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

Urban bushmeat trade: the restaurant’s recipe

By: Sarah Gluszek, Conservation Criminologist, Michigan State University* @SarahGluszek

Collaborators: Julie Viollaz (Conservation Criminologist, Michigan State University @julie_viollaz), Robert Mwinyihali (Urban Bushmeat Coordinator, WCS Central Africa @rmwinyihali), Michelle Wieland (Socio-Economic Advisor, WCS Africa @Pygmykingfisher), Meredith L. Gore (Associate Professor, Michigan State University @meredithgore)


Globally, cities are growing exponentially; there are currently more people living in urban centres than in rural areas. Urbanisation is globally associated with unprecedented change to both wild and human-dominated landscapes. For example, the impacts of urbanisation and urban populations on bushmeat consumption are not fully understood, although the scope and scale brings new conservation challenges as megacity appetite for wild foods (not to mention charcoal) remains. Specifically, the illegal and unsustainable urban bushmeat trade poses a threat for conservation and sustainable development. Although bushmeat consumption by urbanites is not new, little is known about the supply chains enabling illegal trade. To date, research has prioritised quantifying bushmeat availability and prices over exploring urban demand and the motivations underlying the sourcing of bushmeat.

By 2030 the number of Africa’s megacities (cities with at least 10 million residents) – and its number of secondary cities (those with populations up to 3 million) – is expected to double. Central Africa is unique in that it is home to Congo Basin’s immense forest, hosting a high sociocultural diversity and is interspersed with large urban populations living in cities like Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo). Studies on the bushmeat trade in Central African cities have also mainly focused on consumers and households. Yet, little is known about a key player in Africa’s urban bushmeat markets – restaurants. Further engagement with the restaurant community to understand the drivers and consequences of urban bushmeat trade could help increase benefits for conservation and sustainable development. To this end, our team at Michigan State University and the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a conservation criminology-based study of the urban bushmeat trade from the restaurateur perspective in the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Typical menu board seen outside of restaurants selling bushmeat in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. Credit: L Escouflaire, WCS

Conservation criminology is an interdisciplinary approach integrating natural resource management, criminology, and the risk and decision sciences. It can be used to build policy-relevant science about environmental risks like that of illegal and unsustainable bushmeat trading in urban centres. Using this for our restaurant work, we: 1) identified the range of protected and endangered species traded for bushmeat, 2) applied crime prevention techniques to better understand trade dynamics, and 3) ascertained restaurateurs’ perceptions of the trade and how sourcing decisions were made. Six focus groups were held with restaurateurs in Kinshasa and Brazzaville in November and December 2017. Each focus group consisted of representatives from one of the three tiers of restaurant levels (i.e., upper, mid- and lower-priced). With each focus group, we led participants through a discussion identifying which bushmeat species were “hot products” in the urban trade and their connections with other supply chain actors in the trade.

Using the VIVA hot product analysis, we found monkeys were bushmeat “hot products” in upper- and lower-priced restaurants and collectively across all restaurant tiers in both cities (exampled in Figure 1). This group included monkey species protected by national and international laws, and vulnerable to extinction as classified by the IUCN Red List. Although not originally included in the study by researchers, participants identified elephant and hippopotamus meat as being occasionally traded in Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Linkages between restaurateurs and supply chain actors in the urban bushmeat trade were mapped and collectively analysed.

Figure 1: Monkeys, identified as “hot products” by the VIVA analysis, sold overtly in Kinshasa street markets. As pictured, they can be smoked, making it difficult to identify species and whether they are endangered or protected by law. Credit: S Gluszek, MSU/WCS

Mid-priced restaurants had the strongest networks, being the most connected with actors along different points in the supply chain. Lower-priced restaurants had smaller networks and were more dependent on local city markets for their bushmeat sourcing. Meanwhile, upper-priced restaurants were most reliant on supply chain actors operating as middlemen between them and bushmeat suppliers at the source.

Cities act as both transit routes and destinations for the urban bushmeat trade. This exploratory study suggests that certain types of bushmeat, such as endangered monkey species, are more at risk of extinction due to a combination of supply and demand side factors; they have threatened population numbers and are additionally vulnerable as ‘hot products’ in the urban bushmeat trade. Moving forward, a more comprehensive “hot product” analysis could be applied such as CRAVED/CRAAVED. With a better understanding of the relationships between restaurants and other supply chain actors in the trade, we can be better apply nuanced conservation responses, such as situational crime prevention techniques to prevent illegal wildlife trade opportunities. This study highlights the potential to involve the restaurant and catering industry, as well as local urban community members, with the recognition that they can play a role in combating urban wildlife crime. Not only in terms of law enforcement, but also by acting as agents of change with their purchasing power and menu selections. Among our study participants, restaurateurs from Kinshasa and Brazzaville were generally willing to participate and work towards creating a more sustainable trade to protect their livelihoods, a positive outcome paving the way for future collaborations and opportunities.


*current affiliation: Wildlife Trade Technical Specialist, Fauna & Flora International


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GPS-supported, community-based forest crime prevention in the Brazilian Amazon

By: Tim Boekhout van Solinge, Consultant and (Forest/Wildlife) Criminologist; Research Fellow, Department of Criminology, Erasmus University Rotterdam


Illegal wildlife trade not only concerns fauna, but also flora, such as tropical hardwoods. In a 2016 UNEP-INTERPOL report, the value of global forestry crimes, including corporate crimes and illegal logging, was estimated at 50-152 billion USD per year. This makes the illegal forest sector larger than other illegal wildlife trade such as in animal products (estimated at 7-23 billion USD per year) and the illegal fisheries trade (estimated 11-24 billion USD). Corruption in the forestry sector alone was estimated at 29 billion USD per year by INTERPOL. Forest crime occurs particularly in the tropics, where a substantial part of logging and deforestation is illegal. Satellite data from 2017 illustrates global deforestation occurring at the rate of 40 football fields per minute. Annually, this corresponds to forest loss the size of Italy.

Brazil experiences the greatest rate of deforestation: about one football pitch of rainforest per minute. In 2017, the country lost 4.5 millions of hectares of forest, three time more than DR Congo, and the country ranked second in terms of deforestation. Brazil and DR Congo also rank high in terms of forest-crime related murders. DR Congo has had the highest victims among law enforcers and park rangers. Globally, Brazil has the highest number of land and environmental defender murders, with a high proportion of crimes committed in the Brazilian Amazon, where gunmen threaten and kill resistance against illegal logging.

Timber at Arapiuns River, a hotspot of illegal logging. Credit: T.B. van Solinge

For fifteen years, I have been doing criminological research on illegal logging and tropical deforestation. Since 2010, I’ve conducted research in the Brazilian Amazon, initially as part of a green criminology project with Brazilian Universities and NGOs, funded by the Dutch NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development programme (2010-2016), in collaboration with public prosecutors. The research focused on identifying social and environmental crimes relating to deforestation. The development strategy focused on improving the rule of law, by increasing access to justice for traditional communities that oppose deforestation by loggers and cattle or soy farmers.

Traditional communities in the Amazon often fall victim to deforestation, but their presence in rainforests also offers opportunities for forest crime prevention. The so-called “crime drop” that several western countries have experienced is explained by an increased security and decreased opportunities for crime. Situational crime prevention, often by non-law enforcement actors, has reduced crime opportunities and led to drops in various types of crime. This poses the potential for a rainforest equivalent to be developed with the use of local intelligence to detect and prevent forest crime opportunities.

In 2014, I initiated a crowd-funded criminological pilot project for community-based forest crime prevention at several deforestation hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon (Forest Forces). Several communities were equipped with waterproof GPS-cameras. Those who did not have access to electricity and mobile phone network, were given power banks and portable solar chargers. The pilot tested whether GPS-referenced pictures of forest crime activities would reach the forest law enforcement system and be followed by successful law enforcement action. Of course, the pilot should not endanger the security of community members taking pictures of illegal forest activities.

Brazil’s forest protection system is satellite and GPS oriented – this sophisticated rapid-response satellite system can automatically detect and locate large-scale deforestation. Perpetrators have, however, adapted to the satellite enforcement system, by shifting to small-scale deforestation, acting during the night and more frequently during the rainy season, when clouds block the view of the main satellites.

Community members charging solar camera and power bank. Credit: T.B. van Solinge

The criminological pilot aimed to test whether remote forest communities would take GPS-referenced pictures of illegal forest activities to law enforcement and justice actors, located in a distant town. Over three years, positive results have been shown in some, but not all, of the five communities, with success dependent on the level of community organisation and leadership. The field experiment was very effective in the only indigenous territory. This was expected because Brazil’s Indigenous Territories have invisible GPS-borders, with outsiders not permitted to enter without permission. Indigenous Territories are regularly subject to trespassing by loggers or gold prospectors. Illegal loggers seek large, high value timber trees such as “ipé”, which is commonly exported.

A GPS-camera allowed a twelve-member surveillance team of Maró Indigenous Territory to collect GPS-evidence of illegal activities within their territory. The chief, Odair “Dadá” Borari, brought pictures with GPS-coordinates to the Environmental Inspection Agency, IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), in Santarém, Pará. The pictures showed stocks of logs and buildings of timber companies with GPS coordinates suggesting their location inside Maró Indigenous Territory. When GPS-coordinates were entered into IBAMA’s satellite system, IBAMA’s satellite pictures confirmed the location of the crime spot, showing the same timber stocks and buildings. This led to helicopter surveillance being initiated the same day to confirm the spot and hence the illegality. Eight logging concessions were cancelled and several timber companies were expelled from Maró Indigenous Territory, with impacts for long-term deterrence of illegal logging. This project exemplifies how local forest protection, even in remote areas without electricity and telephone, can be carried out effectively and inexpensively by supporting communities with access to trusted law enforcement actors. The model can be replicated in other areas, especially in indigenous and other protected areas with GPS borders.


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Whose voice counts in Illegal Wildlife Trade policy? Beyond London 2018

By: Nafeesa Esmail, Tim Kuiper, Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Dan Challender, Amy Hinsley


The voice of research, how does Science → Policy?

The need for evidence-based policy is widely recognised in the scientific and policy-making communities, and the importance of this in the IWT space is no different. It is especially important considering the often emotive nature of discussions around ‘illegal wildlife trade’, and the potential for ineffective or even counterproductive policies to be developed based on biased personal viewpoints and values, or often-uniformed public opinion. Within IWT policy-making there are some excellent examples of research contributing to an evidence base that informs policy at the national and international level. Take, for example, the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) and National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) process, and the role of research in decisions around pangolin trade at CITES. However, these instances are more the exception than the rule. CITES still operates in a space where attention to different species is often driven by the priorities of individual countries and large NGOs. In the absence of systematic assessments of the threat IWT poses to different species, iconic and charismatic species tend to monopolise the debate.

Jack Brougham Drawing

Jack Brougham Drawing

We firmly believe that evidence and research has a critical role to play in IWT policy. But, to use the language of an insightful opinion piece – what counts as evidence and how does evidence count? How did evidence count in shaping the policy messages and the declaration emanating from the 2018 London IWT Conference? Whose evidence counted? Just how much does scientific evidence really matter to policy makers? The London Conference made it clear to us, if it was not already, that scientists are just one (rather small) stakeholder group amongst many. In London, we heard the voices of business and finance, civil society, communities, even royalty and a few celebrities. Loud, clear and centre stage, but academic (or even merely scientific) voices were featured minimally. As a policy maker, how might you respond? As emphasized by Professor Ian Boyd in his plenary address at the preceding Evidence to Action event, the relationship between evidence and policy is complex and messy and so requires the right type of evidence that can be readily-used. He clearly pointed out that “data ≠ evidence”, but outputs from exercises such as horizon scanning can be very valuable. He also emphasised the critical point that interventions must be co-designed with end-users from the onset.

As Bill Adams and Chris Sandbrook argue, science does not offer a “get out of politics free card”. It is wrong to think that poor policy decisions are simply an information deficit problem. If we could just do more research and communicate results effectively! This is to ignore the many other forces and stakeholders that influence decision-making independent of evidence. It is perhaps wiser to think of policy as being informed by, rather than based on, scientific evidence. Rather than thinking of ourselves as an independent and objective voice, we as researchers, should acknowledge our value positions and work with other stakeholders towards agreed goals. This is where we can be powerful agents for positive change, by using our evidence to help guide us on the path to achieve these goals. It’s ok if we let a little more than our own evidence count.

Communities and orchids or celebrities and elephants? Who sets the agenda?

Conservation action and discourse are inevitably political; those with power and influence tend to decide who benefits, and who loses out. Many discussions around IWT are firmly framed by the perspectives of those in Northern and Western countries. This can create homogenous approaches to IWT that simplify issues and rely on what has been done before to define future priorities, rather than recognising that policy responses and conservation interventions need to be as nuanced and diverse as IWT itself and the cultures within which it operates. For example, there has been (and continues to be) a tendency to refer to ‘Africa’ as one entity, but the continent hails 3000 distinct ethnic groups with up to 2000 languages spoken across 54 countries (that’s more than a quarter of the number in the world).

Jack Brougham Drawing

Jack Brougham Drawing

These broader IWT policy trends were still apparent in the much-anticipated London Conference. Attendance at the event included several presidents and senior ministers, demonstrating high-level support. The Conference as a whole highlighted a perceived need for IWT to play a significant part of political and private sector agendas. Although several of the panel discussions and plenary addresses were informative, it was not clear how they were selected and who set the agenda. Consequently, some of the discussions excluded potential dissenting views on topics for which there remains no clear consensus. For example, a view from the private sector that conflated illegal wildlife trade with sustainable legal trophy hunting that actually benefits conservation went unchallenged. In a few keynote addresses and panel sessions, we heard IWT being used alongside terms such as evil or disgusting. In some instances this framing discounts the social and economic realities of IWT, ignoring the fact that livelihoods can often be intertwined with IWT. Across Africa, there are evident contrasting views on the sustainable use of resources as a means of addressing IWT, with values expressed by Botswana and Namibia conflicting with stances taken in Kenya.

The London Conference also exhibited the clear contemporary shift from state-led initiatives to inclusive modern governance, in which civil society has an active voice. Collaboration between governments and private sector was clearly evident, highlighting the interests of certain players in the transport, information technology and finance sectors. While such engagement is certainly welcome and necessary, the interests of those sectors do not always align closely with socially inclusive conservation objectives, nor do they necessarily engage with evidence-based policy (as opposed to marketing goals). Yet these actors have the power to push their agendas regardless.

Jack Brougham Drawing

Jack Brougham Drawing

The Conference demonstrated an increased willingness to engage with local communities as critical stakeholders, providing a platform for community voices to be heard. However, the extent of this engagement appeared to lean more closely toward communities that accept a Western-dominated view of conservation: one that prefers approaches based on protected areas and wildlife tourism over any forms of consumptive wildlife utilisation, even that which is legal, sustainable and ultimately supportive of landscape conservation goals. Tokenism around community voices is a more general, but key, problem in IWT discourse and policy. The ‘community involvement’ mantra often results in hollow attempts, with community voices present, but shunted to the side. Greater effort is required to genuinely integrate community voices in to IWT policy and discourse such that they are listened to, heard and form part of the decision-making process.

Also, iconic megafauna, i.e. elephants and rhinos are too often the focus of IWT discussions and this event  was no different in this respect. The Conference was an excellent opportunity to diversify the dialogue to other less recognised and neglected groups that are subject to illegal trade including cacti, orchids, myriad birds, reptiles, amphibians and marine fishes. Orchids for example, make up >70% of the CITES Appendices, but their widespread illegal trade wasn’t highlighted or discussed.

Despite widespread recognition of the need for IWT policy to be more strongly informed by evidence, it is clear we have a long way to go. Policy formulation and implementation is shaped by competing voices and values at individual, organisational and national levels. This highlights not only the need for evidence-based policy, but also for context-specific policy. More broadly, there is a need to identify strategies for giving less-powerful players (communities, non-charismatic species, and science) a more valued voice in global IWT policy. Realistically, this must involve more influential players acting on behalf of those who don’t have the same privileged access to resources and platforms for amplifying their voice. Everyone has a part to play, and even we, as researchers at an institution with comparatively more influence, share this responsibility.


Read the Evidence to Action briefing note on how research can be used to address the illegal wildlife trade.

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Europe’s largest wildlife crime: Illegal trade of the European eel

By: Florian Stein, Director of Scientific Operations, Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) & Technische Universität Braunschweig  @steinbutt  @eelgroup


The European eel (Anguilla anguilla), an important commercial freshwater fish species, native to Europe, the western edge of Asia (e.g. Turkey) and North Africa, has been exploited in nearly all of its range countries. Due to the species’ stock decline, it is currently classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, listed in Appendix II of CITES and subject to EU eel regulation. Furthermore, export out of and import into Europe has been suspended since December 2010. Nevertheless, scientific studies have proven live European glass eels (juveniles) are illegally exported to Asia to be grown and farmed. Farmed European eel products are subsequently sold for consumption globally.

Eel larvae hatch in the Sargasso Sea, entering their freshwater habitats through rivers which drain into the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea between North Africa and the Barents Sea from autumn until spring. Today, about 75% of juvenile eels are fished out of France and to a smaller extent from Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Every year, at the end of the fishing season, we (The Sustainable Eel Group) survey the glass eel market to identify the destination of caught fish. In our last two surveys, we were unable to trace about 30 tonnes, equivalent to 50% of declared European glass eel catches.

Figure 1: In 2018, 364 suitcases were found during operation ELVER, prepared and ready to move more than 5 tonnes of live glass eels from Europe to Asia. Credit: SEPRONA, Guardia Civil 2018

Environmental crime – including illegal trade in endangered species – has recently been identified as one of the EU’s 10 priorities in the fight against organised and serious international crime, therefore added to the EU Policy Cycle for 2018-2021. Glass eel trafficking is now recognised as one of Europe’s most urgent IWT issues and enforcement agencies are investing significant efforts into tackling the illegal exports.

According to enforcement reports, different modes of transport are used for exportation. Live glass eels are hidden in oxygenated, wet plastic bags, packed in suitcases and transported to Asia on regular flights by smugglers (Figure 1). Many of these suitcases have been seized in Europe, North Africa and Asia during the past few years. Large shipments are also hidden under other seafood products like fish and mussels, in air freight cargo containers or incorrectly declared as other unprotected eel species. Since European eels are one of very few, if not the only wildlife species originating from Europe and traded to Asia, border control faces a unique problem. Customs usually focuses on illegal goods that are brought into the country rather than what is exported out.

Based on intelligence from past police operations, Europol estimates 100 tonnes of glass eels, equivalent to about 350 million fish, are trafficked annually from Europe to Asia. We have estimated the eels’ value along the supply chain and conclude that processed eel fillets produced from 100 tonnes of glass eels are worth €2.27 billion at the consumer level.

Figure 2: The complete pie chart represents the total annual juvenile European eel movement from the Ocean into coastal brackish and freshwaters (recruitment, 440t). Each segment represents eels destined for different destinations: Restocking for outdoor waters in Europe; Aquaculture within Europe; Trafficked ‘legal’ catch (b); Trafficked Illegally, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) (a). “Free immigrants” represent the proportion of eels not caught. Credit: Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) 2018

The trend in the number of glass eels which enter continental waters (called recruitment) is an indicator to assess the stock status. According to Bornarel et al (2017), annual European eel recruitment is about 440 tonnes (Figure 2). We merged this recruitment estimate with the knowledge of our market surveys and Europol estimates to get a sense of the scale and potential impact of eel trafficking on wild stocks.

The legal European demand for aquaculture and restocking programmes account for 7% offtake of the annual recruitment. Another 7% offtake accounts for the proportion of declared catches which could not be traced to a European destination over the past two years. Based on annual estimates of trafficked eel volume, we can presume another 16% of eels are from Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). In total, Europol’s estimate of 100 tonnes of illegally exported eels account for approximately a quarter (23%) of annual recruitment. Thus, it is highly probable that trafficking does and will only continue to dramatically impact the wild European eel stock.

Our future aims are to: (1) further quantify the specific impact on the stock; (2) study the Chinese eel trade and farm production data to identify declaration gaps indicating illegal input of eels into farms; (3) continue developing a chemical fingerprinting method that can facilitate tracing seized glass eels to where they have been caught; (4) and support University of Leicester’s development of a rapid DNA test that will enable border forces to identify the eel species within 1 hour.


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Wenwan: The Chinese subculture underlying trade and collection of wildlife parts and products

By: Jack Y.K. Lam, Doctoral Researcher, City University of Hong Kong


Artworks, collectables, carvings, decorations, ornaments, jewelleries, trinkets are all terms which refer to a variety of end-uses and products, yet when it comes to the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) they are often used indiscriminately to describe commodities or products that many wildlife parts become. Consider the range of elephant ivory products shown in figure 1 – each could fall under a combination of the aforementioned terms, but these terms also fail to capture the diversity of products observed. The language currently used in the wildlife conservation literature misrepresents the depth of the consumer demand and market, and struggles to present the issue in its entirety. Thus, it is a serious blind spot in comprehending the trade.

Figure 1. Elephant ivory can become many Wenwan products. Clockwise from top left: prayer beads, figurines, rings, bangles, mahjong tiles, chopsticks, teapot, and comb. Photo credit: Jack Y.K. Lam

There is, in fact, a central theme: Wenwan, that pulls together the different products. It provides a much-needed cultural context to the demand, and a cohesive narrative from a consumer perspective to explain the connections between the different products and species traded.

The Chinese phrase, Wenwan (文玩) translates literally to “toys of culture/sophistication”. It is as much of a hobby of collection as it is a subculture. Wenwan epitomises an abstract cultural ideal of being educated, tasteful, and sophisticated, all of which alludes to wealth and success. It is through the collection and appreciation of these “toys” that Wenwan followers showcase these qualities.

Apart from being a symbol of social and economic status, much of the appeal of Wenwan comes from its speculation value and investment potential, with many traders and followers hoping to turn a quick profit in its trade. Key to the collection value of Wenwan is the material that items are made of. Of all the raw materials of Wenwan, wildlife parts represent only a sub-type of “organic gemstones”, yet it is within this small group that some of the most highly valued varieties for Wenwan exist. The valuation of Wenwan items is complex and can be arbitrary given its inherent artistic attributes, but since much of the items’ worth is tied to the material they are made of, the rarity of the species generally translates to higher prices. While some endangered species such as elephants and rhinos are well-known examples of the Wenwan trade, the list of victims extends far beyond the commonly highlighted species (figure 2).

Figure 2. “My zoo collection” is the caption of one Wenwan trader’s social media post from early 2018. Beads shown here are made of ivory (African elephant, hippo, mammoth, walrus, sperm whale, narwhal), bone (tiger), casque (helmeted hornbill), horn (rhino, saiga), and skin (Asian elephant). Photo credit: Jack Y.K. Lam

Understanding Wenwan is pivotal to wildlife conservation because it aligns and contextualises existing information in the field. It anchors our current knowledge of different products and species traded and clarifies their connections. An example is the phrase: “black, red, white” which is commonly used among Wenwan followers to rank rhino horn, helmeted hornbill casque, and elephant ivory as the top three raw materials. Identifying such product grouping and ranking helps to prevent poorly targeted campaigns for just one species or product, which can potentially displace demand to another. In recent years, the Wenwan trade has experienced cross-over of a number of wildlife parts used in traditional medicine trade. This has been the case for products such as saiga antelope horn (ling yang, 羚羊), pangolin scales, and most recently elephant skin for which market values have drastically increased as a result.

Recognising such inherent flexibility and fluidity of the Wenwan market, and its receptive nature to different products and species, helps researchers identify emerging threats and appropriate counter actions. The concept of Wenwan provides a map to navigate what is an integral, but convoluted, part of IWT. It brings to the surface tangled relationships between wildlife products, commodities, their trade routes, and associated illegal trade networks. It helps researchers ground and connect respective focuses in relation to another, to identify opportunity for collaboration, and devise effective campaigns to target multiple trade chains whilst accounting for the risk of demand displacement. For many illegally traded products, Wenwan is the framework IWT researchers should apply to understand and unify findings, thereby maximising the effectiveness of efforts to tackle IWT.


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Consuming wildlife: how can we change tourists’ behaviour?

By Tom Moorhouse, Postdoctoral Researcher, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford  @puttypaw


You study the tourism leaflets in the hotel lobby. Tomorrow is the last day of your holiday in Thailand, and you promised to take your kids to see some animals. Two adverts catch your eye. One is for an attraction called “Tiger Territory”, with a glossy picture of a tourist, her arms around a tiger. Beneath are smaller photos of children bottle-feeding cubs with a caption reading: “the perfect combination of tourism and wildlife preservation”. The other leaflet is for “Elephant Valley Park”, which promises visitors a walk with rescued elephants in their reserve, and a chance to watch their natural herd behavior.

You hesitate – something about the tiger attraction makes you uneasy, but while the kids like elephants, you know they’d really love to see a tiger. So, you decide on Tiger Territory. After all, it’s doing conservation. A win-win, right?

In this case, probably not. Many tiger attractions have negative impacts on tigers’ welfare and their overall conservation status. Some have been implicated in the illegal trade in tigers and tiger parts. Of course, this isn’t mentioned in advertising materials – and every day tens of thousands of international tourists make decisions like the above, often leading to undesirable outcomes. In 2015, we conducted a desk-based audit on the impacts of 24 types of wildlife interactions available globally (about half the types in existence). We estimated that attractions within these 24 types are likely to negatively affect the welfare of 230,000–550,000 individual animals, and 120,000–340,000 individuals may have been sourced in a manner likely to reduce their species’ conservation status. These attractions host 3.6–6 million tourists every year, of whom around 60%, whether they know it or not, are paying to visit attractions likely to have negative impacts.

There is no global regulation of wildlife attractions and so standards in many countries are determined by tourists’ willingness to pay for such experiences. An unfortunate quirk of tourist psychology means online reviews, even for attractions with objectively bad conditions, tend to be positive. So with standards often in the hands of ill-informed consumers, how can genuinely beneficial wildlife venues be promoted?

This is the conceptual interface between wildlife trade and wildlife tourism interventions. For any wildlife product (whether ivory, a traditional medicinal ingredient or an exotic pet), its global market depends on individual consumers’ choices. A key strategy for mitigating impacts is therefore to reduce or redirect consumer demand. In the case of wildlife tourism attractions we, as conservationists, require interventions to empower tourists to be able to identify, and then avoid, exploitative attractions. But could such interventions work?

To answer this question, we created an experimental online survey of 3,200 respondents from five countries: China, Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK. Respondents were shown ten mock webpages, designed as typical promotional materials for wildlife tourism venues. Five of the mock attractions offered activities typical of wildlife-benefiting venues and five offered activities typical of wildlife-detrimental venues. Respondents were asked to score all venues based on how much they would like to visit each.

The hidden catch in our survey was that we “primed” half of the respondents from each country to consider the impacts of their choices. Before the survey, we ask them to indicate whether they thought reasons for venues to keep animals (e.g. “Animals are kept to provide jobs for local people”) were good or bad reasons, and then whether or not they agreed with statements about venues’ impacts (e.g. “These attractions are always good for animals”). The remaining half of the participants, the control, were simply given the survey.

Priming had a substantial impact on participants’ responses to detrimental attractions. Primed respondents from Australia, Canada, USA and UK were four times less likely to select high scores for detrimental venues: 42% said they would probably or definitely not visit, compared with 25% of control respondents (those saying they probably or definitely would visit were 33% and 50%, respectively). Primed Chinese respondents, however, were only 1.5 times less likely to select high scores (only 13% said they would probably or definitely not visit).

After completing the survey, all participants were shown our own ratings for each venue’s likely welfare and conservation impacts, and asked if they wished to re-assess their previous scores. In response, 74% of participants from Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK stated that they probably or definitely would not visit. This effect was smaller for Chinese respondents, with only 35% stating they would probably or definitely not visit.

Primed respondents were able to distinguish beneficial from detrimental venues, and preferred those which benefited wildlife. This is a basis for cautious optimism. The only difference in how activities were described is that wildlife-detrimental venues permitted close interaction with the animals (e.g. touching, riding and selfies), and/or animal shows, whereas the wildlife-benefiting venues did not. The absence of such activities is often the most reliable external indicator of a venue which genuinely prioritizes their animals’ wellbeing. Primed respondents were able to pick up on these cues.

Further studies on appropriate messaging for Chinese tourists are ongoing, but our results indicate that at least among Western tourists, demand reduction campaigns could be effective. Stimulating tourists to consider the consequences of their choices may drive revenue away from wildlife-detrimental venues. The effect of directly informing respondents about venues’ impacts strongly argues such information should be made widely and prominently available.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Understanding the role of ivory traders by leaving the ivory tower: the value of ethnography

By: Kristof Titeca, Assistant Professor, Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp  @KristofTiteca


It has been widely shown how the illegal ivory trade has increased enormously in the last decade. There is particular interest in the export of raw ivory from sub-Saharan Africa towards East and South-East Asia. Particularly the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), the global database of reported seizures of illegal ivory has led to a number of excellent analyses. There equally has been a range of interesting studies relying on insights from law enforcement officers, which particularly highlight how corruption is driving illegal trade.

Yet, while the illegal ivory trade has been analysed from a number of perspectives, one actor’s perspective is largely missing from these analyses; the illegal ivory trader himself. On the one hand, this is understandable: approaching ivory traders brings a range of methodological difficulties. Given their illegal nature, it is difficult to find and/or approach them. On the other hand, doing so could be useful, in order to further unpack and understand the illegal ivory trade(rs). For example, the literature on poaching gives fascinating insights into unpacking the homogenous understanding of what constitutes a poacher, or why people engage in poaching. This literature for example shows the difference between subsistence and commercial poachers; whereas the first group typically targets small game and hunts to meet food needs, the second group targets commercially more viable game.

These insights only were possible through in-depth research among the poachers, i.e. the actors themselves. A similar analysis – what I provocatively call ‘leaving the ivory tower’, towards the traders – could help to give better insights, particularly in identifying the ways in which ivory goes from poaching hotspots to exit-points out of Africa.

Insights from the wider field of criminology, anthropology, sociology and other disciplines have shown the possibility of conducting research on illegal activities, including gangs, rebel groups or illegal traders. What most of these disciplines have in common is their method of data collection; ethnography, and/or long-term engagement in particular areas, and with particular groups. This often involves sheer luck – a lot of the fascinating research on  gang violence, for example, involved chance introductions, eventually resulting in long-term research. This was the case for my own research on illegal ivory traders in Uganda (and to a lesser extent in the Democratic Republic of Congo); rather than resulting from a predetermined plan and introduction, it was ongoing research on illegal cross-border trade, which led to introduction to illegal ivory traders – facilitated by the fact that many of these traders themselves started trading in illegal ivory between 2008 and 2009. This ongoing research is a (humble) attempt to contribute to the debate on illegal ivory trade, more particularly in the ways in which raw ivory is moved towards exit points, and a further unpacking of the various categories of ivory traders.

By following a number of individual illegal ivory traders between 2012 and 2017 in Uganda, my research aimed to further unpack the homogenous account of the ‘trader’ – a central, but much neglected actor in the studies on illegal ivory trade, and illegal wildlife trade in general. My research came up with the following findings (the first article of which has been published in the British Journal of Criminology).

Ivory trader. Photo credit: HIPUganda (History in Progress Uganda)

First, (and similar to the findings from research among poachers), there are severe power differences among ivory smugglers. These differences are largely related to connections with government officials; the better the connections with high-level government officials, the more power the trader has. This gives a range of advantages to the traders, including access to hotspots such as the airport, more diversified sources of ivory, better protection against confiscations, and so on. Concretely, some traders limit their activities to their home turf, where they know the customs officials, transporters, police agents, and so on. The Uganda-Congo border area is an example of one of these nodes; historically, this border region has been a node for smuggling, bringing together a wide range of traders and commodities. The nature of these commodities depends on market and taxation dynamics; some years, fuel and cigarettes are popular, other years second hand clothes have been particularly interesting. From around 2008, ivory became part of these trading dynamics, which largely came from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Yet, most of these traders didn’t have the power and connections to directly sell this ivory in the capital Kampala, or take it through the airport. Instead, they sold it to more powerful traders, who did have power in the Kampala ‘node’.

Second, building on the age-old social science debate on the tension between structure and agency, a focus on the traders allows one to understand the way in which ivory traders navigate particular structural circumstances. In a forthcoming article in International Affairs, I analyse the ways in which traders handle changing circumstances, such as increased confiscations, stronger punishments, price fluctuations, and so on. In doing so, I show how traders shift between various commodities, depending on these circumstances (from ivory to drugs), or leave the trade altogether. Also here, power differences explain the way in which these difficulties are handled; given the increased ivory confiscations, only elite actors remain in the trade. In other words, the more the state clamped down on ivory trade, the more connections with state officials were necessary to survive in this trade.

Third, transnational and local actors mutually depend on each other; transnational actors such as Chinese traders do not dominate the trade, but are largely dependent on local actors, who are necessary for transport, supply, etc. Many transnational actors therefore depend on historically embedded trading networks. Concretely, much of the ivory coming into the Uganda-Congo border region comes from a wide variety of regions and traders, in a largely uncoordinated manner. It is the traders in this node who are able to smuggle the ivory across the border, and store it for the transnational traders, which are largely dependent on the local traders’ supply routes.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Consumption of the endangered Saiga antelope’s horn remains high in Singapore

By: Meryl Theng, Research Assistant, National University of Singapore  @uberhyped


Since the 2012 Asian Scientist report on the issue of consumption of horn products of the Critically Endangered saiga antelope in Singapore, not much has changed. Saiga products remain widely available in almost every Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) shop in Singapore. Popularly known as “Ling Yang Jiao” to the Chinese locals in Singapore, these slightly translucent, ribbed horns are sold in various forms: whole, as shavings, dissolved in “cooling water” and as trace amounts in tablets. Consuming saiga horn (ling yang, 羚羊) products is believed to be effective in ‘cooling’ the body to cure related ailments such as fever and sore throat.

Demand for horns utilized in TCM in various consumer countries has been the primary driver of massive population declines for this nomadic herding species. Following conservation action, the species has started to recover, but catastrophic mass die-offs from epidemics in recent years continue to undermine its recovery. Together, disease outbreaks and ongoing poaching, especially of males for their horns, have resulted in saiga antelopes facing an uncertain future.

The species was listed under Appendix II of CITES in 1995. In Singapore, this means that traders can trade the horn as long as they have a CITES permit issued by the country’s authority, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA). A 2010 and 2016 study (TRAFFIC, unpublished) found that Singapore continues to play an important role as the main hub of saiga horn trade, fueling high-quantity exports to Hong Kong, China and Malaysia, from its stockpile which was mainly imported from Russia and Hong Kong in the 2000s. Because of this domestic stockpile, saiga products continue to be domestically traded.

The ongoing availability of products in local shops suggests a continued demand, prompting the need to gain an understanding of saiga horn consumption among Singaporeans. In our recently published study, we interviewed 230 Chinese Singaporean respondents to: i) gauge the prevalence of consumption, ii) identify the demographics of users, non-users and lapsed users, iii) identify consumption and purchase behaviours, iv) identify the motivations and barriers to consumption, and v) gauge consumers’ level of understanding of the conservation status and harvest of the saiga antelope.

Whole saiga horns openly sold in Singapore traditional Chinese medicine shops. Photo credit: M. Theng

We found a relatively high ongoing use of saiga horn products in Singapore (13% prevalence), with the trade not appearing to decline. Contrary to our initial assumption that the main local consumers are elderly (>60years), this age group had the lowest prevalence of recent consumption (9%). Surprisingly, the younger respondents (18–35 years) had the highest prevalence of recent consumption (25%), often as a result of influence from an older family member or friend. This is likely due to the general belief that the cooling effects of saiga horn are detrimental to the health of the elderly, a point made by several elderly respondents during the survey.

Our study suggests that this consumption behaviour is not particularly price-sensitive, but likely to be influenced by the banning of products or by an awareness that its consumption drives species endangerment and cruel harvest practices. This indicates the potential for raising conservation awareness to reduce demand, especially since awareness about regulations, status and harvest methods relating to the species was found to be low. This approach has been effective in decreasing the demand for shark fin in Singapore and could also be leveraged to reduce the trade in saiga horn.

It appears that many of our respondents already use alternatives to saiga horn. The use of horns from other species (i.e. water buffalo Bubalus bubalis, sheep Ovis aries and goat Capra hircus) as substitutes does not appear to be popular, possibly because they are perceived as being too weak to cure ailments such as persistent fevers (according to vendors) or are usually sold in the form of shavings rather than the more popular cooling waters. The synthetic alternative, “Panadol”, was quoted to be a popular alternative primarily because it is more widely available.

This study was the first in Singapore to examine consumer relationships with a TCM product derived from a Critically Endangered species. Although suggestive findings have emerged, the study was exploratory in nature and findings are neither representative nor conclusive.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

The Online Trade in Caribbean Island Reptiles

By: Josh Noseworthy, Senior Strategist, Global Conservation Solutions


The Caribbean West Indies is a hotspot for reptile diversity. Although small in area (< 0.15% of the earth’s land surface), these islands are home to over 6% of all known reptile species! Nearly every island has a unique community of endemic reptiles, and new species are regularly discovered, or in some cases, rediscovered. Living on a tropical island has its downsides though – the West Indies region has the highest rate of reptile extinctions globally. Island populations are often naturally small and restricted, making them especially vulnerable to anthropogenic disturbances, including habitat loss and invasive species. This is particularly the case for Caribbean island reptiles, which are facing a new threat; poaching to supply the international pet trade.

In partial fulfillment of the University of Cambridge MPhil in Conservation Leadership degree, and in collaboration with Fauna & Flora International, I investigated the online trade in Caribbean reptiles, focusing on the Lesser Antilles region. To do so, I conducted: (1) an online trade survey of all known terrestrial reptile species in the Lesser Antilles, and (2) interviews with key informants across a sample of Lesser Antillean nation-states to better understand the socio-economic factors that drive trade. Subsequently, this information was combined to develop a framework of conservation measures. I summarize the results here, which I hope will stimulate further interest in the conservation of what I’ve come to appreciate as an incredibly diverse, beautiful, and fascinating group of wildlife.

At the time of the study, the Lesser Antilles contained 106 known terrestrial reptile species, and 41 of these (39%) had evidence of being traded online. Twenty-nine species were listed as threatened, and approximately one-quarter of these were found for sale online. Furthermore, 26 of the 54 species yet to be evaluated for the Red List were also found for sale online, many of which are certainly of conservation concern. The majority of online sales occurred on websites from the US and EU, respectively, followed by Japan. Although the method used to assess each species was systematic, an exhaustive review was not possible, and the method did not account for non-English search engines. For these reasons, the results reflect what is likely only a glimpse of the total scale and diversity of Lesser Antillean reptiles traded online. The survey also clarified that a few individuals were facilitating the bulk of the online trade, and were sourcing reptiles illicitly. Although unknown to me at the time, this information would later prove useful in unravelling the complex network of illegal trade.

To better understand the socio-economic factors underlying the conservation challenge, I interviewed government wildlife and enforcement officials, both local and international NGO representatives, academics, and protected-area managers across four target islands in three Lesser Antillean nation-states. Each interview consisted of nine questions to evaluate the types of conservation measures respondents felt would be socially and culturally acceptable to implement, such as trade bans and regulation, enforcement, sustainable use, education and awareness, and protected areas. The survey also aimed to identify barriers to implementing conservation measures, and allowed each interviewee to propose their own solutions. Additionally, I had the opportunity to speak candidly with poachers and a suspected reptile smuggler, and these conversations turned out to be the most insightful of all. Through these discussions, I was able to better understand the political ecology that allows the illegal reptile trade to persist. Furthermore, I was able to piece together a Caribbean-wide wildlife trafficking network linking back to the individuals identified during the online trade assessment.

Using all the information gathered from the online assessments, social surveys, literature review, and personal observation, I developed a conceptual framework of optimal measures for the conservation of Caribbean island reptiles. Although designed with illegal trade as the central focus, having witnessed the impacts of habitat loss and invasive species firsthand, I soon realized that a strategy focusing solely on trade would unlikely result in any long-term conservation gains. As such, the framework was designed to target multiple threats simultaneously, with the overall aims of: (1) strengthening domestic sovereignty over natural resources, (2) providing economic incentives to conserve, and (3) fostering a sense of national pride in native wildlife. To achieve this, the framework contains six elements (Figure 1), which are meant to be treated as multiple components of a single synergistic strategy.

Figure 1: Theory of Change diagram for the conservation of Caribbean island reptiles. Credit: Josh Noseworthy

Collectively, these six elements – protected areas, targeted enforcement, alternative livelihoods, strengthening legislation, social marketing, and innovative financial mechanisms – are predicted to cultivate the human behavioural change necessary for the long-term conservation of Caribbean island reptiles, whilst also benefiting many other species of wildlife. However, the framework cannot be implemented in full by any one institution, therefore requiring collaborative efforts between national governments, and both local and international NGOs, to leverage organizational strengths and provide support. Hopefully, by designing a holistic approach to what is a highly complex issue, this framework will serve as a meaningful tool for the conservation of Caribbean island reptiles.


Due to the sensitive nature of the project, species, locations, and other specifics have been withheld. If you would like to learn more about this study for the purposes of conservation, please contact the author directly.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail