Who’s smuggling what where? It’s complicated, research finds

By Julia John

Illegal ivory products await a crush at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in 2013. ©Gavin Shire

From elephant ivory to caiman skin and caged parrots, the international wildlife trade traffics thousands of tropical products around the world and puts all kinds of species at risk. A new study shows distinct socioeconomic factors propel the global trade in mammals, reptiles and birds, which is largely unchecked under inadequate surveillance.

Researchers evaluated wildlife exports and imports permitted for signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and confiscations of prohibited items entering the American border reported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2016, William Symes, first author on the paper published in Biological Conservation, and his colleagues applied an economic model to the whole gamut of wildlife trade flows, which he said had only been assessed qualitatively before.

“The different product categories — birds, mammals and reptiles — seemed to have different market drivers,” said Symes, then a PhD student at the National University of Singapore. Mammal-derived commodities often went between adjacent countries over shorter distances than those from reptiles or birds, he said.

“The influence of these socioeconomic drivers was different for each group, so it suggests they’re going to different places for different reasons,” Symes said. “It shows you need product-specific solutions to the wildlife trade. You need to focus on what you’re going to reduce demand for because each product is used for different things. Each set of products needs its own intervention measure, especially if you’re talking about behavioral change programs.”

The findings confirm the deficiencies of CITES monitoring in remote, needy regions plagued by poor law enforcement and organized crime, such as Central Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Pacific Islands, Symes said. The analysis also proves the hunch that authorities detect illicit products made from mammals more effectively than those from birds or reptiles and implies this discrepancy would be more pronounced for smaller, less studied species like coral, he said.

“That’s possibly related to a shortfall in capacity to identify products that are less famous,” Symes said. “It’s important that CITES, conservation organizations and organizations devoted to regulating trade improve their ability to monitor these less trendy products because otherwise there could be trade-driven population declines in species globally.”

In the United States, he said, most banned wildlife products come from its hefty neighboring economies of Canada and Mexico and one if its principal trading partners, China.

“It could be that products coming from Central Africa, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Pacific Islands are entering the U.S. through places that aren’t as well monitored as other places, and that’s why you don’t see trade from those areas you would expect,” Symes said. “It could be going via intermediary countries, suggesting complex networks for illegal wildlife trade robust to the disruption of one or two nodes. We need to better target enforcement measures and understand the routes products are taking from their source countries to their final destinations.”

Symes also stresses that “CITES needs to work on building capacity in South America, Central America, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Africa but also needs to provide support for national monitoring organizations to better identify products that come from less well studied groups of major conservation importance.”

Julia John is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at jjohn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article.

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