Multi-billion dollar trade in illegal and unsustainable wildlife products must be controlled to ensure species survival, say Oxford Martin School researchers
A new research hub, the first of its kind in the world, will bring together academics from conservation science, social policy and cybersecurity, to create a ‘whole picture’ approach to tackling the illegal wildlife trade.
The Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade will develop new approaches to addressing the trade in illegal products, which is fuelled by rising wealth and social change and facilitated by the growth of the internet. Focusing on consumer behaviour and motivations, the team will collaborate with governments and conservation organisations on the ground to create, test, implement and evaluate the impact of real-world intervention strategies.
Enabled by a £1 million grant from the Oxford Martin School, the programme will tackle a critical threat to biodiversity. The trade in illegal wildlife products is currently estimated to be worth up to $10 billion annually, and continues to grow. Casualties include:
- The western black rhino, which was officially declared extinct in 2011
- Tanzania’s elephant population, which declined by 60% between 2009 and 2014, due to ivory poaching
- Asian black bears, which have declined globally by nearly 50% due to trade in their bile and paws
- China’s pangolins, down by an estimated 94% due to trade for consumption
Compounding the issue is its complexity: legality is often ambiguous and regulation efforts are frequently hampered by corruption. And as species become scarcer, their rarity can make them even more attractive, increasing demand even further.
Rapid economic development has led to a rise in disposable income in many Asian countries, increasing the demand for wildlife products. Widespread internet connectivity, the advent of the ‘dark web’, and advances in transportation mean trading can take place quickly and easily, and on a huge scale. In a recent 6 week investigation of 280 websites in 16 countries, $10 million worth of online trade in CITES-listed species was found by an international NGO.1
“It is possible for a pangolin to be hunted in the forest of Gabon one day, and sold in a wildlife market in Guangzhou the next,” said Programme Co-Director Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland. “This interconnectedness facilitates and reinforces the rapid, global exchange of information so that trade in wildlife is now possible on a scale, and at a speed, that is unprecedented. Any exploitable species is now at risk.
“Tackling this issue requires a new research approach that takes stock of the complexity of the problem and the pace of developments, and integrates with the needs of practitioners in the real world.”
Despite recognition of the scale and urgency of the problem, current research on the wildlife trade is sparse and often uncoordinated, and conservation has tended to focus on controlling illegal poaching. Recently, there has been recognition of the importance of understanding demand for wildlife products, but there is still limited evidence on what works to change consumer behaviour. The team will focus on wildlife product sales in Asia, with an emphasis on luxury and medicinal uses, and say the very developments that are driving increased sales – social change and new technology – will also be key to tackling the problem.
Programme Research Fellow Joss Wright said: “Many newly wealthy people in these markets are young and spend a lot of time online. They may be more interested in high-end lifestyle brands and celebrity culture than traditional wildlife products, and social media means they will also be more exposed to environmental and ethical campaigning.
“Developments in cyber security also offer hope: traders might be increasingly sophisticated in their use of the web, but there’s also a great deal of scope for new methods of law enforcement.”
Crucial to success, the team say, is providing the evidence and approaches which governments, NGOs and international law enforcement agencies can use to support large-scale action.
“We have a real vacuum here when it comes to data and case studies,” said Programme Co-Director Professor Paul Montgomery. “Interventions in consumer behaviour need to be based on solid evidence, thoroughly tested and then monitored for effectiveness. The danger otherwise is that huge amounts of money and time will be spent, with little impact in return.”
1. IFAW, Wanted Dead or Alive: Exposing Online Wildlife Trade http://www.ifaw.org/sites/default/files/IFAW-Wanted-Dead-or-Alive-Exposing-Online-Wildlife-Trade-2014.pdf
E.J. Milner-Gulland is Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity at the Zoology Department, University of Oxford. She is a conservation scientist who has worked on the economic and social drivers of the wildlife trade and resource user behaviour, on both the demand and supply ends, for 25 years.
Paul Montgomery is Professor of Psycho-Social Intervention, Centre for Evidence-based Intervention, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford. A methodologist and behavioural scientist, Paul has particular expertise in the design and evaluation of the impact of policy interventions.
Joss Wright is Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. He has expertise in anonymous and censorship-resistant communications, trends in global internet censorship, and the wider field of privacy enhancing technologies, their applications, and their implications.
The Oxford Martin School is a world-leading centre of pioneering research, debate and policy for a sustainable and inclusive future. It supports teams that cut across disciplines because this century’s challenges cannot be understood and addressed by any one academic field alone. The School invests in research that conventional funding channels can’t or won’t take on but which could have a major impact on the wellbeing of this and future generations.
The Oxford Martin School seeks to have an impact through new approaches to big challenges, scientific discovery, technological innovation and evidence-based policy recommendations. It also aims to increase public understanding of the most pressing challenges of our time.