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.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

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

Issues & opportunities for the Illegal Wildlife Trade: workshop snapshots

The 2017 Wildlife Trade Symposium convened knowledge exchange sessions across various conceptual and practical issues that come up in addressing the illegal wildlife trade, as well as explored opportunities with different stakeholders for innovation applications and collaborations. Summaries and outcomes from some of the discussion-oriented sessions are included here as a taster; do get in touch with the relevant session leader if you would like to learn more.

Modelling Drivers of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

The complex and covert nature of the illegal wildlife trade makes it difficult to understand and address. A key challenge is quantifying what drives or facilitates trade at different points along the trade chain, from wildlife harvest in supply countries, through the permeability of transit routes, and finally consumption in demand countries. For example, poor governance quality might be associated with increased illegal harvest in source countries, while national wealth levels might increase consumption in end user states. In this workshop (run twice to enable greater participation and diverse inputs), session lead, Fiona Underwood stimulated and guided a critical discussion around: (1) identifying key drivers of trade and (2) the challenges of identifying robust sources of data on these drivers, with three break-out groups discussing source, transit and consumer countries. After feedback, Fiona then explored how these data may be statistically modelled to robustly identify which drivers are in fact significantly associated with trade levels. The workshop ended with an example of how Bayesian belief networks could be used to measure the effect of key conservation interventions designed to curb illegal trade levels, using the ivory trade as an example. Open discussions provided participants clarity on the modelling process, the opportunity to think critically about assumptions behind drivers of trade, what works to tackle it and how this can be tested empirically. Examples, suggested by participants, provided insights on how this framework could be applied in different contexts.

Ethics and Guidelines for Illegal Wildlife Trade Fieldwork

There are no established guidelines for conducting Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) fieldwork, including market surveys, respondent sampling, ethics protocols etc. There are, however, very specific challenges to research that engages active criminals, hidden populations and sensitive issues. These present unique methodological challenges related to validity of information, researcher safety, ethics, sampling and project design. This session, facilitated by Jacob Phelps and Gary Potter, from Lancaster University explored key themes and challenges in conducting IWT fieldwork. Lessons from experienced IWT and criminology researchers were initially presented, and participants actively contributed to group discussions, debates to draw out collective experiences to develop draft guidelines that can inform future IWT fieldwork. Workshop discussions have since let to participants collaborating to identify what resources can be created (and how) to take this further.

Biodiversity and Security

The BIOSEC project team from University of Sheffield, Rosaleen Duffy, Hannah Dickinson and Laure Joanny led a knowledge exchange workshop on Biodiversity and Security. The session was attended by 20 participants with a diverse range of expertise, spanning the sectors of NGOs, Government, media, academia and the private sector. Discussions were centred around three key areas: the militarisation of conservation, the use of technologies, and the challenges of international regulation. Reflections were made on the differences in approaches for particular species, regions and, how and why some approaches encounter resistance. The discussions from the workshop, which took place under Chatham House Rules, will be used to shape work and thinking on the BIOSEC project. A full summary of discussions and outcomes can be read here.

Connecting the dots: trade analysis and policy in the CITES context

This session, led by Kelly Malsch and Neil Burgess from UNEP-WCMC and Noeleen Smyth from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK CITES Scientific Authority – Flora), provided participants with a better understanding of the way CITES works, what tools are available to help monitor legal international wildlife trade, and how governments use the data and tools available to make decisions on the sustainability of trade. In the first part of the workshop participants were provided with an overview of core CITES processes and the main databases that underpin these processes, with the focus on two key tools – Species+ and the CITES Trade Database. Participants were then given the chance to act as a Scientific Authority and work through the step-by-step process of making a sustainability assessment. The session was concluded by opening the floor to discussions on possible future analyses and brainstorming of dedicated research efforts that could provide key information to ensure that wildlife trade is sustainable. Themes that emerged from this discussion included: importance of research on taxa and geographic areas that have been underrepresented in research; the benefits of learning from other disciplines (e.g. criminologists, medical practitioners (evidence-based approaches)); and the need to consider wildlife trade in the context of the multiple threats to biodiversity.

Just some of the 2017 Symposium contributors and team. Photo credit: Ian Wallman

Changing Business Sector Behaviour

Businesses play a key role in trade and facilitating trade in both legal and illegal wildlife products. This session, led by Steven Broad, Thomasina Oldfield and Anastasiya Timoshyna of TRAFFIC, highlighted various recent innovations in engagement with businesses to reduce illegal trade, switch to more responsible sourcing and avoid facilitating illegal activities including FairWild plant sourcing, the tradition medicine sector, the transport sector, the financial sector, internet companies. The workshop facilitated discussion with participants on the focus of activities to further encourage market transformation, fostering real change rather than empty pledges and reducing the barriers to real action to address this issue.

Engaging Religious Partners

The supply and demand for wildlife parts and products is at its most intense in Asia and Africa, regions where religion is a powerful force in society and a strong determinant of individual decision-making. Buddhist, Daoist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian faith leaders are widely viewed as being among the most influential figures in society. Engaging with religious leaders, and through them, their vast communities can have a powerful impact on one of the key drivers of the wildlife trade; people’s views about nature. Chantal Elkin of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), led this session which started with each participant introducing themselves and sharing their personal views and experiences of the relationship between religion and conservation (stories were shared from elephant conservation in Mozambique, Zoos in the USA, and primate trade in Morocco). Chantal then presented on ARC’s work with religious partners in wildlife trade hotspots in Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, China, India and Kenya, highlighting some remarkable behaviour change achievements. Invited speaker, Shaunaka Rishi Das of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies shared philosophy on how Hindu principles, such as ahimsa (do no harm) may influence people’s ways of valuing wildlife. The session ended with open discussions between facilitators and participants on overlaps and possible synergies, including how the impact of religion-mediated behaviour change interventions could be evaluated. Overall, there was a sense of excitement and camaraderie about the common ground between religion and conservation.

Empowering Rural Communities

Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) is a significant threat to populations of many species and also recognised as having links to criminal networks and insecurity. It undermines the rule of law, contributes to weak governance, hinders economic development and exacerbates poverty for those who are often amongst the poorest and most marginalised members of society. These communities living with wildlife are directly affected by insecurity and the depletion of natural resources that represent potentially important livelihood and economic assets. Community members can also find themselves disproportionately targeted by enforcement efforts. In many instances, the outcome of interventions to address IWT, will be heavily influenced by the communities who live with wildlife. It is imperative that those looking to address IWT share lessons around success and failure of community-focused interventions to understand better those approaches that have an impact on reducing IWT whilst also benefitting communities.

This session, facilitated by Paul De Ornellas, Rebecca Sennett and Sarah Thomas from Zoological Society of London, involved short case study presentations to highlight practical experience of several projects that have sought to engage communities in addressing IWT: Simon Hoyte (UCL Extreme Citizen Science – ExCiteS) – Empowering forest communities in Cameroon to address wildlife crime; Rebecca Drury (Fauna & Flora International) – Community Action to Stem IWT in Sumatra; Louis Phipps (Mali Elephant Project) – The Mali Elephant Project: Empowering communities in elephant-centred natural resource management; Christian Plowman (Zoological Society of London) – Challenges of Engaging with Communities from a Law Enforcement Perspective. Group discussions followed, focusing on: how communities relate to IWT, what models incentivise communities to engage with efforts to address IWT, common themes around challenges encountered in working with communities, what recommendations could we make to inform efforts to engage communities.

Zoos and Aquaria in the 21st Century

Robin Keith and Stacey Johnson (San Diego Zoo), in junction with Zoological Society of London and EAZA, led this session on how standards of zoo and aquarium professionalism have evolved from the 18th Century to the present day and challenges the commonly held misconception that all zoos and aquaria contribute to the illegal wildlife trade. It charts the history of zoos and aquaria, the development of an ethos as a professional community, and the evolution of zoos and aquaria from consumers of wildlife to protectors of wildlife. Modern zoos and aquaria have a collective audience numbered in the hundreds of millions; and those which are conservation-conscious are eager to ally with other wildlife conservation organizations to steward the natural world. A series of case studies were explored to consider ways to expand and strengthen zoo/aquarium influence and collaboration with in the wildlife conservation community for curbing illegal wildlife trade. Participants contributed ideas and discussions to shape an initial strategy in the following areas: 1) Regulation and enforcement: support confiscations through species identification expertise, resources and husbandry, 2) Market transformation: reduction of consumer use and demand through a collective global audience, 3) Leadership and capacity building within and outside the industry, particularly in terms of best practices and certifications.


Edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Elephant conservation debates need to be more constructive

By: Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland, Co-Director, Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade

  • Credit: Tim Kuiper

The conservation of wildlife is complex and often contested, particularly when the species concerned is large, charismatic, with monetary value, and whose presence in an area can cause major direct impacts on people’s lives. Such is the case for Africa’s elephants, but it is true for other species as well, including big cats, large ungulates (hoofed mammals) and wolves. Conflicts over how to manage these species are widespread and challenging to resolve.

In particularly high profile cases, the public debates around these conflicts can become very heated and emotional.

In the case of elephants, heavy poaching in some African countries has caused deep concern for the species’ future, and a range of approaches to addressing this poaching has been put forward and strongly championed by different groups. These range from complete trade bans (e.g. Born Free’s Bloody Ivory campaign) to limited sales of confiscated ivory (e.g. as proposed in 2016 by Zimbabwe). The confrontational nature of the discourse is clear when observing the media furore that surrounds international meetings where the ivory trade is discussed, particularly the triennial meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the most recent of which was in September 2016. This debate is heavily fuelled and mostly carried out by campaigning conservation organisations. In the heated atmosphere, the underlying values and motivations of those holding different views are questioned, sometimes destructively, and evidence is often interpreted and deployed in a strategic or partisan way.

This is not helpful either for elephant conservation, or for the governments of countries where elephants live, who are trying to manage their elephant populations under difficult circumstances and with limited resources.

Meanwhile, for more than two decades, African countries have been sharing views with one another and gaining mutual understanding through a series of dialogues,. Over the years, supported by CITES, they have worked to develop and adopt two unique and extensive monitoring programmes (Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants and the Elephant Trade Information System, MIKE and ETIS) which provide information to CITES Parties about elephant killing and ivory seizures.  These two systems, as well as the IUCN SSC African Elephant Specialist Group’s African Elephant Database (AED, where information on the numbers and distribution of African elephants is stored), have provided the information underpinning conservation policy-making. Building on this information, range states worked together to develop and implement the African Elephant Action Plan, which prioritises conservation actions, recognising and respecting the very different circumstances in different parts of the continent.

African Elephant. Photo credit: Tim Kuiper

Despite this huge investment of time and resources into elephant conservation, poaching continues, public concern remains high, and the best way forward is highly contested, particularly in the international media.

An important component of successful conflict negotiation, whether in conservation or other fields (such as national peace processes or climate negotiations) is to hold discussions of the main affected parties away from the glare of the media. such as the African Elephant Range States dialogues. In other fields (particularly fisheries management), these discussions have included the use of formal structured decision-making processes such as Management Strategy Evaluation. These processes go a step further than is currently done in species conservation (including for Africa’s elephants). For elephants, this would start with the agreed goals and priorities of the African Elephant Action Plan. Then researchers would compile and assess all the evidence that exists about elephant poaching and ivory trade, including the existing databases like MIKE, ETIS and the AED, but also local studies of poaching behaviour and consumer demand. This would help us to understand what the uncertainties and knowledge gaps are. Next, this evidence-base can be used to build and test computer simulation models, to explore the conservation outcomes of different potential policy options, at different scales from the local management of Protected Areas in Africa, to initiatives that aim to change consumer preferences in Asian countries. The questions to be addressed would be decided by the African elephant range states, with scientists acting as facilitators and technical support, rather than initiators. When used in this way, structured decision-making processes have already proven to be effective at reducing negotiation times and conflict, and improving conservation and livelihood outcomes, in a variety of contexts. But they have yet to be tried in species conservation.

In a paper published today, my colleagues and I suggest that it would be worth exploring whether following a formal decision-making process would be useful for African elephant conservation. Using these methods could clarify the likely consequences for elephant conservation of contentious policy questions such as the burning of ivory stockpiles, allowing limited legal trade, or closing domestic ivory markets.

It would also clarify where we need to do more research, if we can’t predict the consequences of particular actions based on what we already know.

We also highlight the importance of understanding and respecting the values held by people who see things differently, and recognising that these values may inform the way in which evidence is viewed and interpreted, sometimes subconsciously. Starting from a position of openness and respect for others’ dilemmas is an important part of building trust and moving any debate onto a more constructive footing. This message is aimed more at campaigning international conservation organisations than at those already engaged in elephant management on the ground, who are generally well aware of the challenges and trade-offs inherent in real-world conservation.

Issues like elephant poaching for ivory will always rouse an emotional reaction, and rightly so. However the threat from poaching does need to be set within the wider context of issues such as loss of habitat, connectivity, food and water resources, which also threaten the future of African elephants.

Donors need to continue to support dialogue among the range states and the further development of databases such as MIKE, ETIS and the African Elephant Database. They need to also support efforts to better forecast and plan in an era of rapid land transformation and resulting habitat loss across Africa. With the added elements we suggest in our paper, we hope the unconstructive public debates which rage around the issue could be dampened down. This would ultimately benefit the conservation of Africa’s elephants. Most species do not attract the huge media attention that elephants do, but they too could benefit from the approaches we lay out in our paper. These are already well-used in other fields (like fisheries management and climate change) where similarly difficult decisions need to be made, despite not having all the facts, and where the people involved may have very different perspectives and interests.

Evaluating the design of behaviour change interventions

By: Alegria Olmedo, Senior Project Officer, WWF-Vietnam

A recent research study evaluated nine behaviour change interventions launched in Vietnam in the decade leading up to 2015 to reduce the consumption of rhino horn. Using the grounded theory approach, interviews were carried out with representatives of nine organizations responsible for implementing interventions. A behaviour change intervention design wheel (Figure 1) was developed illustrating the key elements required for an intervention to achieve and demonstrate behaviour change. This wheel was created with elements of project design extracted from the behaviour change, conservation and business literatures and was later combined with themes that emerged from the conservations with interview respondents.

All interventions were assessed against this framework. Study findings illustrated a general lack of the use of each of these design elements.

Measurable Objectives:

Setting measurable objectives was possible for only one of the interventions due to a lack of baseline research.

Research and Target Audience:

Carrying out research prior to designing the interventions enables organizations to clearly identify a target audience and thoroughly explore the motivations driving consumption. However, only four out of nine interventions surveyed Vietnamese citizens to understand reasons for consumption and homed in on a particular demographic group for their intervention.

Evidence-based Messages, Behaviour Change Model and Theory of Change:

Only a third of the interventions delivered messages based on evidence that these might have the desired effect on the target audience. In addition, only two interventions were based on behaviour change models, indicating that in many cases assumptions had been made on how to achieve behaviour change. This is highlighted by the reliance on awareness raising, which has been widely used despite the lack of evidence that raising awareness of a particular subject leads to any change in behaviour.

Indicators of Success:

Although one intervention identified indicators of success, the implementing agent did not follow a theory of change or behaviour change model. Several other indicators were measured and treated as evidence of success, but many of these measure progress rather than success. These include: social media activity (to gauge interest and engagement), anecdotal information (particularly for pre-testing messages and reactions of individuals at workshops), number of people reached by messages via social media, texts sent by telephone companies, exposure on TV and workshop attendance (which does not indicate whether the people exposed to these messages were consumers, to begin with).


Only two interventions produced baselines to evaluate the prevalence of rhino horn consumption and thus are the only interventions that could evaluate their impact.

Figure 1: Behaviour change design wheel

Key challenges identified by practitioners implementing campaigns include:

  • Lack of law enforcement – interviewees highlighted that behaviour change is part of a wider intervention landscape which includes law enforcement and legislative change; effective deterrents must be set in place to see a reduction in poaching, trading and consumption of illegal wildlife products.
  • Cooperation – lack of cooperation has led to overlap and competition for territory of implementing agencies.
  • Clarity of purpose – there are different ideas of what should be the aim of demand reduction work (awareness raising vs. behaviour change).

Whilst behaviour change may be a new tool to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products, lessons from other fields (i.e. public health, marketing and development) demonstrate there is no substitute for baselines, robust research and behaviour change models, which can be used to improve conservation interventions. Combining these valuable lessons with adequate support from governments is necessary to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

CITES and the international plant trade

By: Dr Noeleen Smyth, Guy Clarke, Sonia Dhanda, China Williams, Stuart Cable, Helene Ralimanana, Rose Simpson, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Trade in rare species shows no signs of abating. In 2014, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulated plant trade (2320 plant taxa) imported into the EU was worth $286 million (UNEP-WCMC 2016). As a result of CITES COP17 an additional 304 species have been added to the over 31,517 plant species that are currently listed on the CITES Appendices.


Which are the most common plant families listed on CITES?

There are 60 plant families with species listed on the CITES Appendices ranging from well-known families such as Orchids, Cacti, Cycads to Didiereas which is an unusual family of spiny succulents from Madagascar and Africa. The second largest plant family in the world after the daisy family, the orchid family (Orchidaceae), dominates the listings on the CITES Appendices (84%).

The desire for and interest in these “luxury plants” has led to the coining of “orchid mania.” Their appeal attracts thousands of visitors to Kew’s orchid festival every year (Willis & Fry 2015), while orchids for sale as cut flowers and pot plants is a trade worth millions of pounds (USDA 2015). Over 39 species of orchids in European trade appear as components of cosmetic, food and medicinal products (Brinckmann, 2014). An interesting documented social use exists for one orchid Ansellia africana which is used as a love charm, as an antidote for bad dreams and to ward off lightning (Crook, 2013). It is also highly collected and consequently has an IUCN Red List assessment status of Vulnerable. Another unusual use of orchids is in tea. Historically, Bourbon tea was made from the epiphytic orchid Jumellea fragrans, found on the islands of Reunion (formerly known as Bourbon) and Mauritius. This beverage was highly popular 80–100 years ago (Pridgeon et al., 2014).

The next largest family group listed on the CITES Appendices is Cactaceae (CITES, 2015), with 1,898 species. More than half of all cactus species are estimated to be used by people. The most common stated use is ornamental horticulture (Goettsch et al., 2015) but food is another; for example prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) is commonly used as food (Global Invasive Species Database, 2015). Matching the CITES Appendices checklist (CITES, 2015) of cacti species against Kew databases (WCSP, 2017) reveals there are currently 231 cacti species with uses. These include species with medicinal uses (65 spp.), environmental uses (152 spp.) and social uses (10 spp.), in addition to animal food (29 spp.), human food (89 spp.), materials (43 spp.), fuels (11 spp.), gene sources (9 spp.), poisons (4 spp.) and even invertebrate food (1 spp.). Our world would have a lot less colour without Dactylopius coccus, a scale insect which feeds on Opuntia and from which the natural red dye carmine or cochineal was first derived, used and discovered by the Aztec and Mayan civilisations (Nobel, 2002). The dye has become popular again, as many commercial synthetic red dyes have been found to be carcinogenic (Schiebinger, 2007).


How well is CITES doing in terms of combatting illegal plant trade?

This issue is difficult to fully assess globally but as a snapshot of trade in illegal plants in the UK we obtained data of plant seizures in 2016 by UK Borderforce at Heathrow Airport, London. This revealed 220 individual CITES plant related seizures were made in 2016. Live orchid plants dominate the seizures, followed by plants used in traditional and healthcare medicines. This pattern is similar to other studies indicating that the illegal trade in plants, the world over, is dominated by orchids (Hinsley et. al 2015 & 2016, Lavorgna, 2014, Phelps, 2015 & SOTWP Kew 2016).

A key question, however, is why this illegal trade in plants is occurring. Whilst there is an internet-driven trade in wild plant species, especially for the horticulture industry (Hinsley et. al 2015 & 2016; Vaglica et. al., 2017), many incidents of illegal plant materials seized at Heathrow show that often the passenger is unaware of the legislation and protection surrounding CITES listed species and products (see infographic, Biodiversity Blunders in your Backpack). This indicates an urgent need for better education for travellers especially those visiting some of the most plant biodiverse regions in the world.

Read the full chapter in the State of the World’s Plant Report here.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

By-catch, the Dark Web and the demise of AlphaBay

By: David Roberts, Reader in Biodiversity Conservation, University of Kent & Julio Hernandez-CastroSenior Lecturer in Computer Security, University of Kent

It seems that every day a new bit of tech comes out or a techy avenue is found that conservationists want to exploit. In relation to the illegal wildlife trade, first it was drones to catch poachers and now it is wildlife trade on the dark web. Tech can work well in the right places, but it does have its limits and conservationists need to understand these. In the case of drones, they are precision instruments so flying them at random rarely detects poachers, but used in conjunction with intelligence to move to specific locations they can be effective.

The Dark Web is an intriguing place, having come to public attention with the rise and fall of the Silk Road trading site and its sister site, the Armory. The Dark Web is the home of illicit trade including drugs, arms and counterfeit items, and there has been much speculation that it is also home to illegal wildlife trade. After one conservationist posted on the Dark Web, requesting to purchase a shark fin, they told me they were amazed to have received a response offering them a quantity. Illegal trades are connected, that is true, therefore it isn’t particularly surprising that they were offered shark fin. If I asked for a Mars Bar on the Dark Web, someone would sell me one, but I’m pretty confident that isn’t Mars’ main sales outlet. That said, Julio Hernandez-Castro and I, along with a number of computing students, have been monitoring trade in wildlife on the Dark Web and it is present, albeit in small quantities (Harrison et al., 2016; Roberts & Hernandez-Castro 2017).

In our recent paper we found that the trade appears to take two forms that can only be described as ‘bycatch’. The first form of ‘bycatch’ was found to be wildlife trade that is also illegal for another reason, notably cacti to make mescaline and reptile leather products. The cacti are primarily illegal because of their narcotic properties, and the reptile leather products are illegal because they are counterfeit designer brand items. As a result, these items are on the Dark Web for reasons other than the fact they are potentially illegally traded wildlife products. The second form of ‘bycatch’ was found to be because the seller is already involved in other illegal activities and therefore probably did not want a surface web presence that could jeopardize their identity. In the very few cases of potentially genuine ivory and rhino horn sales, they were found to be in association with the sale of illegal prescription drugs.

Much of the trade we have found on the Dark Web has been on a marketplace called AlphaBay. Ironically, the month our paper was published, AlphaBay, like the Silk Road, was taken down, shortly followed by another Dark Web marketplace, Hansa market. It will be interesting to see whether these items we previously detected will reappear on another marketplace or if other, new items will appear; certainly as of the beginning of August nothing has appeared. Currently, the most likely marketplace that previous AlphaBay sellers will move to is a site called Dreams that was established in 2013 and therefore has the reputation a seller will seek. However, in reality every day billions of transaction takes place on the surface web; of these, a fraction represent illegal trade in wildlife. This makes detection by law enforcers difficult, particularly as much of the searching is currently done manually. While the Dark Web may be an attractive draw for conservationists to delve into, in reality this platform is likely to be a very minor player, just as the links between the ivory trade and terrorism have been overplayed. While some monitoring is worthwhile in terms of forming a baseline, considerably more effort needs to be focused on the trade over the surface web, particularly trade occurring on closed sites of social media platforms.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Medicinal Trade of Reptiles in Morocco

By: Daniel BerginVincent Nijman, Researchers, Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group, Oxford Brookes University

In many of the thousands of shops that line the streets of Morocco’s medinas, buyers can find anything from traditional Berber carpets to smartphones. One type of shop, “herbalists” specialise in herbs, spices, oils and traditional medicines. Reptiles and their parts are often found in these shops, a practice persisting from Morocco’s historic past. Accounts of the traditional medicines of Morocco date back as far as 1810 – James Grey Jackson described, in colourful language, the practice of burning chameleons:

“Various medicinal qualities are assigned to the flesh of the chameleon; and many whimsical effects are attributed to fumigation with it when dried. Debilitated persons have recourses to it, and it is accordingly sold in all the drug shops at Morocco [present day Marrakesh], Fas [Fez], and other places. The smell arising from the fumigation is by no means grateful; but what scent will prevent an African from using that remedy which credulity or superstition has persuaded him will give strength to the impotent!”

Despite this, and other more recent accounts, no previous studies have quantified the number of animals used in Morocco for medicinal purposes. To investigate trade of reptiles for medicinal practices, our study carried out 49 surveys of 20 towns and cities in Morocco, as well as the two Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla – the only European cities located on the African mainland. We noted the presence of any wild species found in markets and, where possible, gathered information on their uses, turnover and origins.

We recorded more than 1,500 specimens of at least 9 reptile species in 14 cities and towns. Marrakech and Casablanca contained the most specimens with an average of 163 and 86 per survey in each city, respectively. The specimens observed, together represent in the region of USD 100,000 worth of goods. The most commonly observed animals were Mediterranean chameleons and Bell’s dabb lizards, sold both live and taxidermal. Traditional applications of wildlife in Morocco combine cultural, mystic and medical uses. The uses of animals were reported as varied, but reflect the traditional uses of the past. Chameleons were mostly sold dried and perceived to protect from a range of ailments, from headaches to the evil eye (a look from a person that is supposed to invoke a curse or bad luck). Stuffed bell’s dabb lizards are placed under the corner of a new house to bring luck or can be burned to help with eye irritation.

Morocco has recently brought in national legislation to protect wildlife from overexploitation, with fines of up to USD 10,000 for trade of any species within the highest category of protection (e.g. species included on CITES Appendix I) according to Law n°29-05 on the Protection of Species of Flora and Fauna and the Control of their Trade. Despite these new laws the trade has not diminished over time, nor has the openness of the trade. Reptiles are still sold openly and throughout the country. With this information, we intend to lobby the government to better enforce national wildlife trade laws in hopes that Moroccan authorities will use these new laws to curb the unregulated trade of reptiles in markets. We are also planning to expand our research to Algeria and Tunisia, building a more thorough regional ethnopharmelogical study on the uses of reptiles and other species in medicine.

More information can be found here


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail