The human dimension of the trade in wildlife

The trade goes virtual

With the advent of technology, and the growth of online marketplaces such as Yahoo and eBay, the illegal wildlife trade has evolved to encompass complex online networks which advertise and sell everything from ivory to bear bile, as well as a panoply of wild animals marketed as pets to the unassuming or deliberate buyer. At a time when efforts against the physical wildlife trade are starting to pay off, this new virtual trading dimension has led to a huge growth in illegal trade, and is currently far harder to monitor and regulate than the ‘traditional’ trading method.

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Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), often farmed for their bile. Photo credit to Reuters.

However, there’s a good side to every story, with the growth of the Internet and technologies enabling the creation and development of some really cool tech that’s helping to protect wildlife. Wildlife Witness, a recent app designed by Taronga Conservation Society & TRAFFIC, is a way for the global community of concerned citizens to report any illegal trade they see by sending in a photo and a geolocation tag, enabling the relevant enforcement authorities to shut down the vendor or operation. And lots more is being developed as I type, for instance this DNA barcode scanner, which although only in the early stages of development, could soon be an indispensable tool for wildlife protection, as it allows for the accurate identification of over 250,000 individual species using data from the Barcode of Life open-source library. What’s more,Enforcement Gaps Interface (EGI), a computer-based algorithm that allows for the detection of posts advertising illegal wildlife and illegal wildlife products, is in the final stages of development, and will be ready for use next year.

The need for a more diverse approach

Although such technologies are undoubtedly invaluable, they cannot be relied upon to solve such a complex issue as the illegal wildlife trade single-handedly. EGI, for instance, cannot access Facebook, where much trading takes place due to its wide social reach and accessibility. Furthermore, it is exceedingly difficult to teach a computer algorithm the cultural intricacies associated with wildlife traffickers and traders. An example being the marketing of ivory under the term ‘oxbone’, which was adopted by traders when ivory was made illegal. In the face of increasingly sophisticated technologies, trade networks are usually able to keep one step ahead by adapting to the market, and this is something that technology is unlikely to ever be able to fully comprehend.

Is it correct therefore, to focus the majority of our efforts on wildlife trade enforcement? Blanket bans and strict regulations are clearly gaining more strength and resilience with technological innovation, but are we at risk of militarising conservation? The links between poverty and wildlife poaching/trafficking are proven, with individuals living in poverty feeling like they have little other option than to utilise their resources in such a way that will allow them to gain the most in the short-term – i.e. intensive resource depletion. Such people are, more often than not, unaware of the dangers of harvesting their natural resources in such an unsustainable manner. Should we be criminalising their behaviour? With such strict policing, the individuals and communities participating in this trade for economic reasons are often heavily penalised and branded as evil demons for the participation in an activity that may not only provide them with a livelihood or be more economically viable than alternatives (e.g. bushmeat trade in Africa), but may also pertain to strongly held beliefs or play a part in upholding their culture (e.g. migratory bird hunting in the Mediterranean).

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Elephant ivory seized from poachers in Garamba. Photo credit to Jonathan Hutson.

Arguably, too much focus is on law enforcement, and not enough on investigating, researching and understanding the motives of those involved in the illegal wildlife trade (both supply and demand), which is what fuels the trade in the first place. Typically, trade is supplied by those in resource-rich, economically unstable developing countries, and is demanded by those in resource-poor, economically stable developed countries. We currently have a limited understanding of the motivations of both sides of the market, although it is widely agreed that wild animals are seen as a status symbol among the upper classes, a prime motivator. Might our scarce resources (i.e. money and time) be better spent researching wildlife markets, along with education and behaviour change on a wide scale? This is already being done to some extent, with projects promoting a change to ecotourism and similar sustainable livelihoods that both reduce poverty and afford protection for the environment (although success here has been limited).

Furthermore, in terms of policy, we can learn from other sectors. Harm-reduction policies designed for the illegal drugs trade can offer potential suggestions for dealing with the wildlife trade – the focus being on reducing harm to those involved. In the context of the wildlife trade, this would mean finding alternative livelihoods for trappers and traders and investigating deeper reasons for their involvement, such as cultural beliefs or traditions, and coming up with a more holistic solution than demonisation and isolation from their communities, likely to worsen the situation rather than better it.

- Local people -, Cambodia (Kampuchea)

Local children harvesting fish from the Greater Mekong River. Photo credit to WWF.

This is not to say that bans and strict regulatory instruments are never effective, or should never be used, but that they should not be treated as a one-size-fits-all solution. The illegal wildlife trade is a complex issue, demanding complex interdisciplinary solutions that consider its ecological, sociological, cultural, political and economic dimensions. The need therefore, is for a combination of innovations to reduce demand that consider the origins of such demand and the peoples that embody it, and place and context focused innovations designed with the local social, cultural and political context in mind to reduce the incentive to supply the trade.

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Joanna Trewern

Joanna Trewern

RSPCA Wildlife Care Assistant and recent MSc Conservation, Biodiversity & Management graduate from the University of Oxford. Interests in British wildlife, rewilding, conservation communication and education.

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