Solutions for managing shark and ray trade through molecular species identification techniques

By: Andhika Prima Prasetyo, Researcher, Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Indonesia; Doctoral student, University of Salford


Located between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Indonesia is at the epicentre of marine biodiversity, making it a priority area for global conservation efforts. About one-fifth of all Chondrichthyes species (the cartilaginous fish: sharks, rays, skates and chimera) are found in this region, with more species still awaiting discovery.

Indonesia is one of the world’s major fishing countries, consisting of approximately two-thirds ocean; it is also the world’s largest producer of sharks and rays (Figure 1). Sharks and rays are mostly caught as bycatch in other fisheries, but their economic value cannot be underappreciated. Even as bycatch, sharks and rays are valuable and marketable. In some places, a shift from bycatch to target catch has been observed.

Figure 1: Shark and ray landing in Indonesia 1950-2016 (Credit: A. P. Prasetyo; Source: DGCF-MMAF, 2018; FAO, 2018).

While fins are notoriously the most prized product derived from sharks and rays, every part of the animal is valued in Indonesia, including the meat, skin, cartilage, liver oil and offal. Products are processed in several ways and produced into a variety of products, such as hisit (shredded collagen fibres of fin), peeled fin, shark steak, salted meat, fish ball, squalene oil, cartilage powder, dog treats, belts, samurai sword handles and other accessories. Many of these non-fin products are used domestically. In 2016, shark and ray landings amounted to 132,746 tonnes while only 3,003 tonnes of shark products were recorded as exports (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Landing and export amounts of Indonesian sharks and rays in 2016 (AFQQI-MMAF, 2017)

Sharks and their cartilaginous relatives are subject to escalating global capture and trade.  Their slow life history traits make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing and thus sharks are recognized as one of the world’s most threatened species groups. Aimed to curb trade-driven over-utilization and population declines, 30 shark and ray species have been listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and with the possibly of this increasing in the near future. This means international trade restrictions are applied, such that contracting countries to CITES are required to ensure trade is sustainable, without impacting wild populations.

However, in practice, export restrictions present a challenge for the authorities to ensure compliance with such international trade measures. This is particularly the case in Indonesia, considering its large volumes of products, diverse species and processed products, and many fishing and trading ports. Many products are highly processed, which subsequently loses key visual identification characteristics, making monitoring and implementation very challenging (Figure 3 & 4).

Figure 3: Shark derived products. (Source: A. P. Prasetyo/MMAF/Seafdec)

Figure 4: Ray derived products. (Source: A.P. Prasetyo/MMAF/Seafdec)

In Indonesia, the Coastal and Marine Resources Management Body (CMRMB, locally called “Balai/Loka Pengelolaan Sumberdaya Pesisir dan Laut”), is the Governmental technical unit tasked with shark and ray trade monitoring. There are 6 CMRMB offices located across Indonesia, with 17 regional operating units (Figure 5). Staff at these units are responsible for issuing trade recommendation letters, which authorizes shipments for transportation (domestically and internationally). This is a difficult job and requires high volumes of fisheries products to be handled, with the necessity of rapid species identification to ensure that CITES-listed species are not illegally and unsustainably traded.

Figure 5: Summary of shark and ray trade handled by CMRMB (Muttaqin, 2018).

Between 2014 and 2017, the Serang CMRMB unit in Java successfully stopped, predominately through visual identification, approximately 250,000 individuals of 4 CITES-listed species:  oceanic white-tip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), hammerhead shark (Sphyrna sp.), thresher shark (Alopias sp.) and silky shark (C. falciformis).

A key challenge is that for many of these products, it is impossible to distinguish species by visual identification alone. CMRMB does not currently have molecular facilities to aid species identification, but since 2015 they have contracted other organizations to conduct genetic investigations to support CITES implementation. However, genetic testing is both time-consuming and financially unfeasible for regular use. It takes 3+ weeks to receive results and costs £110 per sample. Some CMRMB offices are located far from laboratory facilities and since the exporters are pushed to ship their cargo as quickly as possible, these time scales are not compatible with industry. The turnaround time for results also depends on the type of product. Some products need extra protocols to extract the DNA, such as dried fin, mixed hisit, dried skin, cartilage and oil.

Acknowledging this capacity gap, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), in the UK, has been working with the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Salford since 2018, on a project funded by the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, to tackle the illegal and unsustainable shark trade in Indonesia. One component of the project is the development of a cost-effective molecular technique to rapidly identify shark species in trade, which can be practically implemented at export, and support CITES implementation and combatting of illegal trade.

At present, there are three types of genetic techniques used to identify shark and ray products: DNA Barcoding, Mini-DNA Barcoding and Species-specific PCR. DNA Barcoding involves sequencing a unique stretch of DNA for species identification. DNA Barcoding nearly always works on wet or dried, unprocessed fins, but often fails with dried, processed fins or other highly processed products that are likely to contain highly degraded DNA. For such samples, mini-DNA Barcoding is more suitable where two short DNA fragments are sequenced. A species-specific polymerase chain reaction (ss-PCR) is an approach that does not involve DNA sequencing and could reduce analysis cost. This approach amplifies DNA from target species and can identify 9 species of CITES-listed sharks. 9,200 shark fin by-products were tested by mini-DNA Barcoding in Hong Kong and revealed that CITES-listed sharks are still commonly being traded, such as scalloped and smooth hammerheads.

Over the next 3 years, this collaborative project will focus on applying, modifying and improving the existing molecular approaches in search of a cost-effective genetic approach that is suitable for Indonesia, and potentially other regions.

Andhika Prima Prasetyo is a researcher at the Center for Fisheries Research, Agency for Marine and Fisheries Research and Human Resources, Ministry for Marine Affairs and Fisheries – Republic of Indonesia. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD as an Industrial Sponsored PhD student in the School of Science, Engineering and Environment, at the University of Salford under the supervision of Professor Stefano Mariani, Dr Allan McDevitt and Dr Joanna Murray. A sincere thank you to Dr Adeline Seah, Ms Hollie Booth and Ms Nafeesa Esmail for their valuable review and contribution.

Hiding under the shell: not enough to protect the ploughshare tortoise

By: Angelo Ramy Mandimbihasina, Conservation Scientist, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust


A Malagasy proverb, “Sokatra ilatsaham-baratra, henoy izany ry hazon-damosiko” means “the tortoise is well protected inside their shell and even thunder will not affect them”. However, not all tortoises can protect themselves from harm. The ploughshare tortoise is one example.

The ploughshare tortoise is terrestrial and endemic to an area of 160 km2 inside Baly Bay National Park, North-western Madagascar. This species (Astrochelys yniphora), has been classified by IUCN as Critically Endangered (CR), listed on Appendix 1 of CITES and protected locally by law – it is not permitted to harvest, captively rear or sell individuals. Its CR status is because the species’ natural population size is less than 1000 and continuously declining. Our recent research, a population study using distance sampling, in combination with seizure data, has concluded that the wild ploughshare tortoise population has declined from 1100 to close to 500 in about 10 years, because of poaching. These findings suggest that most of the trafficked animals supplying the illegal international wildlife trade originate from the wild, and are mainly destined for Southeast Asian countries.

Ploughshare tortoise. Photo credit: A. R. Mandimbihasina

Another driver of the drastic decline in ploughshare tortoise populations is the anthropogenic Allee effect. In other words, this species’ rarity is causing a high demand in destination countries, which raises prices locally. Rather than continuing to invest in farming, people living around the tortoise’s habitat may prefer to search for even just one tortoise, which has a greater value than their annual agricultural production, although this action can be very risky. Combined with other threats such as human-induced fires, ploughshare tortoise poaching may lead to the species’ extinction in the wild.

If we draw out the system of ploughshare tortoise poaching, we can distinguish the different actors involved. Locally, some people, known as “poachers”, search within the tortoise’s natural habitats for individuals. These poachers sell any harvested tortoises to intermediaries who are from either a nearby village or larger town and have connections enabling them to supply bigger customers or traders with the means to export tortoises.

In 2012, a conservation and management plan for the species was created, approved by the Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forest, and adapted to fit the local situation. Captive breeding, scientific research, anti-poaching patrols as well as political advocacy have since been undertaken. Public awareness has also been used as a tool to explain to local villagers that they are losing their valuable biodiversity, which poses other ecological consequences to the ecosystem. An intact ecosystem is necessary to attract tourists and ultimately improve the region’s economy.

As an example, to reduce the threats, discourage poachers, and to better understand what is happening in the ecosystem, patrolling by local villagers, park rangers and military was initiated using smartphones to record patrol data. Data are uploaded into SMART, a package used to store, analyse and report results to support the planning of subsequent activities to reduce threats. This package can also be used to record any law enforcement actions taken and compile all results to evaluate the efficacy of the conservation interventions.

Ploughshare tortoise. Photo credit: A. R. Mandimbihasina

During village meetings and public awareness sessions, income-generating activities relating to farming or fishing practices were proposed to local villagers to increase their incomes and yields. The belief is that, if villagers are better off, poaching numbers will decrease because they will not want to continuously risk their lives.

To increase law enforcement and curb associated corruption, advocacy must be carried out locally, regionally and nationally, to convince people and the responsible government authorities at all levels to act to reduce this threat. Support is needed for an international campaign to reduce ploughshare tortoise demand and increase illegal wildlife trade control measures in airports and border crossings.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

First Americas regional conference on the illegal wildlife trade

On October 3-4, 2019, Peru hosted the First Americas Regional Conference on the Illegal Trade in Wildlife in Lima. It was organized by the Government of Peru, in cooperation with the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Wildlife Conservation Society.

The Conference was the first regional meeting of the Americas on the issue of illegal wildlife trade, as a follow-up to the London International Conference held in 2018, and served as a platform to establish partnerships with the countries in the region and major transit and destination countries, for the prevention and coordinated control of illegal wildlife trade. Convened discussions included emerging issues such as the strengthening and harmonization of legal frameworks and their enforcement; controls and regulations on wildlife trade; use of new technologies to combat illegal wildlife trade; and demand reduction through innovative and efficient communication mechanisms.

At the conference, the Lima Declaration was enacted. Local community representatives across Latin America also released a joint statement requesting recognition of their role in wildlife management and sustainable use as a solution to address the illegal wildlife trade. The next regional IWT meeting is scheduled to be held in Columbia in 2021.

Meeting announcement information source: CITES Notification to the Parties No. 2019/020.

CALL FOR PAPERS – managing demand for wildlife products

The guest editors invite submissions to People and Nature covering novel research and approaches to managing demand for wildlife products, in particular: (1) understanding consumer preferences and choices, (2) design and implementation of behavior change interventions, and (3) impact evaluation of interventions aiming to influence consumers of wildlife products.

Prospective authors should submit a 300 word abstract together with a tentative title to Diogo Veríssimo ( for consideration. Full manuscripts must be submitted by the 31st of October 2019.

Latin American & Caribbean network to combat wildlife trafficking

The Brazilian Network to Combat Wildlife Trafficking – RENCTAS, is currently developing an International Campaign Against Wildlife Trafficking (ICAWT), which will launch in the coming months. This project aims to stimulate a collaborative network of local NGOs and universities from Latin American and Caribbean countries to combat animal trafficking in the region.

The project will use an online platform and forum to connect different parts of the region, as well as to facilitate the exchange of information and the dissemination of initiatives on a global scale to increase overall awareness about the impact of the illegal wildlife trade on Latin American and Caribbean biodiversity.

Expected activities include (among others): a multi-faceted campaign to raise awareness about wildlife trafficking; a report on the social networks developing this criminal activity; replicable pilot conservation projects in collaboration with indigenous and riverside communities to promote land conservation.

RENCTAS is seeking local NGOs and universities in Latin America and Caribbean to join the initiative, as well as foreign partners to bring technical guidance to and share their experience and expertise. Please get in touch with Thiago Costa at to engage with this network.

The Trade and Use of Giraffe Parts Survey

San Diego Zoo Global, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and OMP-IWT are conducting a trade assessment for giraffe following the recent proposals for listing the species on CITES Appendix II, and the findings of the 2018 Giraffe Conservation Symposium, which identified a key knowledge gap in this area. If you have expertise on this topic, please spare 15 minutes to complete our survey:

Towards sustainable African elephant conservation in a changing environment: a case study of Zimbabwe

By: Edson Gandiwa (Professor and Dean, Chinhoyi University of Technology) and Never Muboko (Professor and Chair, Chinhoyi University of Technology)


People are concerned about the survival of large mammals like the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) not only because of their charismatic attributes, but because of their important role for humans and nature. The social-ecological and economic significance of the African elephant are well documented, such as here and here. Economically, the African elephant (one of the big five alongside buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino) is of significant importance for consumptive (trophy hunting) and non-consumptive (photographic) tourism. Tourism in most African countries is wildlife-based and contributes greatly to national economies. In Zimbabwe alone, between 1989 and 2006 hunting contributed about 90% of communal areas management programme for indigenous resources (CAMPFIRE) revenue and of that revenue, about 70% was from African elephant hunts. The African elephants’ social significance is rooted in African tradition and cultural heritage, featuring high on the system of African totemic and spiritual philosophy, contributing to both African cohesion, Ubuntu, and species conservation. Throughout Africa, people do not eat the meat of an animal which is an embodiment of their totem, providing protection in areas where people must co-exist with such animals.

Despite the ecological and socio-economic values of the African elephant, its population is threatened by habitat loss, human-elephant conflict, illegal hunting and trafficking of ivory. The recent Great Elephant Census (2014) results estimated about 352,300 African savanna elephants in 18 countries, indicating approximately a 30% decline in the past seven years. However, some countries in Southern Africa have had stable and/or increasing population trends. Zimbabwe has the second largest African elephant population in Africa (82,000) after Botswana (130,000). The sustenance of the African elephant population in Zimbabwe could be attributed to the benefits local communities and landholders derive from having wildlife on their properties making it possible for people to co-exist with wildlife.

Elephants in Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe. Photo credit: T. Kuiper

Our research has focused on the drivers and nature of illegal hunting (poaching), and determinants of sustainable wildlife conservation in human dominated landscapes, with a particular focus on Gonarezhou and Hwange National Parks and adjacent areas, Zimbabwe. This research has revealed that in communities with disgruntled local people because of diminishing or no wildlife benefits and characterised by high poverty levels, there is generally a noticeable increase in wildlife crimes associated with diversified illegal hunting methods (including the use of firearms, snaring, poisons e.g., cyanide, which not only have negative impacts on target species, but also others such as vultures and carnivores). Hence, our findings point to the importance of ensuring greater involvement of local communities in wildlife management decision-making processes and diversification of benefits attributed to wildlife to ensure the species’ survival (particularly that of the African elephant). Given the sophistication of illegal hunting methods and increasing global demand of ivory, it is essential that adaptable and robust law enforcement efforts to protect this iconic species is developed in partnership and through collaborative arrangements with local communities and landholders. These findings are in line with recent work, in Africa and beyond, which conceptualises local communities as the First Line of Defense (FLoD) against the illegal wildlife trade.

The recent CAMPFIRE review, carried out between 2016 and 2018 by the Government of Zimbabwe in conjunction with the European Union, has provided an opportunity to strengthen community involvement in wildlife management with the African elephant as a focus in terms of trophy hunting and photographic tourism. Emergence of robust conservation actions at the community level and associated management models are essential to ensure the habitat range of the African elephant is extended beyond the protected areas and to local communities living with wildlife so as to enhance benefits from the species conservation, and create harmonious conservation relationships among stakeholders across communal, state and private lands.

Elephants in Zambezi Valley, Zimbabwe. Photo credit: T. Kuiper

African elephant conservation is riddled with conflicts especially regarding its conservation outside designated protected areas. These conflicts mostly arise as a result of differing views on the management choices and decisions about its conservation. For instance, some stakeholders are against trophy hunting and trade as a conservation tool while others support trophy hunting. The controversies surrounding the management have implications for wildlife policies. For instance, the continued existence of wildlife outside protected areas is possible when benefits to local communities outweigh costs and in areas where photographic tourism is not viable, trophy hunting potentially provides the much-needed benefits. Hence, the importance of broadening options of sustainable resource use and the necessity of decision-makers at different levels to make well-informed policy decisions that meet both ecological and socio-economic interests in situations where there are competing claims on wildlife resources. Such policies should be case specific as no one policy is a fit for all situations. Thus, providing scientific evidence for decision-makers through robust research related to African elephant conservation options across the diverse landscapes is essential.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Today’s role of horticultural societies in Colombian orchid trade and conservation

By: Tatiana Arias, Laboratorio de Biología Comparativa, Corporación para Investigaciones Biológicas & Sociedad Colombiana de Orquideología @TatianaAriasGar


Colombia has the highest number of endemic orchids in the world, approximately 4,300 species which represents about 15% of the global total. In the country, orchids have long been commercialized as ornamentals, either in the horticultural or floricultural trade. Tropical orchids were collected intensively for export to Europe during the Victorian orchid fever, after the tulip mania bubble crisis (see our movie, Orchid Hunters to be released soon). Orchid hunters are still common in Colombia, mainly to supply private collectors who pay local people and farmers to extract orchids from tropical forests.

Although all orchids are currently included in Appendices I and II of CITES, commercial collection and illegal trade contribute to existing population declines. Many orchid species are endemic to small regions and as a consequence they are not only threatened by rapid habitat loss, but also illegal extraction. This leaves a great need to implement different conservation strategies to help maintain this resource and generate sustainable development alternatives for local communities. Ideally such strategies should integrate into economic, social and scientific activities.

Private collectors play a major role in the conservation of orchid species because of their impressive ex-situ living collections. In the city of Medellin alone there are six commercial and 44 amateur orchid growers. The most impressive collection from this region consists of about 2,500 Colombian species and 6,000 species found globally, accounting to approximately 200,000 live orchids. Amateur collectors have smaller (100-1,000 species) and more specialized collections. In Colombia it is still common to find growers collecting wild orchids to enhance their private collections. Illegal trade may also be relevant, albeit there is little publicly available information about it. However, private collectors are starting to be recognized as a solution rather than only a problem for orchid conservation. Most of these collectors belong to the biggest horticultural society in Colombia, Sociedad Colombiana de Orquideología (SCO).

The Colombian orchid society (SCO) is the largest horticulturist association in the country. Members are starting to play a major role in orchid conservation. Photo credit: Tatiana Arias

Some of the orchid conservation initiatives SCO members have led include: hosting the largest orchid show in Colombia to sensitize the general public about orchid diversity, “Orquídeas, artesanías y flores”; producing the 2014 book publication, “Orquideas del Valle de Aburra” with pictures dating back to 1960; implementing in-vitro cultivation of the Odontoglossum naveium species in response to it facing near extinction; and the recent acquisition of 200 ha of cloud forest dedicated to preserve orchids and educate the general public and local communities about their importance.

These initiatives have served, for example, to understand the decline of orchid diversity in Medellin where about 80% of photographed species still exist in the city, but about 25 species no longer grow in natural habitats. However, most of these locally extinct species still persist in private collections and could potentially be reintroduced back into their natural environments within the city. A second example of how horticultural collections from SCO members have been crucial to save species from extinction is Odontoglossum naveium. This species was considered extinct in the wild since 2014 with only a single plant, living in Europe. However, during an orchid show in Ecuador, a second grower was found with a different clone of this species. This allowed individuals to be in-vitro cultivated; the species is now slowly being reintroduced and is widely available for legal trading.

Since 2017, The Center for Biological Research formed a partnership with SCO. This partnership was initiated to preserve orchids of the Colombian Andes and their ecosystems by involving local communities to create in-situ and ex-situ conservation strategies and availing an alternative mode of subsistence through legal orchid cultivation and commerce. We are providing the communities with the knowledge from private collectors and creating a partnership between collectors, communities and scientists in order to protect orchids, a flagship taxon for the Andean forests.

Through this partnership, the same approach has been taken for other endangered species and population genomics has been used to inform reintroduction strategies with a better understanding of their genetic diversity. For these reintroduction experiments, Masdevallia hortensis was adopted as the flagship species for La Reserva Orquideas. Aspects of biotechnology, conservation and citizen science have been integrated into this collaborative project as well.

Scientists need to help bridge the gap between private orchid collectors (even if they may also be involved in illegal orchid collection) and conservationists. One way to do this is through building trust. Institutions and scientists that work with private collectors do not often share results or involve them in the whole research process. However, if they actively involve them to identify relevant the research questions and subsequently share results, the collectors may be more inclined to share their knowledge and provide access to their collections, which is invaluable to conserve Colombian orchid diversity.


Orchids are flagship species that can help to promote Andean forest conservation and ecosystem services. Photo credit: Luis Eduardo Mejía


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Protecting the Bengal tiger in the Bangladesh Sundarbans: are SMART patrol and public information measures effective?

By: Nasir Uddin, PhD Student, Landscape Ecology Group (Wildlife Trade), Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences @NasiruD50913815


Few know the world’s largest mangrove forest is in the Bangladesh Sundarbans and provides livelihoods for three to five million people from the southwest coastal belt of Bangladesh. The Sundarbans is also the home to the Bengal tiger, a great source of pride for Bangladesh. As a top predator and flagship species, the tiger plays a significant role to protect Sundarbans biodiversity. The latest tiger status report (2015) estimates there are only 106 tigers in the Sundarbans remaining.

SMART team destroying poacher’s camp in the Sundarbans. Photo credit: Md. Khairul Islam

The Bangladesh Forest Department conducted a tiger threat assessment indicating tiger and prey poaching and trade as the top factors affecting tiger populations. It has been understood that local forest users, professional poachers and pirates are directly and indirectly involved with tiger and prey poaching in the Sundarbans. A gang of over 30 jungle pirates were found to be actively involved in tiger killing and illegal fee collection from local forest resource collectors, operating in both Bangladesh and the India Sundarbans.

The Bangladesh Forest Department is the steward of wildlife and natural resources of the Sundarbans with camps throughout the mangroves to protect biodiversity. However, this is a dangerous area that is difficult to traverse, has limited survival resources (i.e. no potable water) and communication facilities and the teams have minimal logistical support and security to conduct their work. Despite these challenges there are potential effective ways to tackle the tiger decline. USAID’s Bengal Tiger Conservation Activity (Bagh) implemented by Bangladesh Forest Department, WildTeam, the Smithsonian Institution, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and Panthera to implement innovative monitoring techniques from 2014-2018. One of the priority interventions identified was to advance patrol monitoring systems in the Sundarbans. A pilot patrol monitoring system following Spatial Monitoring And Reporting Tools (SMART) approaches was tested in a small area the Sundarbans west wildlife sanctuary of Bangladesh.

With the SMART approach, data collected by patrollers along with community information (print and electronic media) and GIS portal-based intel were used to identify poaching hotspots and patrol targets throughout the sanctuary. Two mobile patrol teams arrested 242 intruders and deterred many more resource collectors who previously used the west sanctuary. Resource collection in the Sundarbans is regulated by national park laws and is practically difficult to monitor due to the landscape’s tidal nature, the presence of dangerous animals and pirate activities along the Bay of Bengal. Previously, anyone wishing to collect resources was required to pay ransom money to the resident pirates to enter forest areas, indirectly supporting their poaching activities and allowing poaching to persist.

Pirates group surrendering arms to Law Enforcement Agency. Photo credit: Mohsin UL Hakim

Over the last 23 years, Mr. Keramot, a local villager in the Khulna division of Bangladesh, and many others who have been collecting various forest resources from the west sanctuary have started to avoid these areas when SMART patrols began, shifting their efforts elsewhere. Resource collectors perceived that with the west sanctuary now protected, they needed to identify legal resource collection to sustain their livelihoods. This enabled law enforcement within one and a half years to dramatically change the illegal behavior of resource collectors who, like Keramot, are now looking into obtaining appropriate permits through the Forest Department for Sustainable Resource Collection. As SMART teams patrol the west sanctuary and the entire Satkhira range (one of four Sundarbans administrative units), fewer people are inclined to illegally harvest in the area (and thus provide less financial support to pirates). With SMART team present inside the area, pirates began to revert back to their normal lives and surrender their arms to law enforcement agencies with negotiation support from journalist and law enforcement agencies. Since May 2016, 264 jungle pirates from 26 groups surrendered and the Sundarbans was declared a pirate-free zone. This SMART approach has also had a clear positive correlation to the sustainability of the ecosystem, providing it with relief from resource extraction necessary to regenerate and maintain its biodiversity, including the Bengal tiger. Tiger populations have increased from 106 in 2015 to 121 by 2017 in the Sundarbans. People like Keramot believe it is these changes that will save the tiger and are thus more incentivized to protect the biodiversity of the west sanctuary and Sundarbans.

The Forest Department and the Bangladesh government consider the implementation of SMART as one of the best sustainable practices, with benefits for biodiversity. The government has now developed long-term plans to implement SMART patrolling in almost all protected areas of Bangladesh. Integrated SMART approaches using multi-sourced information can be cost-effective for protected area management to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking, as well as for use in wider landscape conservation planning.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Traditional medicine and IWT in Southern Africa: a roaring trade?

By: Vivienne L. Williams, Freelance Academic and Senior Visiting Researcher, School of Animal Plant & Environmental Sciences, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa


Ten minutes drive from my office is the biggest traditional medicine market in southern Africa. On any one visit, thousands of plant species, and hundreds of vertebrates, can be seen in a sweeping glance – but rarely are the ‘Big 5’ African mammals that dominate the #IWT debates, found. Instead, millions of plants harvested from rapidly declining populations are piled on pallets and sold to customers ranging from self-medicating citizens, to urban and rural traditional healers. As one walks through the market, the air is punctuated by the distinctive smells of the herbal medicines and odorous animal parts in various stages of decomposition.

Reflecting on 27 years of monitoring wildlife trade in southern Africa, I’m bewildered by the seemingly unquenchable and exponential trajectory of pernicious trade that threatens thousands of species across continents and cultures. At times, my science feels impotent to address the pressing issues pertaining to species risk in the context of rural and urban socio-economic factors driving trade and exploitation.

An inyanga (herbalist) and a chief’s son selling medicinal plants from a pavement in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 1916. Photo credit: Flint 2008

Historical records for South Africa show that by 1915 the herbal medicine trade had become commercialised. By 1898, several species had become locally extirpated due to collection. The trade was further entrenched with the migrant labour system from the late 1800s, which prompted a corresponding trade in culturally familiar species from ‘home’ to supply an urban demand.

In 1933, an observer wrote: “One shop I visited…contained 250 bottles of medicine…Hanging around the shop were numerous fresh bulbs, roots, branches, leaves and portions of bark, besides the skin of a porcupine and lizard and the skull of a small mammal, a dead bird and a sand shark”. By 1946, Reverend Gerstner, having witnessed 40–50 large bags of bark railed more 265km to Durban, expressed concern for the impacts commercial sales of 100–200 species of medicinal plants were having on wild populations by thousands of herbalists.

Currently, more than 2100 South African plant species are used for traditional medicine, of which a third are regularly traded in markets. Additionally, over 230 vertebrate species are traded. Over the last century, medicinal wildlife use has evolved from being the restricted domain of traditional healers, to a thriving trade and the principle source of household income to a multi-national network of harvesters and traders.

A medicine man on the streets of Johannesburg in the early 1900s. Photo credit: Callinicos 1987

Persistent harvesting of preferred species, however, has put many species at risk of extinction. Since ethnomedicine is also a source of income to healers, harvesters and traders, resource scarcities consequently affect primary healthcare provision (especially in areas lacking western practitioners) and livelihoods.

The 2001 survey of 100 market traders challenged my views on IWT and led to my appreciation of the personal circumstances and motives of people directly involved – many of whom are from the most marginalised rural communities. I also became cognizant of needing to suspend judgement; disapproval over exploitative practices does not support families or influence constructive dialogue – especially when most market traders are widowed/single/female and from impoverished single-income households. These trends are similarly evident in other markets, but differ along the continuum of subsistence to commercial use and trade.

In southern Africa, economic uncertainty, high rates of unemployment, high values of traditional medicines, and other factors, have exacerbated the problem and contributed to the unsustainable harvesting of economically valued natural resources. Hence, conservation is as much about people as it is about species – which introduces multi-faceted social complexities into solutions necessary for conservation problems.

Judging from the voluminous trade in hundreds of millions of individual plants and animals, harvested and hunted, the sale of wildlife is undoubtedly a roaring trade – whether it be the thousands of cycads stems cut down and debarked, or hundreds of vultures poisoned, pangolins descaled, and leopards hunted. It’s an incessant trade that extends to hotspots throughout Africa, and globally – a consistent challenge.

Clockwise from top left to right: Merwilla plumbea bulbs; Whole vulture; Pangolin skin; Encephalartos sp. stem pieces; Siphonochilus aethiopicus (wild ginger), harvested in Zimbabwe; Cheetah skin. Photo credit: V.L. Williams

Part of the challenge is confronting the grim realities. It’s also a field disturbingly fraught with dichotomous debates, worldview clashes, uncorroborated judgements by social media, critics, scientists, lay stakeholders and others alike. In the face of such censure, I often wonder how many critics have invested uncounted hours conducting primary research and engaging with harvesters, hunters, healers, and consumers to hear their perspectives. Regardless of one’s personal opinions though, a prerequisite for good science is assimilating information in an unbiased way across the spectrum of stakeholder opinion.

Since most conservation problems are embedded in complex socio-ecological systems, they are essentially ‘wicked’ and generally “lack clear solutions because each problem is linked to other problems”. Furthermore, the “multitude of conflicting perspectives…and management goals can make the problem almost impossible to…solve, to the satisfaction of all stakeholders”. Wicked problems are also characterised by solutions that should be viewed as “better’ or “worse” by consensus. However, proponents of particular solutions frequently only acknowledge one side of the problem and will vigorously defend that side. This represents a challenge to those seeking to determine appropriate management actions by way of collaboration, especially if some stakeholders are “personally invested in pursuing a particular solution”.

Is there a solution to this complexity? I do not know. However, I view IWT as a multi-faceted Rubik’s cube, where solving for ALL sides of the problem in a logical and persistent manner is necessary. That said, confronting the drivers may require all interested parties to explore both scientifically and socially popular and unpopular views and agree that not all components are necessarily accessible to, nor solvable by, them alone.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail