Brieﬁng note for policy-makers
Oxford Martin Programme on the
EVIDENCE TO ACTION
Tools and expertise to improve the evidence base for national
and international Illegal Wildlife Trade policy already exist but
are underutilised. Tapping into these resources would produce
substantive beneﬁts for wildlife conservation and associated
sectors, enabling governments to better meet their obligations
under the Sustainable Development Goals and international
This can be achieved through enhanced funding support for
inter-sectoral research collaborations, engaging researchers in
priority setting and programme design, increasing developing
country research capacity and engaging researchers and
community voices in policy processes.
fIllegal wildlife trade (IWT) is a major and widespread threat to a wide range of wildlife species, both plants and
animals, which is provoking substantial public interest. It is also a governance and livelihoods issue.
fIWT is a complex, fast-changing and heterogeneous issue. Solutions need innovative thinking across natural
and social sciences, arts and humanities, including incorporating local and indigenous knowledge.
fSigniﬁcant uncertainty exists surrounding the scale, threat, and appropriate responses to IWT. A systematic
approach is needed to address the most critical evidence gaps.
fDespite the sense of urgency, acting without a robust understanding of the issues, and an appreciation of the
uncertainties, can lead to inadequate, unethical, or counterproductive outcomes for both wildlife and people.
fA greater emphasis on designing interventions in order to learn, impact evaluation, and sharing of datasets and
lessons is required from all actors, including governments, funders, researchers and NGOs.
fBetter aligning public policy discourse and action with research evidence would make IWT policy more eﬀective.
Policy-makers and practitioners are generally committed to evidence-based decision-making, but this can be
challenging in the face of misinformation, lobbying and inadequate information.
In this brieﬁng note, we outline key areas where research evidence has lessons for IWT policy, highlight
critical uncertainties where research is required, and emphasise the need for better design and evaluation of
interventions in order to improve the eﬀectiveness of both policy and practice in tackling IWT.
EVIDENCE TO ACTION
Research Evidence on the
Illegal Wildlife Trade
The current IWT discourse would beneﬁt from reframing
to better align with research ﬁndings.
“Neglected” organisms threatened by IWT require
more policy attention and funding.
fIllegal wildlife trade aﬀects a wide range of species
in virtually all countries. While charismatic mammals
often dominate policy and funding eﬀorts, less
well-publicised groups such as ﬁsh, timber, reptiles
and ornamental plants are traﬃcked in far greater
volumes and with potentially profound ecological
impacts. Newly discovered and rare species can
rapidly become IWT targets.
Eﬀective IWT interventions require a more nuanced
understanding of the whole supply chain.
fIWT is not a single entity that can be addressed
through a “one size ﬁts all” solution. The trades in
elephant ivory, pangolin products, dried seafood,
medicinal plants and rosewood timber are only
comparable at a very superﬁcial level. Even for one
species, individual products can have diﬀerent
supply, trade and demand characteristics, which
may vary geographically (e.g., pangolin species).
New species of concern and trade routes continue
to emerge (e.g., cave invertebrates from the
Balkans). The trade in diﬀerent products can
interact in complex ways, for example the use of
lion bone in purported tiger bone products.
EVIDENCE TO ACTION
IWT is both an international and a domestic issue,
including diverse actors.
fCurrent IWT policies often focus on Africa and Asia,
potentially overlooking important UK, European and
Latin American markets that act as key suppliers,
consumer markets and trade hubs. Examples include
eels and sturgeons for luxury foodstuﬀs and reptiles
and birds for the exotic pet industry (Box 1).
Strong evidence links IWT to criminal activities
and corruption but terrorism links are less well
fIllegal wildlife trade is often linked to criminal
behaviour and corrupt practices, ranging from small-
scale individual harvesters and traders to organized
international crime syndicates. The associated
breakdown in governance and rule of law can
exacerbate local conﬂict and undermine livelihoods.
Actions to improve governance would therefore
beneﬁt both wildlife and people. Despite some
popular narratives, the evidence of the illegal wildlife
trade playing a role in funding terrorism is largely
anecdotal and distracts from the main issues.
Initiatives based on communities’ knowledge and
perspectives, explicitly recognising trade-oﬀs,
would build greater local support for tackling IWT.
fAlthough enforcement is vital, particularly
where armed gangs threaten both local security
and wildlife, over-emphasis on militarised and
enforcement-ﬁrst approaches risks eroding trust
between local people and conservation staﬀ.
The use of natural resources is a vital part of the
livelihoods of millions of people in developing
countries. It is essential to include the values,
needs, rights and perspectives of these people
into IWT planning and enforcement strategies so
that they can be enabled to act as stewards of
their resources (Box 2). Often ‘alternative livelihood’
projects are added onto initiatives without
suﬃcient understanding of the local context,
incentives and barriers to more sustainable
livelihoods, leading to ineﬀective, socially unjust
or counterproductive outcomes.
Cacti and orchids
A neglected international and domestic issue
Collection for the horticultural trade threatens
many orchid and cacti species, despite these
groups combined representing almost 75% of
all CITES-listed species. Research has shown
that illegal trade in cacti from Latin America
is widespread, and that orchids are wild-
collected for trade globally, from Mexico, to
Vietnam, to Thailand to Greece. These plants
often move through complex domestic and
international trade chains spanning legal and
illegal markets to reach specialist consumers
all over the world, including Europe.
EVIDENCE TO ACTION
More support for core needs (i.e., basic capacity,
infrastructure and equipment) for tackling IWT at its
source is likely to have a high return on investment.
fThere is a strong focus on new technologies to
tackle IWT, including forensics, drones, mobile phone
apps and machine learning algorithms. Although
underpinned by cutting edge research and with
great potential for supporting IWT action, particularly
online, at borders and transit points, new technologies
alone are insuﬃcient to address complex trade and
governance issues. Traﬃckers rapidly adapt to avoid
detection. Factors such as corruption can easily
undermine these systems. Technologies do not
address the basic drivers of hunting such as poverty
and poor governance. The social contexts in which
they are deployed can raise ethical concerns. By
contrast, prioritising the motivation, wellbeing and
working conditions of law enforcement oﬃcials is likely
substantially to enhance their eﬀectiveness.
Demand-inﬂuencing campaigns should go beyond
awareness-raising towards stimulating realistic,
nuanced and locally appropriate behaviour change.
fInﬂuencing consumer demand for IWT products
is critical and goes hand-in-hand with improved
regulation and enforcement. Conservationists often
aim to achieve large scale impact in short time
periods, using awareness-raising approaches. More
evidence-based interventions would use experience
from ﬁelds like public health to instead focus
campaigns on speciﬁc target groups.
IWT policies should consider the “winners” and “losers”
(both people and wildlife) of their interventions.
fIWT interventions often focus on single species,
without fully accounting for other downstream
impacts. Yet interventions aﬀect not only the
targeted species, but also other species and
ecosystems, as well as people’s livelihoods and
wellbeing (Box 2). The relationship between IWT and
poverty is complex and dynamic, while the demand
for IWT products is aﬀected both by environmental
policy and external factors. There is a need to ensure
that interventions do not act as blunt instruments
that undermine working examples of sustainable use
or cause collateral damage to the conservation of
other species or the livelihoods of vulnerable people.
Research at three National Parks in Uganda
found high levels of illegal resource use. Links
between IWT and poverty were complex
and multidirectional. A tourism levy aimed
at providing compensation for the costs of
living with wildlife was inequitably shared,
causing resentment. The wildlife department
had a very limited budget for community
engagement and mistrust was high between
Park staﬀ and hunters. Willingness existed on
both sides to ﬁnd solutions.
EVIDENCE TO ACTION
Uncertainties and research
opportunities for IWT policy
Research has highlighted critical gaps
in understanding that are priorities to
support better policy-making.
More eﬀorts are required to document the source,
trade volumes and routes of illegally traded species.
fFor most species, there remain huge gaps in our
ability to describe even the most basic of IWT trade
chains, or to understand the impacts of IWT on wild
populations. This leads to interventions based on
unsubstantiated assumptions. A better understanding
is needed of the role of trade in species declines, in
the context of other threatening factors such as land
conversion, in order that resources are appropriately
prioritised. This includes better documentation and
reporting of wildlife trade (legal and illegal).
Case studies to untangle complex trade dynamics
would better predict the outcomes of policy
fLittle is known about the factors aﬀecting IWT, how
they interact and, crucially, how they shift with policy
interventions, technological changes and external
drivers. For example, there is little understanding of
how banning wildlife products (e.g., burning ivory
stockpiles) or introducing new products into a market
(e.g., synthetic horn) aﬀects prices and
consumer behaviour. IWT policy must be
grounded in a systemic understanding
of the nature of supply factors,
market structure and consumer
demand (Box 3).
Eﬀective demand-inﬂuencing requires research into
the factors underlying the use of IWT products.
fConsumer demand interventions require a much
better understanding of the complex factors that
motivate people’s decisions to buy IWT products,
such as perceived health beneﬁts, cultural status or
understanding of the provenance and legal status
of a product. The inﬂuences of income levels, prices,
and the availability of acceptable substitutes are
also under-researched. Without this understanding,
interventions to change demand cannot be
Improved research and collaboration are needed to
understand online IWT and intervene eﬀectively.
fE-commerce and social media platforms provide
a widely accessible communication tool for IWT
networks, opening up new markets, and reaching an
unprecedented number of IWT users. Evolving ﬁnancial
technologies, such as online and mobile payment
platforms, provide new mechanisms to enable IWT
transactions to take place. Addressing these requires
new collaborations with actors in technology and
ﬁnance, supported by appropriate research.
EVIDENCE TO ACTION
The need for more evidence-
based IWT interventions
A lack of evidence-based design
and evaluation of IWT interventions
risks ineﬀective or harmful
outcomes, and limits knowledge
Investment in IWT interventions should be guided
by a clear theory of change, underpinned by
an understanding of the likely impacts on both
wildlife and people.
fWhether it aims to promote behaviour change among
consumers, or captive-breed threatened species,
no single intervention is likely to be adequate in
isolation. Each approach has its respective strengths
and challenges, and is suitable to addressing IWT
in diﬀerent markets, species groups or points in the
trade chain. Careful design, with an explicit theory of
change, is essential to ensure that the chosen set of
interventions is appropriate, and that the underlying
assumptions hold (Box 3).
Funders should require appropriate plans for
monitoring and evaluation of interventions,
robust ethics processes, and sharing of data
and lessons learnt.
fImpact evaluation methods are well established
in international development and public health.
Approaches such as before-after-control-intervention
designs and process-tracing could be much more
widely used for IWT. Platforms for sharing of
methods, datasets and lessons learnt (e.g., Wildlife
Consumer Behaviour Change Toolkit1) would add
signiﬁcantly to the evidence-base and enhance
intervention eﬀectiveness. More robust and holistic
ethics procedures, following best practice and
regularly re-evaluated, will minimise the potential for
unintended impacts on vulnerable people and wildlife.
Funders should support research that involves
people from IWT-aﬀected countries and integrates
fSustainable solutions to IWT require all IWT-aﬀected
actors to have suﬃcient capacity and a strong
knowledge base. International collaborations that
build a strong research base in IWT-aﬀected countries
(particularly low-income countries as prioritised by the
UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund2),
integrate local and indigenous knowledge, and support
early-career researchers are critical. Failure to integrate
these actors’ perspectives risks undermining the
sustainability and local acceptability of IWT initiatives.
Design and evaluation
IWT interventions -
rhino horn in Vietnam
Ten interventions to reduce demand for rhino
horn in Vietnam were assessed against a
behaviour change framework. Only one had
measurable objectives and collected outcome
indicators which would enable attribution of
impact. Less than a third had a theory of change,
used research evidence to formulate messages
or evaluated outcomes. Indicators were based
mostly on activities rather than outcomes.
Grounding the design and evaluation of such
campaigns in best practice from behaviour
change research would both improve outcomes
and enhance learning for future interventions.
EVIDENCE TO ACTION
Where can I get
3 Some issues discussed in this brieﬁng note were identiﬁed through a global horizon scanning exercise led by the
Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, with ideas from an interdisciplinary pool of over 130 experts.
Tel: +44 (0) 1865 271 121
Milner-Gulland, E.J., Cugnière, L., Hinsley, A., Phelps,
J., ‘t Sas-Rolfes, M., Verissimo, D. (2018) Evidence to
Action: Research to address the illegal wildlife trade.
Brieﬁng note to policy-makers and practitioners.
Contributors: Arias, M., Challender, D., Clements, T.,
Duﬀy, R., Durant, S., Esmail, N., Laird, J., Margulies,
J., Massé, F., Olmedo, A., De Ornellas, P., Roberts, D.,
Robinson, J., Roe, D., Rowcliﬀe, M.
This brieﬁng is part of the 2018 Evidence to Action: Research to Address Illegal Wildlife Trade4 event programme,
organised by ﬁve of the UK’s most active IWT research institutions, to support the London 2018 IWT Conference5.
EVIDENCE TO ACTION