 17 auction houses (58 of the lots offered) stated the weight of the rhino horn in catalogue listings.
  7. Proper vetting of rhino horn antiques is hindered by: the cost and complexity of having them radiocarbon-14 dated or DNA tested; the rapid turnover of lots for auctions; and the lack of expertise in rhino horn antiques in all but a few of the auction houses involved.
  8. Of the 242 lots sold, for which the sale price is known, 84 items were sold for up to £200, which is potentially substantially less than the ‘grind-down’ value of rhino horn.
  9. Professional associations such as the Society of Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers and the National Association of Valuers and Auctioneers work hard to promote and improve best practice, however, most auction houses (34 of the 51 surveyed) appear not to be members. This means if any stakeholder raises issues, engagement and resolution is on a one-to-one basis and reforms cannot be easily made uniform without regulation.
  10. Formal investigation of suspect items is hampered by lack of local experience, resources, professional input, technical back-up and time.

We invite stakeholders to join discussion of our survey’s findings and recommendations arising. Please see here for the full report with further details. Areas of further research have been identified. We suggest immediate ‘best practice’ improvements that do not require UK legislation, and we propose longer-term changes in legislative guidance, including the introduction of a ‘Lifetime Passport’ for rhino horn antiques and consideration of a ban (with exemptions) on the sale of rhino horn items. Auction houses are alert to any suspect item as they do not wish to break the law, nor contribute to the extinction of endangered species. We hope and strive for future collaborative action with auction houses, dealers and associations to ensure the UK trade in rhino horn antiques does not affect rhinos in the wild.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

The trade in seed-finches from the Guianas: Can a diaspora fuel an international trade?

By: Meshach Pierre (Post-Panther Scholar, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford @agamiaagami) and Brian J. O’Shea (Collections Manager, Ornithology, North Carolina Museum of Natural Science)


The Guianas – Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, an overseas department of France – are nestled on the northeastern shoulder of South America. These are among the most forested countries in the world, with over 75% forest cover each, partly due to their low population density. Guyana and Suriname are avid actors in the international wildlife trade, particularly of birds and reptiles. Guyana’s trade has attracted international attention in the past, with pressure placed to encourage the development of adequate export laws, quotas and regulations. While some of the birds exported are species traditionally destined for the pet trade, such as toucans and parrots, the trade also includes the Chestnut-bellied (Sporophila angolensis; locally called towa towa or pikolet) and Large-billed (Sporophila crassirostris; locally called twa twa) Seed-Finches. These are used in competitions referred to, in Guyana as bird racing.

What is bird racing?

Bird racing doesn’t quite demand the speed that might first come to mind. Pairs of males are pitted against each other in a song contest to determine which is the first to reach a predetermined number of song notes. The first bird that does wins its owner fame and glory, while spectators win or lose bets. Well-trained birds can sell for high prices, ranging from $1000 to $5000 USD. Throughout Guyana’s coastal region, caged songbirds are a common sight, and the (predominantly male) owners have a close connection with their birds. Men often take their birds out, in hand or on their bicycles, spend time picking bird seed and playing tapes on repeat to train them. The network involved in the local trade extends from the coast, where wild populations were once present, to the interior regions, such as the savannas of the Rupununi, where the human population is far lower and mostly comprised of pastoral indigenous communities.

Men sit with their birds and talk, or ‘gaff’ (in Guyanese creole), after a morning of bird racing. Credit: M. Pierre

International trade           

Bird racing, however, has not remained confined within Guyana’s and Suriname’s borders. Many Guyanese have migrated to the US and Canada, bringing the activity with them. Bird racing can be observed in places like Smoky Oval Park in Richmond Hill, New York, where Guyanese immigrants gather in the early hours of the morning. For them, bird racing can be a connection to their home country, and the culture they left behind, but also a way to meet other Guyanese and socialise. The presence of bird racing in North America, however, has caused controversy. There have been investigations, seizures and criminal trials in the US, and at airports in both the US and Guyana, attempts to get live birds through security have made international headlines. Although importing these species into the US is not necessarily illegal, the quarantine requirement is rumoured to affect their song, thus can promote smuggling, as the best trained birds attract the highest prices in the international market. Dedicated bird racers have been willing to risk fines and jail time to avoid this. Although there have been attempts to breed seed-finches for racing, there is a belief that wild caught individuals have better songs, so the demand for wild caught individuals persists.

Two Chestnut-bellied (Sporophila angolensis) Seed-Finches face off in a bird race. Credit: M. Pierre

Impacts to the species

Little population data exists for the species in Guyana and Suriname, but shifts in the demand for these species birds indicates that harvesting may impact their populations. Both the Chestnut-bellied and Large-billed Seed-Finches are declining in Guyana and Suriname and have been extirpated from habitats near to human habitation on the coasts. Racing birds in Suriname are now said to be sourced from Guyana, where the demand has shifted from coastal populations to those in the interior of the country, where indigenous communities have become involved in the trade for financial gain. Despite this, in other parts of their range, both species remain common, and there are still large areas of intact habitat in Guyana and Suriname, which provide opportunity for them to recover.

The international trade in seed-finches demonstrates how a human diaspora, attempting to maintain aspects of their native culture can drive international demand for a species. Bird racing, however, is understudied, and much of the knowledge on it, exists in unpublished reports and theses. Better understanding the human behaviour surrounding bird racing could serve as a model system to study the maintenance of culture aligned to the conservation of a species.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

The tail of the peacock: protecting India’s national bird from illegal poaching and trade

By: Uttara Mendiratta and Pooja Yashwant Pawar, Independent researchers and alumni of the postgraduate programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, Bangalore, India


The glorious fanned tail display of the peacock, an ancient Indian symbol of mysticism and beauty, fortunately remains a common sight across much of the country, from humid forests to urban gardens. The iridescent blue, green and copper coloured tail feathers of peacocks, or male Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), also serve as important religious symbols, are popular decorative items, and have also found use in traditional medicine. A large market for peacock tail feathers thus exists, both within India and internationally.

The trade in peacock tail feathers in India represents an interesting and unique case from a legal and enforcement standpoint. Adult peacocks shed approximately 100-150 tail feathers at the end of each breeding season, and Indian law permits trade in shed feathers, even as India’s national bird benefits from the highest level of legal protection as a ‘Schedule I’ species under India’s Wildlife Protection Act (1972), akin to the elephant and tiger. This remains a notable exception in a legal system that otherwise bans trade in most Indian wildlife and their parts. However, there are growing concerns that the market for peacock tail feathers is also a driver of illegal hunting of peafowl. There are reports from some parts of the country of poachers poisoning peafowl by mixing powerful pesticides into waterholes frequented by the birds. Enforcement against this illegal trade is challenging for two main reasons. First, peafowl are widely distributed and are well adapted to living in landscapes dominated by humans, which limits the efficacy of conventional patrolling based approaches. Further, the only means of distinguishing naturally shed feathers from ones that are plucked in most cases is by examining the base of the feathers – a problem that poachers overcome by trimming the base.

The scale of this illegal threat is presently unclear, and warrants rigorous evaluation. We conducted a systematic review of online media reports over the 2013-2018 period and recorded at least 46 instances of illegal peafowl trade being detected by enforcement agencies. These included 32 cases of poaching of an estimated 400 birds, and 14 seizures of plucked feathers totalling over 370 kg. These seizures were distributed across 12 states, and on four occasions were made at international airports (Figure 1), clearly reflecting the large scale and organized, commercial nature of the trade. And yet, our results must only be interpreted as a highly conservative estimate of the trade, given that, only a fraction (perhaps around 10%) of illegal trade is detected by agencies, and an even smaller percentage is reported in media.

Figure 1: Locations of peafowl poaching cases and seizures as reported by media articles during 2013-2018 in India

How does one tackle this tricky situation in which, on the one hand, protecting peafowl is strongly supported by animal rights, conservation and patriotic interests, while on the other hand, the various demands for feathers limits support for an absolute ban on trade in peacock feathers, as proposed by Ministry for Environment and Forest in 2010? The ban on exports imposed around 2013 appears to have worked to an extent, at least in terms of no reported feather seizures at international airports since 2015. However, it is the domestic scenario that poses the greatest challenge.

Vendor selling Indian peacock feather fans. Credit: Wikimedia

Are there lessons from evidently successful conservation projects for two other bird species in India, namely the Edible-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) in northeast India, both of which involve close and thoughtful engagement with local communities? In the case of the swiftlets, which are persecuted for their high-value nests across their range, an innovative programme involving local communities and nest collectors, with support from research groups and the government, has found success in reviving a formerly threatened population on the archipelago, by rolling back a ban on trade in nests. A community-led effort to stop the large-scale poaching of migratory Amur Falcons for meat in Nagaland, again with support from researchers and the government, now promotes a local tourism industry centred around the impressive migration of this charismatic raptor.

Could a similar community-based philosophy and approach, guided by research and backed by government, benefit conservation of Indian Peafowl while continuing to permit legal domestic trade in peacock feathers? A community-led effort could strengthen local resistance to illegal hunting and trade, while improving local opportunities for benefits to be derived from legal trade. A key advantage in the case of the peafowl is that such programmes would require no major changes to law or policy, given that legal trade in peacock feathers is already recognized. Another key advantage is that, unlike most other charismatic species in India, the Indian Peafowl is still abundant and widespread, and in fact even expanding its range in some regions. This allows some room for exploration and experimentation with alternate conservation models without the risk of inadvertently driving the species into a conservation crisis. By deviating from the conventional top-down approach to conservation, a community-based conservation programme for Indian Peafowl could set the platform for government and local communities to work together for conservation in the future.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail