Exposing the illegal wildlife supply chain

Worth between USD 50-150 billion per year, the illegal wildlife trade is moving online.

The horn from a rhino killed illegally in South Africa can be at a market in Vietnam the next day. At the heart of this blistering pace from source to consumer is an illegal supply chain that moves poached animal products around the world. As Illegal wildlife dealers move online to promote and sell goods, Enrico Di Minin of the University of Helsinki plans to expose their tactics by mining data on social media.

You can follow his progress on ResearchGate.

ResearchGate: What sparked your interest in this topic?

Enrico Di Minin: Growing up in Africa, I remember seeing big herds of elephants in areas where they have now been completely wiped out by poachers. I have also seen the rhino poaching crisis continue to escalate in South Africa since I started doing research there in 2008. The illegal wildlife trade threatens the persistence of many species in the wild. However, limited information on the scale of the problem has made it difficult to assess the real impact of these practices on biodiversity. I want to expose the illegal wildlife trade supply chain from the source to the consumers.

RG: Where do you plan to get your information from?

Di Minin: We plan on using novel data sources mined from social media. The scale and nature of illegal wildlife trade has changed markedly over the last few years. The internet is fast becoming a major trading platform for wildlife products because it provides new opportunities for illegal wildlife traders. Social media platforms enable illegal dealers to release photos and information about wildlife products to attract and interact with potential customers. Dealers also use their networks of social media contacts to re-post the information about illegal wildlife products. Social media activity might reveal ‘weak signals’ in the development of illegal wildlife markets: the species of interest, source areas, emerging market areas, and social networks between traders. My collaborators and I will develop tools to explore and reveal patterns by concentrating on the species most threatened by trade.

Ivory confiscated by law enforcement in the United States. Credit: Gavin Shire / USFWS
Ivory confiscated by law enforcement in the United States. Credit: Gavin Shire / USFWS

RG: How much money is in the illegal wildlife trade? Which animals are affected?

Di Minin: We are talking about an illegal activity, so it is difficult to estimate. However, some estimate that the illegal wildlife trade is worth USD 50-150 billion per year.

Thousands of species are affected, ranging from popular species, such as rhinoceros, tiger, and elephant, to species that are hardly ever seen by humans, such as the pangolin. Poaching elephants for their ivory and rhinoceros for their horn are of course well-publicized. The illegal wildlife trade also includes many plants like cacti and cycads.

RG: Who is currently responsible for stopping the illegal wildlife trade? Do you think they have been successful?

Di Minin: The illegal wildlife trade is run mainly by organized criminal groups who operate across country borders, so both national and transnational enforcement agencies have the mandate to curb it. In protected areas such as national parks, anti-poaching units are the enforcers, including rangers who risk their lives every day. Curtailing the illegal wildlife trade is not easy, because corruption and poor governance often undermine enforcement and other anti-poaching endeavors. Many targeted species and their products are traded illegally for large sums of money, so criminal organizations have a strong incentive to bribe officers throughout administrative hierarchies.

RG: What role do conservation scientists play in stopping the illegal wildlife trade?

Di Minin: Conservation scientists can play an important role in assessing which species are most threatened and providing evidence to inform policy-makers. Research should be as interdisciplinary as possible, use novel data sources like data mined from social media, and engage decision-makers to be more relevant to their needs. Research should also focus on innovative solutions that could empower communities to limit the high costs from the loss of species they depend on.

An illegally traded pangolin is confiscated in Cambodia. Credit: Wildlife Alliance

RG: What does the illegal wildlife supply chain look like? Why are you focusing on the supply chain?

Di Minin: A simplified illegal wildlife-trade supply chain consists of many stakeholders — from the local poacher who illegally captures or kills an animal or collects a plant, all the way to the end-consumers of their products. Effective transportation and logistics are essential for trafficking wild animals and plants; for example, horn removed from a rhino killed illegally in the Kruger National Park, South Africa can reach the consumer market in Vietnam in one day.

I am investigating the supply chain because it is one of the most pressing research issues in the illegal wildlife trade. While efforts to understanding the demand for illegal wildlife products are important, many species simply don’t have the luxury of long-term prevention efforts that seek to modify traditional cultural, religious, and economic values. We need to start by identifying the main hotspots of illegal wildlife trade and the networks around traders and consumers. We also need to understand what role social media and other online platforms play in the supply chain.

RG: What’s the most effective way to stop illegal wildlife trade?

Di Minin: An effective way to limit trade is to enhance resources for on-the-ground enforcement. As my previous research on rhino poaching shows, many protected areas are underfunded and understaffed in this regard. Providing conservation authorities in countries affected by illegal wildlife trade with adequate and sustained funding for anti-poaching enforcement is therefore a wise investment strategy.

RG: If you had a meeting with policy makers tomorrow, what would you ask them to do?

Di Minin: I would first recommend making all the illegal wildlife trade data gathered by multiple organizations easily available to scientists. Because the trade is illegal, some of the collected information like intelligence, apprehensions, arrests, seizures, anti-poaching investments is considered too sensitive to be released. However, there is a desperate need to bring more evidence to the policy table. Hence, we must find ways to use these sensitive data to provide new insights into the problem. Too often discussions focus on feelings and perceptions when they should instead be informed by evidence.

Featured image: Customs officers in Hong Kong seize ivory tusks. Courtesy of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.