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

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


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

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.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

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.

Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

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.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

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.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

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