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.


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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

How a null result sets the record straight on Harry & Hedwig

By: Diogo Veríssimo, Post doctoral Researcher, Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Some stories are just too alluring not to be true. When in the early 2000’s several major media outlets in the UK reported that the increasing popularity of Harry Potter, the boy wizard that keeps a snowy owl as a pet, was leading to an increase in demand for pet owls, the narrative quickly gained a live of its own. It certainly seemed plausible that one of the largest literary and cinema phenomena of the last decades could have influenced the behavior of its audience and led to a surge in interest in owl keeping. The reach of these claims was such that J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, released multiple statements asking her fans to give up on the idea of keeping owls as pets.

There was however, one important detail. While plausible, the link between Harry Potter and the owl trade relied solely on anecdotal information, sourced from a handful of people. However, complex relationships such as this can be tricky to understand and so we thought it would be key to have a more scientific look at the claims being made in the press. To do this, we started by first measuring the two variables in question: the number of owls kept as pets in the UK and the interest in Harry Potter, a basic step to be able to study any cause-effect relationship.

Snowy Owl. Photo credit: Peter-Schmidt

In terms of measuring owl demand, we leveraged the current UK legislation that makes it mandatory for owl owners to ring their birds. These rings are only available at a few locations and we used data from the British Bird Council and the Independent Bird Register, to see how owl ownership has changed over the last few decades in the UK. Measuring interest in Harry Potter is a little more challenging as it can manifest itself in many ways. Because of this, we used a suite of indicators: online searches, mentions in major newspapers, book sales and movie ticket sales. Yet, our analysis showed that none of these indicators was a good predictor of increase in owl demand. Thus, even though we had looked at the issue through multiple perspectives we could find no evidence of interest in Harry Potter driving the interest in owl purchases.

Considering the amount of press received in the past on the links between Harry Potter and the owl trade, I was expecting some interest in our results. To get the best possible chance of receiving some attention, we reached out to many of the journalists that had in the past covered this story, as soon as our results were published. The result was disappointing: no interest at all. Besides a few academics on social media, there was no media pick-up of our study.

It is common knowledge amongst the scientific community that studies which fail to find relationships between the variables being investigated (often called null results), receive much less attention, both from the scientists themselves as well as from the media. This means that these studies are often not published and when the results do see the light of day, they are rarely communicated to non-specialists. The problem with this scenario is that an appealing narrative, such as the link between Harry Potter and demand for owls, becomes nearly impossible to challenge, regardless of the lack for evidence to support it.

Setting the record straight, matters. We need the media to be open to correct on its own reporting when new evidence becomes available, particularly when a story has gained a lot of traction with the public. In the age of fake news, where the trust in the media is plummeting, it seems that more than ever it is key to understand that credibility does not mean being always right, but always being willing to correct past mistakes.


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Orchid trade: an overlooked conservation priority

By: Amy Hinsley, Post doctoral Resarcher, Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Whilst some of the best-known examples of traded orchids are mass-market ornamental hybrids, or the countless products containing the seeds of artificially propagated Vanilla orchids, this legal trade is not the end of the story. Although artificially propagated orchids are widespread, with more than 1 billion traded internationally over the last decade, a large-scale commercial trade of wild orchids is also occurring, creating a pressing, but little-recognised conservation problem.  This is despite the fact that all species of orchids are listed by CITES, with orchids making up >70% of the CITES Appendices.

Taxonomic breakdown of CITES Appendices I and II, showing the large proportion of orchids in the total number of species listed by the Convention. Adapted from Hinsley (2016) using updated data from UNEP-WCMC (2015). Vector images courtesy of the Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (

To draw attention to this issue of illegal and unsustainable trade, a new review paper published in December 2017 by an international team of authors from the IUCN Orchid Specialist Group’s Global Trade Programme provides the first global overview of the orchid trade. The authors highlight the main types of trade, which include:

Edible orchids:

In addition to the well-known Vanilla trade, there are several other examples of orchids being used as ingredients in food and drink. This includes regional demand for two products made from the ground tubers of terrestrial orchids: chikanda cake in Central and East Africa, and salep, which is used to make hot drinks and ice cream in Turkey and neighbouring countries.

Medicinal orchids:

Orchids are used in traditional medicine systems around the world, from subsistence to commercial levels of exploitation. Some of the most widespread, commercial medicinal uses of orchids include Chinese Traditional Medicine and South Asian Ayurvedic medicine, but they are also known to be used traditional and folk medicines of other regions, as well as globally in various health supplements.

Ornamental orchids:

This trade is, unsurprisingly, dominated by species with attractive flowers, but it also includes species admired for their unusual growth habits, miniature size, scent, and patterned leaves. While the vast majority of contemporary ornamental orchid trade involves artificially propagated plants and cut flowers cultivated in commercial greenhouses, it can also include wild, often illegally-harvested plants traded on commercial scales.

These trades have all been linked to over-harvesting, causing decline and extirpation of species from their natural ranges. There is also evidence from a recent study of Southeast Asian ornamental orchid trade, that countries are not benefitting equally from the trade in their own species, with countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam contributing large proportions of their species to international trade, whilst selling very few themselves. This creates a further problem related to Access and Benefit Sharing, on top of the direct conservation threats to species themselves.

The main conservation challenges associated with the orchid trade are those linked to the trade itself, such as the threats from unsustainable and illegal forms of harvest and trade, or the shifting patterns of consumer and supplier behaviour that make monitoring and regulation difficult. However further challenges are associated with the taxonomic complexity of the family, which presents management challenges for species identification, and the basic gaps that exist in ecological data and conservation status assessments, which limit sustainable management of orchid resources.  Finally, institutional barriers arise from the low priority placed on plants within broader efforts to address the unsustainable wildlife trade, and limit the legal international orchid trade in ways that constrain scientific exchange and potentially beneficial commerce.

To address these challenges, the authors conclude that the conservation community should focus on four key areas:

  1. Conduct further research on trade dynamics and the impacts of harvest;
  2. Strengthen the legal trade of orchids;
  3. Adopt measures to reduce illegal trade;
  4. Raise the profile of orchid trade among policy makers, conservationists and the public.

One way in which at least two of these priorities can be addressed is to improve the existing monitoring of international trade. Another new paper published in November 2017 demonstrated a simple method that can be used to help determine whether newly discovered orchids in trade are likely to be of wild origin. The method uses growth timings of plants to determine when legal, artificially propagated material of newly described species will be available for international trade.  With some further research, this could be used to create a ‘Species to Watch’ list to identify when a plant being traded could only have come from the wild.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Changing the way you problem solve

By: Rodger Watson, Deputy Director, Designing Out Crime Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney

‘If what you have been trying isn’t working, try something else,’ said Dick Rijken, Professor of Information Technology and Society at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. He was referring to the work of Kees Dorst, Professor of Transdisciplinary Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney and the practice that has been developed at the Designing Out Crime Research Centre (DOC). This practice is applied with stakeholders to understand complex problems, and to collaboratively create solutions. The practice was developed specifically because the dominant paradigm of crime prevention was not keeping up with societal and technological changes.

Previously, at the New South Wales Department of Justice in Australia, I worked with local government, community groups, and the private sector to develop responses to local crime problems. I had completed a Masters of Criminology, and was applying my discipline to the best of my ability. The problem was, the dominant paradigm within crime prevention practice had been one of ‘evidence based solutions’. Applying evidence-based solutions is fine, if the problem is not complex, however with emerging crime types there are no evidence-based solutions, how could there be? So what do we do? It was at this point, the Department of Justice commissioned the University of Technology Sydney to establish the DOC and soon after I moved to work there.

At DOC I found an enthusiastic group of people from different disciplines including; Psychology, History, Industrial Design, Architecture and Urban Planning. Kees had developed his broad theory of Frame Creation, and we set about creating a practice to take on complex problems. Drawing from each of our disciplines, and with the help of a network of collaborators, including Dick Rijken and our friends at Design Against Crime at Central Saint Martins, UAL, we built up tools and approaches to take on complexity with our colleagues from the public sector. We call this practice ‘designing for the common good’ and have applied it to more than 100 real world problems, all the while developing new tools and working with our partners (government agencies, NGOs, private sector, and community groups) to take on complex problems.

Many of the intractable problems that find their way to us have long histories and multiple perspectives, some are the result of emerging crime trends. What is clear is that when there isn’t an evidence-based solution at hand, new solutions need to be developed. Whether it is alcohol related violence in an inner city suburb, rehabilitation of prisoners, identify theft, or the recent trend of terrorists using vehicles to attack crowds of people, collaborative problem solving has been a crucial element of our work.

Another other crucial element to our work has been that we have deliberately and purposefully used a productive reasoning pattern. We have drawn on the discipline of design to understand creative practice as they explicitly deal with creating new things. This abductive reasoning pattern starts first with the question, ‘what is the desired value, or the why?’ and then works backwards to how this might be achieved and only then what actions might be taken. To a classically trained philosopher, this may seem uncomfortably like a logical fallacy, affirming the consequent. However, the next part of the process is to test and iterate this new proposition with the stakeholders who have been involved in the process to date, and broader stakeholders.

At the 2017 Wildlife Trade Symposium, Evolving perspectives on the demand for illegal wildlife products, my colleague Madelon Willemsen (Visiting Research Fellow, Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation, University of Technology Sydney) and I facilitated two workshops with symposium delegates. Using a case study from the Designing Out Crime portfolio, participants were introduced to the theory behind the practice, and then stepped through a real-life case study and assess how this could be applied to problems surrounding the illegal wildlife trade. A summary of discussions and outcomes from these sessions will be available soon.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Asking sensitive questions

By: Freya St. John, Lecturer in Conservation Science, Bangor University

Many approaches to conserving and managing natural resources depend upon rules which restrict access to resources. However, the existence of rules alone does not guarantee compliance and information on rule breaking behaviour is needed in order to inform the design of interventions. Unfortunately, estimating the prevalence of rule-breaking and understanding what motivates those involved constitutes a major challenge as understandably, rule-breakers are generally unwilling to discuss their motives, or admit to rule-breaking, for fear of punishment or shame. A number of indirect methods have been used to estimate rule breaking in conservation. For example, satellite imagery has been used to assess deforestation rates and fish landing statistics have been compared to quantities found on markets. However, such approaches tell us little about the characteristics or motivations of rule breakers.

Across numerous disciplines, face-to-face questionnaires are used extensively to investigate gather data from people. However, when the topic of investigation is sensitive, conventional questionnaires are particularly susceptible to two forms of bias: Social desirability bias and non-response bias. To address this, a number of specialised methods for asking sensitive questions have been developed within the social sciences (Nuno & St. John 2015). These include the Unmatched Count Technique (UCT) and the Randomized Response Technique (RRT), described below. Despite some recent applications, RRT & UCT have rarely been used to study illegal resource extraction, yet they have the potential to unlock an entirely new perspective on this global phenomenon. Freya St. John, Lecturer in Conservation Science at Bangor University presented these methods during two very well received sessions at the 2017 Wildlife Trade Symposium.

Unmatched count technique (UCT): When using UCT, respondents are randomly allocated into one of two groups, baseline and treatment groups. Participants in the baseline group are presented with a list of non-sensitive items whilst respondents in the treatment group are shown this same list with one additional sensitive item added to it. All respondents are asked to indicate how many items on the list apply to them, however, they never reveal which items are relevant to them. Differences in the means between baseline and treatment groups are used to estimate the prevalence of the sensitive behaviour (Nuno & St. John 2015). For example, to investigate the prevalence of hunting as a livelihood strategy a control card might ask respondents to state how many of the following occupations were done by people in their household: livestock keeping, agriculture, small business, and teaching. The treatment card would include the extra activity of wildlife hunting (See Nuno et al 2013). The simplicity and ease of use in areas of high illiteracy are two main advantages of UCT (Nuno et al. 2013). Unfortunately, it has been shown to be of limited use for very rare behaviours due to wide standard errors around estimates (Tsuchiya et al. 2007).

Randomized response technique (RRT): Depending upon the result of a randomising device such as a dice or coin, the randomised response technique first described by Warner (1965) requires respondents to either answer a sensitive question truthfully, or to provide a ‘forced’ answer. For example, respondents may be instructed to answer the question ‘Did you kill a duiker in the last 12 months’ truthful if they roll a die and it land on 1, 2, 3 or 4. However, if the die lands on 5, they are ‘forced’ to give the prescribed answer ‘yes’ and if it lands on 6, they give the prescribed answer ‘no’. The result of the randomising device, in this example a die, is never revealed to the researcher. In this manner truthfully ‘yes’ responses cannot be distinguished from forced ‘yes’ responses so incriminating information cannot be linked to individuals (St. John et al. 2012). Thus, the randomising device offers protection to the respondent, assuring them that their positive answers cannot be interpreted as an admission of guilt.


Article edited by: Melissa Arias and Nafeesa Esmail