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

Effectiveness of Celebrities in Conservation Marketing

By: Elizabeth Duthie

Effective conservation is increasingly being acknowledged to be dependent on influencing human attitudes and behaviour. Due to their fame, celebrities are frequently used in conservation marketing as a tool to raise awareness, generate funding and effect behavioural change. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Academy Awards focused on climate change, resulting in a substantially higher volume of news articles, social media posts and information searches, than was generated at either the 2015 Conference of the Parties, or Earth Day. The importance of evaluating effectiveness is widely recognised in both marketing and conservation but, to date, little research into the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement as a tool for conservation marketing has been published.

The effect of celebrity endorsements on generating and retaining attention for a brand can have both positive and negligible effects. This highlights the need for such celebrity endorsements in conservation to be managed, so that issues or campaigns aren’t ‘over-exposed’, which can lead to a dilution in their effectiveness, and audience apathy. In addition, a celebrity’s own fame can dilute or challenge the core message of the association or partnership.

Using a combination of semi-structured interviews, and an online choice survey, this study investigated the extent to which a sample of UK-based conservation organisations, and other charities, evaluate their own usage of celebrity endorsement, and then carried out an experimental evaluation of a hypothetical marketing campaign.

This experiment compared participants’ willingness-to-engage (WTE) with, and recall of, a conservation message presented in versions of an advert featuring one of three prominent UK celebrities (David Beckham, Chris Packham or HRH Prince William) or a non-celebrity control treatment (featuring Crawford Allan, a director of TRAFFIC USA). We found that the organisations we interviewed did not routinely evaluate their marketing campaigns featuring celebrities. Furthermore, our experiment provides evidence that celebrity endorsement can produce both positive and negative effects. Participants were more willing to engage when presented with an advert featuring one of the three celebrities than the non-celebrity control, and WTE varied according to the characteristics of the celebrity and the respondent. However, celebrities were less effective at generating campaign message recall than non-celebrities.

Overall, our study found that whilst celebrities can be beneficial in eliciting positive WTE behaviour, they can have a negative impact on message recall, and the choice of celebrity can play a critical role in the effectiveness of a campaign. Further work is still required to fully understand the role celebrity endorsers can play in conservation but, drawing on best practice from the field of marketing, our study introduces an approach to evaluation which could be applied more widely to improve the effectiveness of conservation marketing.


Article edited by: Jamie Samson and Nafeesa Esmail

The not so bright future of the Andean Hairy Armadillo?

By: Carmen Julia Quiroga, Affiliated Researcher, Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny

Attracting thousands of dancers and visitors, energetic bands and colourful costumes, every year the small Bolivian town of Oruro, hosts a UNESCO recognised Carnival, the Carnival of Oruro. While the party brings joy and a unique display of Andean culture, it is also a dark moment for the Andean hairy armadillo. Every year over 1,500 dancers use a music rattle as part of the costume, for which the main material is made from the Andean hairy armadillo. However, the production of this musical instrument is only one of the many cultural uses of the species across the Andes.

As part of my Master’s dissertation at DICE (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology), I started research to better understand the utilisation and appreciation of the Andean hairy armadillo, thereby exploring the possibility to convert its cultural value into conservation impact. Urban areas of major Andean cities in Bolivia were chosen for data collection, making use of interviews, structured questionnaires, as well as visiting museums and local markets.

Results showed the Andean hairy armadillos to be sold and used as musical instruments, lucky charms, in traditional medicine and as pets. The legal framework in Bolivia is weak and ambiguous, as it the legislation relating to its trade – it is illegal to trade wildlife, unless for cultural uses. During Carnival alone, around 8000 pieces of wildlife are used in the costumes (armadillos, skins, feather and other parts). However, definitions and limitations of what is considered “cultural use” is non-existent. Few markets in the cities of Cochabamba and La Paz are controlled by municipal guards, and most merchants still offer dead armadillos on the side.

Analysing consumers’ responses to our questionnaires, the majority considered the species iconic for the Bolivian Andes and thus, they would not be willing to lose the species. Ironically, they also stated that the commercialization and use of this animal should not be forbidden nor stopped in the country because of its cultural use, demonstrating the need for further research to explore more cultural-friendly alternatives.

Building on these preliminary results, the Natural History Museum Alcide d’Orbigny, with the support of Cleveland Zoo has started a small project to collect complementary data outside urban areas. Subsequently, we found a far wider spread and open commercialization of armadillos in small markets, as well as along the borders with Peru and Chile. People from the communities heavily hunt the species as a side activity, despite it not being a major source of income. Additionally, the species’ habitat is rapidly degrading due to the growing production of quinoa farms for international markets which fetch high premiums. To make matters seem even more dire, due to a recent change on the Andean hairy armadillo’s taxonomic status, the species has lost its protection under CITES. Previously, when classified as Chaetophractus nationi, it was listed as an Appendix II species. With all this in mind, we are still trying to stay optimistic.

Despite the taxonomic status change of the species, the Bolivian government still considers the Andean Hairy Armadillo as an endangered species. An agreement has been signed between the Carnival Dancers Association and the Ministries of Culture and the Environment, stating the prohibition of the use of new wildlife parts during the Carnival parade. This will come into force as soon as the Ministry of Environment codes and records all the costumes currently in use. However, this process has still not started, thus we still aim to find a long-term culturally sensitive solution to this problem by further investigating hunting and consumer behaviours, as well as continuing to raise awareness within the Carnival communities and enlisting more dancers to stop sourcing armadillos for use in their costumes. Hopefully, with further funding and research, we will be able to scale up our work and increase our impact within the region.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

How do we Understand Illegal Wildlife Trade?


The term “wildlife trade” usually conjures up images of dead elephants, rhinoceros and tigers that are poached by organised criminal gangs for use in traditional Asian medicines, but there is far more to understanding wildlife trade.

A small number of charismatic species has been the narrow focus of most conservation efforts, funding, news and public attention. In reality, wildlife trade involves thousands of species and a wide range of products, from food to cosmetics to building materials. Even for a single species, this can involve very different products. For example, rhino horns are traded not only as medicines, but also as ornaments for carving. Unsurprisingly, these different species, products and situations involve different types of trade, including distinct roles for the harvesters, intermediaries (middlemen) and consumers involved.

Moreover, while wildlife trade is mostly portrayed as inherently illegal and nefarious, most wildlife trade is legal—including types of fishing, harvest of non-timber forest products, logging, and hunting for recreation and for meat. Even cases that may be ecological unsustainable are often legally permitted. In contrast, Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) specifically involves the harvest, trade and use of wildlife in ways that contravenes environmental regulations, such as protected area rules or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

However, these types of nuances and diversity of contexts, products and actors are often overlooked, limiting our ability to design strong conservation projects. For example, the conservation lessons and policies designed to protect rhinoceros in Southern Africa may yield relatively few insights for people trying to protect parrots in Central Africa.

Our research group based at the Lancaster Environment Centre, works on a broad range of IWT issues, including the trade of wild ornamental orchids globally, edible frogs in Southeast Asia, aquarium fish in the Philippines, wildlife harvest within protected areas in Venezuela, and the lives of people arrested for IWT within Nepal’s prisons. Across this wide range of situations, we have struggled to identify ways of to systematically studying, understanding and discussing IWT.

In our recent paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, we propose some tools and terms that can help to address this challenge.

Summarised in this video, our framework helps researchers and practitioners to distinguish among different IWT species, products, actor roles and network structures, and can be applied in most contexts.

Table 1: Adopted from Phelps et al. Front Ecol Environ 2016; doi: 10.1002/fee.1325

Table 1: Adopted from Phelps et al. Front Ecol Environ 2016; doi: 10.1002/fee.1325

We distinguish among a huge diversity of actors potentially involved in IWT (Table 1) and argue that broad labels like “poacher”, “middleman”, and “criminal” fail to reflect the diverse realities and drivers of IWT. For example, IWT harvesters include local poor residents who occasionally, and opportunistically harvest wildlife to sell illegally as a supplementary livelihood. However, they also include people who have legal rights to harvest wildlife (e.g., from a timber concession), but abuse those rights by exceeding their legal quotas. Both cases represent IWT, and recognising these differences is essential to responding with tailored conservation interventions.

Research on the ground highlights that IWT is much more complex and diverse than is commonly recognised, and that we cannot base policies on lessons learned from single charismatic species or on popular myths about illegal trade. We need grounded research to specifically define products, characterise the people involved and understand the networks that link them, in order to create targeted interventions that are fair, realistic and effective. We hope that our framework will be tested and refined with a range of other contexts, and will help us to make comparisons, draw lessons and develop monitoring approaches across all IWT work.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Wildlife Trafficking and Security: Myths and Realities

By: Cathy Haenlein, Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute


In January, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and King’s College London’s Marjan Centre launched the Whitehall Paper Poaching, Wildlife Trafficking and Security in Africa: Myths and Realities. The book’s aim is to assess the impacts of poaching and wildlife trafficking not only on endangered species, but also on the security of human communities. During preliminary investigations, the authors noted a lack of scholarly research in this area and the resultant rise of a series of unproven yet popular narratives. It is these narratives that the paper seeks to dissect, exposing the real evidence that underpins them.

In doing so, the book analyses the ‘myths and realities’ pertaining to four core narratives. These include poaching and wildlife trafficking acting as threats to human security, as drivers of conflict, as funders of terrorism, and as a focus for organised crime. Though focusing on source and transit countries in Africa, parts of the analysis are also relevant to states affected by Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) further downstream. Of greatest note here is the book’s focus on ‘myths and realities’ around organised crime – a key factor throughout the supply chain.

A dedicated chapter, by Tim Wittig of the University of Groningen, explores the validity of the narrative of ‘kingpin’-led crime groups supposedly dominating IWT. Instead of a centralising mafia or transnational criminal organisation exercising control throughout the supply chain, Wittig provides evidence of a more horizontally integrated criminal ecosystem comprising multiple localised and functionally specialised elements collaborating as opportunity dictates – a finding with important implications for law enforcement strategies. He also highlights overlaps with other crime types – pertaining especially to international drugs trafficking and contraband smuggling. This is in contrast to a more widespread perception of wildlife trafficking as an isolated crime type.

This and the book’s other chapters aim to provide the most detailed analysis yet of the range of security threats posed by poaching and wildlife trafficking in Africa. In doing so, the book looks to provide a foundation for those looking to address the threat posed to both biodiversity and human communities. An extension of this analysis further along the supply chain could provide similar insight to practitioners and policy makers.

Of particular note to the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, it is also possible that empirically based findings of this nature could present another useful tool in efforts to influence consumer demand for illegal wildlife products.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail