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

Understanding complexities of the world’s biggest shark and ray fishery

By: Hollie Booth, Sharks and Rays Advisor, South East Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society


Komodo National Park in western East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, attracts tourists from all over the world to experience world-class scuba diving. Luscious reefs and tumultuous currents create a diverse, breath-taking environment, home to healthy populations of charismatic marine megafauna. Dive tourists are almost guaranteed to get up-close and personal with several shark and ray species, but it’s the 4m wide manta rays, soaring across the shallow, sandy banks of ‘manta point’, that are the biggest attraction. O’Malley et al., (2013) estimated tourists to spend over 10 million USD/year on diving with manta rays in Indonesia.

Approximately 500km east of Komodo National Park, in the fishing village of Lamakera, manta rays hold a completely different value. Lamakera is a relatively isolated, underdeveloped corner of the archipelago, where access to employment opportunities and infrastructure is limited, and with peak annual landings of up to 2,400 individuals in the early 2000’s, it is considered the world’s top manta ray hunting location. Small-scale manta ray fishing has operated in Lamakera for centuries, providing a source of sustenance and trade for the community, but growth and modernisation of fishing fleets coupled with a surge in demand for manta ray gills in Traditional Chinese Medicine markets has led to dramatic intensification of manta ray exploitation for commercial trade. Mantas are slow-growing and long-lived, making them highly vulnerable to overexploitation, and annual catch in Lamakera has been gradually declining since the early 2000’s, despite increases in fishing effort, indicating a population crash.

The stark contrast between these two sites within the same province in Indonesia illustrates the diversity of use and value of sharks and rays in Indonesia; the influential role globalisation and international markets play in shaping our relationships with nature; and the complexities and trade-offs involved in delivering conservation solutions. Recognising this, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is working to support shark and ray conservation in Indonesia through a multi-faceted approach from policy, regulation and law enforcement to outreach and livelihood-focused interventions.

Specifically for manta rays, WCS assisted the Indonesian government to develop a ministerial decree to protect manta rays throughout the entire country in 2014, which has been followed by support for enforcement of this decree by investigating and arresting traders in illegal manta ray products, and dismantling illegal trade syndicates; working with partners to develop options for livelihood diversification in manta fishing communities; and monitoring changes in trade and exploitation to assess the impact of regulation and enforcement. Preliminary impact assessment results suggest the regulation is influencing manta ray exploitation rates in at least one site where socialisation and enforcement has been clear and consistent, but the nature and magnitude of the country-wide impact is not yet clear (Booth et al. 2016). Perhaps more importantly, this process is revealing valuable lessons in the challenges of implementing, monitoring and evaluating wildlife protection regulations in dynamic and complex contexts. In particular, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach: effective shark and ray conservation requires multiple interventions, adapted to the motivations and interests of local groups and circumstances.

Moving forward, WCS is working with government and research partners to develop integrated data collection systems for understanding the magnitude of exploitation and trade of all shark and ray species throughout Indonesia. In partnership with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, as a new case study researchers will explore:

  • What is the magnitude of illegal shark and ray trade in Indonesia, and how has illegal trade changed as a result of law enforcement?
  • Who are the key consumers of shark and ray products, in Indonesia and internationally?
  • What are consumer characteristics and motivations, and how can we design behaviour change interventions to encourage responsible consumption?  

Research outputs will be used to inform the design, evaluation and adaptation of practical conservation measures to encourage responsible consumption of sharks and rays, which we hope will contribute to restoring healthy populations of sharks and rays, which can deliver both ecological and socioeconomic benefits for Indonesia.

See here for more information on WCS Indonesia and our other conservation programs.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

The power of supportive collaborative efforts, capacity building and local involvement


By: Elizabeth Davis, David O’Connor and Jenny Anne Glikman, Research Associates, San Diego Zoo Global


In 2014, San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) began collaborating with Free The Bears, a number of universities and governments in SE Asia to address wildlife trade. The aim was to develop a framework that could be effectively and easily used by diverse organisations, regionally to gather data on the public knowledge, attitudes, behaviours, preferences, influences and consumption patterns of wildlife products. With a core set of questions, and the use of complementary methods (in-person surveys and semi-structured interviews), data collected from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos can be analysed together to begin to provide a better regional picture of the dynamics and drivers of wildlife trade consumption. Not only will this inform the development of demand change interventions, but this will also allow researchers to track outcomes of such efforts to gauge efficacy over time. There are numerous researchers and organizations gathering data across the region, but unfortunately the data is not necessarily sharable.

We began with preliminary surveys about bears and use of bear parts in northern Laos from Lao nationals, Western tourists, and Chinese tourists. The goal of these surveys was to understand perceptions of bears in northern Laos, as well as to understand what aspects of the questionnaire worked, and did not work, in a Southeast Asian context. Results thus far indicate that knowledge about the link between bear part usage and decline in bear populations is low among Lao people, but high among Chinese tourists visiting Laos. It is possible that this greater knowledge of use and impact on bear populations is what has caused Chinese tourists to cite their preferred bear bile type as synthetic, rather than from wild bears, though further investigation is needed.

Lessons learnt informed an improved and refined questionnaire which is currently being used in surveys in Cambodia, again on bears and bear parts. At the same time, semi-structured interviews also took place in Phnom Penh, resulting in qualitative data that will complement the results found in the quantitative survey. Preliminary results identify bear part use to be among middle to upper-middle status Cambodian individuals, particularly when an individual has a connection or affinity towards Chinese individuals. Bearskin was heavily cited as a product in use, but the lack of wildlife trafficking data for bearskin highlights the need to explore this further.

SDZG and Animals Asia is also surveying Traditional Medicine Practitioners in Vietnam to understand traditional medicine practice involving bear products, through mail-in surveys. Although a different methodology, these surveys complement the work performed in Cambodia and Laos.

In collaboration with Free The Bears, Animals Asia, TRAFFIC Vietnam and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (OMP-IWT), we will build on the work from Laos and Cambodia with public attitude surveys across Vietnam on bears and bear part usage, as well as on tiger part and saiga horn (ling yang, 羚羊) usage.

The OMP-IWT case study on bear bile in China aims to include core elements of the SDZG SE Asia bear surveys, working towards gaining a regional understanding. Greater refined mixed-methods research will be imperative for truly understanding the trends and patterns we isolate in IWT. The OMP-IWT is sure to be a dynamic research-to-action body, utilising complementary mixed-methods applications and catalysing collaborations.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Taking Stock of Stockpiles

By: Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, Doctoral Researcher, Oxford Martin Programme on Illegal Wildlife Trade

The rapidly growing awareness of the serious extent to which illegal and unsustainable wildlife exploitation threatens the conservation of many endangered species is certainly timely. Yet amidst the current fervour for combatting illegal wildlife trade, the use of certain policy measures may be confounded by the continued existence of residual legal activities that potentially complicate both enforcement and efforts to change consumer behaviour. For this reason, many activists prefer an uncompromising approach: total prohibition of all forms of legal supply, consumptive use and trade of endangered species products, supported by simple demand reduction messaging to consumers of the ‘just say no’ variety. However, this extreme approach may be neither realistically achievable nor even desirable.

At present, legal supply – and even some legal trade – of certain endangered species products persists. For example, significant numbers of tigers, lions, bears and even rhinos are maintained in commercial captive breeding operations in countries such as China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and South Africa, yielding considerable volumes of marketable products. Residual legal trade in antique elephant ivory and rhino horn artefacts also persists in many countries and some elephant and rhino range states continue to accumulate official stockpiles of raw ivory and rhino horn. Attempts to curtail these activities through international pressure have met with obvious resistance from certain countries and powerful interest groups within them, including numerous persistent consumers. It seems likely that captive live specimens and product stockpiles will continue to challenge policy-makers for the foreseeable future.

Before investing substantial resources in trying to eliminate such residual supply sources, policy-makers should carefully consider the extent to which these in fact threaten wild populations of endangered species. One hypothesis holds that the existence of any commercial captive breeding operations and saleable stocks of endangered species products both stimulates demand for illegal, wild-harvested products of those species and provides cover for illegal activity. However, as an alternative hypothesis captive populations and product stockpiles may provide a critical ‘buffer’ role, shielding wild populations from certain forms of illegal exploitation by meeting persistent residual demand or acting as a deterrent to coordinated overexploitation aimed at ‘banking on extinction’.

The answer as to which hypothesis is correct may vary with species, geography and circumstance: there are numerous factors that must be considered, including whether consumers might co-operate in discerning between supply sources that are legal, ethical and sustainable and those that are not. Careful examination of multiple cases may result in a deeper understanding of some of the typical critical factors and risks. Using contemporary techniques such as participatory modelling and scenario analysis, the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade will seek to assess conditions under which policy decisions are robust to uncertainty. We intend to draw on existing accessible data to engage with difficult decisions relating to rhino poaching and lion bone trade policy and hope to learn broader lessons that might apply to issues such as residual elephant ivory trade and the management of accumulating stockpiles of endangered species products subject to persistent consumer demand.


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail

Probing the Elephant in the Room

By: Vian Sharif , Doctoral Researcher, Oxford Martin Programme on Illegal Wildlife Trade and Alexander Rhodes, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya LLP


At first glance, the imminent extinction of the world’s most iconic species – for example, the black rhino – primarily looks like a challenge for conservation science. Yet, with rhino horn prices anecdotally exceeding $60,000 per kilogram on global black markets in recent years, at the heart of this issue is the behaviour of the buyer willing to pay prices higher than the street price of cocaine or gold to acquire it. Crucially, the need to understand the motivations and psychological drivers of consumers’ desire to acquire and own illegal wildlife products and influences upon them, like the media and tools commonly employed in commercial marketing campaigns, has now come to the fore as a potential means of reducing consumption.

Our report, Analysis of conservation initiatives aimed at reducing demand for traded wildlife in China and Vietnam, commissioned by Stop Ivory for the Elephant Protection Initiative & The Royal Foundation aimed to set out for the first time in one central resource a summary and analysis of the major ‘demandside’ initiatives carried out between 2004-2014 in two key consumer markets, China and Vietnam, for elephant, rhino, tiger and pangolin products. The report provides an overview and analysis of their findings and outputs, and also includes the compilation of a searchable database of these initiatives by mapping existing campaigns, educational initiatives and market interventions used to initiate changes in key audiences, for example consumers or policy

By comprehensively scoping the activities taking place to address demand in consumer countries for illegal wildlife, we aimed to present the cumulative knowledge gathered by these initiatives in one open source resource made available to any organisation wishing to access it. We wanted to build an understanding of the most effective interventions to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products, and for this knowledge to contribute to the production of tools and guidance to support governments, nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and others in developing their campaigns. Through making this data available to all, we aim to provide a resource for those planning interventions, and the potential for discussion around future collaborations and interventions to achieve conservation impact in as efficient and effective manner as possible.

You may access the full report here


Article edited by: Nafeesa Esmail