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

Changing appetites in China

By: Dr. Michael Fabinyi, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

Seafood consumption in China has increased significantly over the past three decades, and, together with collaborators, my research under a Branco Weiss – Society in Science Fellowship over the past five years has examined the drivers and effects of this rapid growth in consumption and trade. While Chinese per capita consumption rates are still lower than in many other countries (e.g. Japan), the sheer scale of population in China means that Chinese consumption choices have significant impacts on marine wildlife trade.

As the middle-classes and their wealth have increased, Chinese seafood consumers have looked to consume a greater diversity of species and product forms than previously, and are importing more seafood from overseas. A distinctive feature of the Chinese seafood market is consumption of high-value, so-called ‘luxury seafood’ at banquets. The emphasis on seafood in these banquets in part derives from the expansion of Cantonese cuisine since the 1980s. Cantonese cuisine is a particularly high-status cuisine, and has an emphasis on fresh seafood. Typical seafood dishes served at these banquets include lobsters, abalone, crabs, reef fish, shark fin, fish maw and sea cucumbers.

China is the primary market for many of these seafood products, and overfishing to meet this demand has been well documented: Napoleon wrasse, for example, are Endangered and listed under CITES Appendix II, while 38% of sea cucumber fisheries are overfished, seven species are endangered and 24 countries have closed or attempted to close their sea cucumber fisheries due to overfishing. Furthermore, much live reef food fish continue to be caught using destructive fishing methods of cyanide. While the trade in such seafood does bring economic benefits to coastal households who in many cases rely heavily on it for their livelihood, the environmental costs are clear.

Attempts to regulate these supply chains to promote environmental sustainability face several major hurdles. In low-income contexts where much of this luxury seafood is sourced (e.g. remote areas of Southeast Asia, Pacific Island countries), governments and fishery managers must balance the need to effectively regulate fisheries with strong local needs for short-term cash and aspirations for improved livelihoods. Along the supply chain, the sustainable seafood movement has developed as an attempt to regulate seafood trade through market pressure. However, there is currently not a strong market demand for sustainable seafood in China. Because of the high incidence of food crime in China, consumer preferences about food safety and food quality strongly overshadow any preferences regarding environmental sustainability. Environmental sustainability is instead widely conflated with legality, and environmental regulation is seen to be the responsibility of governments, not market actors such as consumers or traders. Additionally, any attempt to better influence the consumption of seafood on environmentally sustainable grounds in China (e.g. through listing of additional species on CITES) is strongly hampered by the widespread problems of seafood traceability. In particular, the so-called ‘grey trade’, which involves illicit trade of seafood into mainland China via nearby trading hubs including Vietnam and Hong Kong in order to evade import tariffs, greatly contributes to the problem of poor traceability of luxury seafood in mainland China.

Advertisement with Yao Ming against shark fin soup consumption, Beijing. Photo credit: Michael Fabinyi.

Yet, there are emerging positive developments. In 2017, local environmental NGOs mounted a strong and successful campaign to pressure, a massive Chinese online retailer, to remove southern Bluefin tuna from their platform. Another environmental NGO is developing an online sustainable seafood consumption database. Shark fin consumption within China appears to be slowing or declining, due to a range of factors. An environmental campaign led by WildAid has contributed to awareness of overfishing of sharks and just as importantly, was local consumer distrust of so-called ‘fake shark fins’, manufactured using gelatine. Several journalistic exposes on this phenomenon, combined with widespread fears of food safety and quality, meant that shark fin became less appealing. Finally, a governmental anti-corruption crackdown has reduced the amount of money spent on banqueting, which has impacted on the luxury seafood sector more broadly. The central government has also been exerting pressure on the grey trade, which is forcing more seafood traders to operate through direct trade channels, improving traceability. Ultimately, it is such public concerns around food safety and quality, and governmental efforts to improve governance more generally, that in the long run, may contribute the most to improving sustainable seafood consumption in China.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

The songbird market and growing bird competitions in Indonesia

By: Nuruliawati, Junior Researcher for Wildlife Policy; Hendry Pramono, Market Monitoring Coordinator – Wildlife Trade Programme; Ade Indah Muktamarianti, Demand Reduction and Species Policy Consultant (Wildlife Conservation Society – Indonesia Program)

Recently on 11th March 2018, the biggest nationwide bird singing contest, Jokowi President Goblet Singing Bird Competition 2018, was held in a popular locality in Bogor, West Java. 700 participants competed for the President Goblet 2018 and other luxurious prizes such as 30 million rupiah, an exclusive trophy and a brand new car. As stated by Omkicau, one of the biggest songbird news platforms in Indonesia, this event had 10 categories participants could compete in, ranging from the most exclusive (President, Istana, Kebun Raya Bogor and BnR Classes), which required competitors to use a specific cage, to categories which did not have any specific requirements. Not only did songbird hobbyist club members enter this competition, but the Indonesian President, Mr. Jokowi, also participated by entering his own champion White-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus), Murai batu to compete in the President Class. The Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Abubakar, also attended the competition and accompanied Mr. Jokowi as he released 500 birds as the part of the event – a sign of pride or a threat to wildlife?

An entrenched yet unsustainable culture…

The bird keeping trend in Indonesia is assumed to have been growing since the 1980s, when bird markets in large cities were first established. Based on bird market monitoring conducted by WCS, we found growing, active markets in all areas of Java, including Bandung (Sukahaji Bird Market – established in 1994), Semarang (Karimata Bird Market – established circa 1980), Yogyakarta (PASTY – Animal and Ornamental Plant Market – established circa 1960), Purwokerto (Ajibarang Bird Market – establishment date unknown), Surakarta (Depok Animal and Ornamental Fish Market – established in 1980), Surabaya (Bratang Bird Market – established in 1980), Malang (Splendid Bird Market – established in 1995) and many others in the Medan and North Sumatra areas. As far as we can identify, most of these markets were established in the 20th century. This trade has been reported to have led to changes in bird abundance from 1998 to 2011 in Sumatran forests. This study also shows that the species is strongly correlated with its price: the rarer the bird, the higher its market price.

To monitor the growing songbird market and species trends, and to support the efforts of the recent Song Bird Crisis Summit in 2017, WCS has been monitoring three active and large bird markets in Yogyakarta and Central Java. From the first year of monitoring, 54,421 individual birds from 197 species were found to be traded in these three markets. Among them, three species are listed as Critically Endangered (CR), one species is Endangered (EN), four are Near Threatened (NT) and eight are Vulnerable (VU), as per the IUCN Red List (activity report available upon request). These results complement findings from a TRAFFIC report confirming 19,036 individuals of 206 bird species were traded in 2015 in three of the largest bird markets in Jakarta.

Evidence has shown the growing bird pet trade has been triggered by the growing interest in participation of songbird competitions as well as the establishment of hobbyist clubs in each area. In terms of the cultural affinity of bird keeping, a previous study identified that most pet bird owners in Indonesia are Javanese. Socio-economic and education status have also been shown to play a role in characterising bird-keepers and determining the type of bird they own. Indonesian households owning wild-caught birds, such as the orange-headed thrush, were found to be those with higher income and education levels. Households keeping commercially-bred species were richer, but not better educated; and in comparison, there was no difference in education or socio-economic status of those keeping domestic species. This economic association has been further strengthened by a recent study confirming the correlation of richer households with a higher probability of owning captive-bred birds. Interestingly, this study also notes perceptions of the song quality of captive-bred and wild-caught birds (notably the white-rumped shama) to be contradictory depending on whether owners had wild-caught or captive-bred bird species, which along with price, favoured their choice of which type of bird they kept. Therefore, the proposal that promoting certification for breeders could enhance the capacity of a captive-breeding stock may be a viable option, if consumer demographics and preferences are taken into account.

Recognizing that the pet songbird trade is moving from physical marketplaces to social media platforms, a word cloud was created to illustrate the most frequently used words to advertise songbird sales on social media. This included species names and attractive words describing bird characteristics (from the traders’ perspective). Advertisements of songbirds for sale on Facebook and popular Indonesian online market platforms (i.e. Tokopedia, Jualo and were collected. The advertisement text was copied, and the main words, relevant to the species name, were isolated to construct the word cloud (below) using an online word cloud generator to indicate the most traded species. This word cloud identifies the white-rumped shama as the most popular traded pet bird species, which is coincidently also the same bird species that President Mr. Jokowi keeps as a pet.

Word cloud based on the birds most traded in Indonesia through online market platforms and social media.


Author note: This demand reduction study is fully funded by USAID Build Indonesia to Take Care of Nature for Sustainability (BIJAK)


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

The gravity of wildlife trade

By: William Symes, Doctoral Researcher, National University of Singapore



The global legal trade in wildlife products is vast, with an estimated value in excess of US$188 billion in 2012. Unsustainable harvesting of wild populations driven by demand can lead to population reductions or even extirpation of species from some areas. Furthermore, through unregulated trade, humans, native species and livestock are at risk from disease and pathogens which can lead to significant outbreaks, causing both social and economic harm. Wildlife trade is now one of the most pressing threats to species survival globally. Various international organisations and treaties exist to monitor both the legal and illegal trade in wildlife products. The main body monitoring legal trade is The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which maintains a database of legal trade. Unfortunately, despite being an excellent resource, the data collection relies on the submission of annual reports, which can be undermined by weak domestic legislation and governance. Consequently, there are inconsistencies in reporting standards and in submission of annual reports across the signatory countries, leading to potential underreporting issues and undermining the reliability of some data. Correspondingly due to the clandestine nature of the illegal trade and the complexity of the criminal networks involved, it is difficult to characterise, quantify and police, hence our knowledge is limited.

In our recent study, we developed a gravity–underreporting modelling framework to analyse and compare data on: (i) the legal trade in mammalian, avian and reptilian products recorded by CITES and (ii) seizures of illegal products entering the USA between 2004 and 2013. Gravity modelling is a technique commonly used in the study of international trade to characterise the drivers and strength of bilateral trade routes. In their simplest forms, these models assume the level of bilateral trade (gravity) is determined by the economic masses of the countries and distance between them, in the same way the Newtonian gravity estimates the attraction between two bodies. These models can be easily augmented with other terms such as institutional distance, common language and contiguous borders, and thus can be used to explore what national level factors determine the volume of trade between two countries.

We found legal and illegal wildlife trade to be broadly in line with the assumptions of the gravity model, with trade volumes increasing with importer and exporter GDP and decreasing with distance. However, we found substantial differences in the factors driving legal trade for the 3 taxonomic groups considered (mammals, birds and reptiles). The differences suggest that each product group has an individual and distinct market. It is essential, therefore, that conservation addressing the demand side of the trade explicitly recognises the distinct drivers of the markets they aim to reduce, otherwise their effectiveness is likely to be limited. Furthermore, our study illustrates the ability of CITES to effectively monitor trade varies with species or product groups. Reptiles and birds are considered less well-regulated than mammals. It is likely that trade in less well studied groups (such as corals, timber and orchids), is also less well-regulated, undermining the ability of CITES to prevent trade-driven declines in these species.

Regional trade gravity for the 3 taxonomic groups considered. Panels a, b, and c, are mammals, birds and reptiles respectively. Chord diagrams made using (http:// Credit: Symes et al., in press.

With regard to illegal trade entering the USA; Canada, Mexico and China were the 3 largest exporters across all three product groups. However, our results allowed explorations of where we would expect to see illegal trade but don’t, most likely due to the trade not being intercepted. Similarly to the legal trade, we found this was more likely for avian and reptile products, and for all products from Central Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Pacific Island states. The regional differences in underreporting suggest the existence of complex illegal networks, and illegal products from these areas are likely to move to the USA through intermediary countries.

Our results show the important regional and economic trends driving wildlife trade, as well as reinforcing the need for further studies of less well-known species groups to draw a better picture. Our new modelling framework can also help illuminate previously unseen aspects of illegal and legal wildlife trade, which can help with the implementation of interventions to curb the impact of trade on wild populations if applied to different species groups and import countries.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Incomplete trade records imperil hippo populations

By: Alexandra Andersson, PhD Student, The University of Hong Kong

Wildlife trade has become enormous in both scale and scope. It encompasses untold tonnes of seafood, furniture, fashion items, medicines, pets, jewellery and ornaments – to name a few – traded continuously, and affecting thousands of species, many of which are now threatened with extinction.

This, granted, is difficult to manage. However, when it comes to endangered species, it is imperative to have a precise knowledge of exactly how much is harvested, processed, traded, and sold; particularly in light of the undocumented black-market trade happening in parallel for many wildlife products.

Trade records of all goods are reliant on self-reporting, whereby the countries of export and import must declare the volume of items sent or received, respectively, and report it to a central authority. Threatened species trade is regulated through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), the records of which are available online as far back as 1975.

Problems arise when there is a mismatch in reporting quality, methods, or diligence between countries. This situation is inevitable for CITES, with its 183 signatory countries, to a certain degree. However, a quick scan of the records demonstrates that vast and consistent data discrepancies are clear in many cases, and that the true volume of many traded endangered species is simply unknown. This is alarming, considering the reason that all of these species are included in CITES is because they are vulnerable to over-exploitation, and extinction.

In a recent paper, my co-author Luke Gibson and I examined trade in hippo teeth as a case study to illustrate this. Hippos, listed on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable, are not the only species affected by this problem, however. Since 2000, there have been 2,400 fewer humphead wrasse (Endangered) and over 100,000 additional Southeast Asian box turtles (Vulnerable) reported to have been imported into Hong Kong compared to records from exporters in Indonesia and Malaysia. Both species are transported live, and sourced from the wild. The mismatch in humphead wrasse records has been linked to potential data mismanagement and shipment monitoring issues at Hong Kong ports.

Since 1975, 90% of the world’s hippo teeth trade has passed through the city state of Hong Kong, and 75% of it has come from Tanzania and Uganda. This made analysis of this dataset (and reasons for the enormous mismatch) relatively straightforward. We found that overall, Hong Kong received 3,176 kg more hippo teeth than declared exported by Tanzania, and in 63% of hippo teeth trade transactions with Uganda, Hong Kong declares receiving more than what was reported as sent by Uganda. In total, over 14,000 kg of hippo teeth was unaccounted for between Uganda and Hong Kong between 1975 and 2016, representing more than 2,700 individual hippos – that’s 2% of the global population.

Common causes for data discrepancies include the use of non-standard measurement units, recording the number of licenses issued rather than the volume of specimens sent, incomplete or late submission of annual reports, and receiving a shipment in subsequent years to when it was sent. These causes were examined, and in this case rejected as reasons behind the discrepancies in the hippo trade data.

With no known cause for such extreme and persistent data mismatch, in our paper we put the discrepancies into the context of hippo population declines, outdated threat-level assessments, and poaching, climate change, and disease outbreaks. The resulting picture is grim, and highlights the importance of diligent control of trade volumes of threatened species and products. Without it, the effectiveness of the very apparatus put in place to protect these animals from extinction is compromised – as is their survival.

These findings are of particular significance in light of Hong Kong’s upcoming elephant ivory ban, passed in January 2018 and scheduled to take effect in 2021. Previous studies have shown that after the global 1989 ban on ivory trade, hippo teeth demand increased. The recent one-off auction of 3.5 tonnes of hippo teeth by Tanzania is troubling, as it went ahead without any official review of the pre-existing trade discrepancies, no additional traceability measures, nor renewed population estimates and updated threat-level assessments. Now more than ever, hippos need to be offered comprehensive protection. Population estimates are around a decade out of date, as is the corresponding Vulnerable IUCN Red List classification. Trade needs to be monitored, carefully. Otherwise hippos may not survive a quadruple-threat of increased demand for their teeth, mismanaged legal trade, continued poaching, and climate change.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Príncipe Island: a zero capture sanctuary for marine turtles

By: Estrela Matilde, Executive Director, Fundação Príncipe Trust

The Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe consists of two small oceanic islands located in the Gulf of Guinea, about 220km off the coast of Central Africa. São Tomé and Príncipe has about 179,000 inhabitants with a population density unevenly split between islands (Príncipe only has 7,500 inhabitants). Despite its small size, Príncipe is leading the country in conservation and sustainable development. Initially with the recognition of the island as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2012, there have been several efforts since to protect the islands’ unique and pristine biodiversity and to support the economic and social development of their communities. The conservation and protection of marine turtles is one of the Islands’ flagship examples of integrated community work to protect species. Príncipe Island is fortunate to be home to 5 of the 7 species of sea turtles in its surrounding waters, with 3 species nesting on our beaches: Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas). In 2009, five years before a national law was passed, Príncipe Island, an Autonomous Region, launched regional legislation prohibiting the hunting and marketing of turtle meat and shells. Government efforts to protecting these species was further supported with the National Decree-Law released in 2014. However, despite various efforts to provide this species with adequate protection, illegal catch, both at sea and on spawning beaches, is still a concern today.

Fundação Príncipe Trust – FPT is a local NGO working to ensure both the culture and biodiversity of Príncipe is protected. Supporting the Regional Government’s strategy to protect marine turtles on the island, FPT’s conservation project has been in place since 2012. The project team includes 10 local marine and beach guards, who patrol the island’s seas, both by boat and on land, controlling poaching of turtles, and other marine fauna. During the turtle nesting season, 22 additional guards are hired to ensure all beaches on the island are patrolled. The FPT team monitors the turtles all year, collecting nesting data, tagging females and recording their behavior. This information is shared with partners working on turtle conservation throughout Africa, contributing to a global strategy to protect these species effectively. The majority of FPT guards were former turtle hunters,  but today work to protect them, fearlessly and passionately. In a partnership with an international team of researchers, FPT is also involved in a project to develop tagging technology to improve the conservation of this species worldwide.

Besides research and patrolling, FPT initiated an environmental awareness campaign called Zero Capture. Several awareness materials were produced to raise understanding of the species’ threats and conservation, disseminated to all of the islands’ 10 schools, in fishing communities and the city, reaching more than 1800 children. With medium-long term goals and in close cooperation with the Regional Government and other relevant stakeholders, the objective was to raise public awareness about the importance of protecting sea turtles.

Involvement of island communities in marine conservation and promotion of sustainable fisheries has been essential to FPT’s progress. To provide local benefits, a community competition was initiated in 2016, involving all fishing communities. All funds received from tourist visitors to the nesting beaches and the Turtle Museum are allocated to a community fund. The communities that illustrate sustainable and responsible behaviors, working to protect the turtles, and those communities which are FPT partners, then decide on what the community funds will be spent on. Last year, the winning communities choose to improve their fishing gear, fix their community water fountain and to buy salt. Through this approach, the communities benefit directly from their actions to protect the turtles, and realise the genuinely higher value of keeping the turtles alive, as opposed to trading them for meat or shells.

Whilst the records of turtle poaching in Príncipe are not yet accurate (many instances are still not discovered) and unavoidable circumstances have contributed to spurts of high poaching numbers over the years, FPT’s work is showing signs of promise in reducing poaching (with recorded numbers for this last season being the lowest yet), by continuing to build a strong working relationship with the regional Government and the coast guards. In 2017, over 2000 turtle nesting instances (including attempts) were recorded since the beginning of the breeding season; and 16 of the 54 sea turtles captured by poachers were released back to the sea alive. In 2018, FPT will continue to build partnerships with island hotels and provide training for their staff and the wider guarding teams, in order to work together as part of the solution.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Jaguars in the media: what we know and do not know about illegal jaguar trade

By: Melissa Arias, Doctoral Researcher, Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade

According to a recent report by two Bolivian researchers, between 2014 and 2016, 344 jaguar fangs destined for China were seized by the Bolivian Forestry and Environment Police. This number of fangs implies the killing of at least 87 jaguars. The authors of the report also found that radio advertisements and flyers promoting jaguar trade were being distributed in towns in northern Bolivia. The authors believe that this rise in jaguar trade may be linked to the presence of Chinese development and infrastructure companies operating in the country over recent years.  It is alleged that the fangs were being traded primarily by Chinese citizens residing in Bolivia. It also suggests a connection with the trade of tiger parts in China, which are used for medicinal purposes.

Additional evidence of jaguar trade in Latin America comes from a WWF study in Surinam, where eight people were found to be in possession of jaguar fangs or meat, and two people admitted to being regular suppliers of jaguar products. Like in Bolivia, some of the people implicated in the trade of jaguar parts in Surinam were of Chinese ancestry. More recent news on jaguar trade came from Belize in January 2018, after two decapitated jaguars were found floating in waterways near Belize City. Although Belizean authorities are offering a reward of $10,000 dollars for information about those jaguar killings, there are no further details about the poachers or the buyers.

As part of my PhD research at the University of Oxford, I have studied this emerging threat to jaguars by analysing published sources and conducting informal interviews with experts on the matter, who are based in the countries where these reports have originated. From my research, I have learned that like jaguars, this recent wave of jaguar trade remains elusive and filled with uncertainty. Those who are closest to the emerging issue of jaguar trade concur that we do not yet understand the scale of this trade, the motivations behind it, or the drivers of supply. Despite this vast uncertainty, over a dozen news reports have been written on the issue in the past year, including in reputable sources such as Nature News, National Geographic and The Guardian. The stories that are being told by the media, however, are filled with dangerous assumptions about jaguar trade that are not supported by evidence, and which could be detrimental to the survival of the species.

There are many problems with the information that is being distributed about jaguar trade. The first issue being the potential scale of this illicit activity. For example, it has been said that the seizures carried out by Bolivian authorities represent around 10% of the actual number of jaguars that could have been killed for trade in the country from 2014 to 2016, meaning that around 870 jaguars could have lost their lives in the past years to jaguar trade. This percentage is most likely drawn from customs seizure data on non-wildlife contraband, which has been used in the past to estimate the detectability of ivory in the international trade. However, not only is the 10% figure poorly evidenced for ivory, the detectability of jaguar fang trade has not been systematically monitored. If we assume that fangs are easier to trade than ivory due to their smaller size, the scale of jaguar trade could possibly be higher.

Jaguar captured by camera trap in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. Photo credit: Diego Mosquera/Tiputini Biodiversity Station

Secondly, news reports link jaguar trade to the trade of tigers in China, which are used for Traditional Chinese Medicine. The logic behind this assumption is that since wild tiger populations are so low, wildlife traffickers are seeking substitute products in Africa and Latin America, with lions and jaguars being suitable candidates. While there is strong evidence of trade of African lion bones into China and South-East Asia, labelled as tiger bone products, the same cannot be stated for jaguars. More specifically, the data that exists on jaguar trade is concentrated on fang seizures, which are not the main focus of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Felid fangs tend to be used for ornamental purposes globally, including in countries like Bolivia, Belize and Surinam, suggesting that the emerging trade in jaguar fangs may have a different market than that of lions and tigers, and it is very likely that this market is domestic as well as international.

Thirdly, news outlets have been very quick to point fingers, blaming Chinese companies operating in Latin America and their workers for the rise of jaguar trade. However, my conversations with experts on the issue revealed that there is no evidence that the Chinese citizens implicated in the Bolivian jaguar fang seizures were associated with any Chinese corporations. In fact, they appear to be well established Bolivian residents that arrived in the country some time ago. The same appears to be the case in Belize and Surinam, where jaguar trade appears to have an even smaller connection to China and its corporations. This kind of unsubstantiated assumption involving the reputation of people, businesses and countries is not appropriate.

Fourthly, the media jumps to the conclusion that at present there is an active incentive to hunt jaguars to trade their body parts. While this certainly seems to be the case with the decapitated jaguars in Belize, it is too early to rule out other possibilities regarding the origins of the seized fangs. For example, retaliatory killing of jaguars as a result of livestock predation is well documented across Latin American countries and is one of the main causes of jaguar deaths. Therefore, it is possible that the jaguar fang trade is a by-product of conflict with jaguars or other opportunistic killings. One expert I consulted with suggested that the confiscated fangs could have originated from old stockpiles dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, when jaguars were heavily hunted for the fashion industry. To date, no tests have been done on the seized fangs to determine their age and origin.

Finally, what is most concerning about this recent media attention around the jaguar trade is that most of the news reports include information about the price of jaguar products. Disclosing such information can have serious implications for jaguar conservation as it may influence the behaviour of poachers, luring them into this potentially profitable illegal activity.

In a time of fake news and alternative facts, it is extremely important for conservationists and others to be critical thinkers and responsible users of the information that we receive on a daily basis. All of the assumptions about jaguar trade that I described above could potentially be correct, but are currently lacking a solid scientific foundation and should therefore not be treated lightly. Despite their good intentions of raising awareness, some reports are in danger of crossing the line of being unethical and irresponsible, with respect to both the animals and the humans involved. Research and collaborative efforts are needed to close these knowledge gaps and to adequately respond to this worrying threat to Latin America’s most iconic wild cat.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail