Human wellbeing threatened by ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss

Landscape of mountains, forests and fields in Guilin, China - iStock/IPBES

[Reposting my story for ChinaDialogue]

Nature’s vital contribution to human wellbeing is deteriorating worldwide at an unprecedented and accelerating rate, with grave impacts likely, according to a major report approved by more than 130 of the world’s governments.

The report, launched in Paris, France on Monday, says fundamental changes are needed to everything from farming and fishing to private investment and governance to ensure the benefits continue to flow.

While such warnings have been heard before, this is the most comprehensive assessment to date, and the first that governments have come together to endorse. The findings are set to influence world leaders who are meeting in China next year and aim to reach a new global agreement on biodiversity.

“The evidence is incontestable,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which produced the report. “Our destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services has reached levels that threaten our wellbeing at least as much as human-induced climate change. We have a closing window of opportunity to act, and narrowing options.”

Key findings

The report is the result of three years of work by hundreds of scientists who have reviewed 15,000 sources of information. It shows how nature is crucial to humanity, providing food, water, energy and medicines, as well as livelihoods and cultural and spiritual fulfilment. But it shows too that many species are fast declining in range and numbers, and that the services ecosystems provide, such as water and carbon storage, seed dispersal and pollination, are breaking down.

Humanity has “severely altered” three-quarters of the planet’s land surface, it says, adding that 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. Watson said the continued loss of biodiversity “will undermine the ability of most countries to achieve most of the Sustainable Development Goals”, which all UN member states have pledged to achieve by 2030.

While climate change will make all of this worse, so too could some efforts to prevent global warming. IPBES says, for example, that plantations of bioenergy crops can have negative impacts on biodiversity and on ecosystem services that are key to food and water security.

Costly problems

The report says biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction  is being driven by a litany of problems including overfishing, deforestation, pollution, agricultural expansion, rising seas, unsustainable hunting, illegal wildlife trade, invasive species and climate change. It also highlights important “indirect drivers” such as rapid economic growth, poorly planned urbanisation and rising per capita consumption.

The IPBES report is global in scope and makes grim reading for all regions. It warns, for instance, that if the current trends continue “there could be a substantial decline in the economic and non-monetary value of nature’s contributions” to people across Asia in coming decades. With its diverse landscapes and rapid development, China exemplifies many of the problems and potential solutions IPBES describes.

The country has established many protected areas and greatly increased its forest area in recent years. But it also faces significant conservation challenges, particularly in its drylands, lakes, rivers and coastal wetlands, of which less than half of the original area remains. These include overexploitation, pollution, extractive industries and invasive species, which IPBES has said are “key biological threats to China’s social development and ecological security”, costing US$17 billion each year.

Vanishing crop variety

According to IPBES, the number of invasive species harming China’s agricultural ecosystems has been growing by about three species a year since 1900, with a faster rate of increase in the past 15 years. This is a huge threat, particularly on China’s 193 million small farms, which are living repositories of crop diversity. But this biodiversity is also threatened by economic forces. In response to market demand, many subsistence farms are being replaced by commercial monoculture. The loss of traditional crop varieties and associated local farming knowledge is removing options that could be crucial to efforts to adapt to a changing climate.

“This is a threat to the sustainability and resilience of the whole traditional farming system,” said Yiching Song, of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. At the same time however, said Song, there is growing demand in China for safe, good quality and varied food because of rising incomes, food safety issues and increasing concern for the environment. “This is good news and an opportunity for crop biodiversity protection and farmer seed system enhancement,” he said.

Bringing about a revolution

Only  “transformative change” can prevent further declines in humanity’s natural life-support systems by 2050 and beyond, says the IPBES report. “By transformative change,” said Watson, “we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technical, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Among other things, the report calls for better ways of producing and using food, energy and water, more inclusive decision-making and governance of natural resources, new frameworks for private investment and incentives for environmental protection. It urges governments to ensure that policies in all areas from health to housing, from defence to finance, take account of biodiversity. And it gives examples of effective policies, practices and governance structures to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity.

Learning from China

One example that IPBES highlights is China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program (or Grain for Green), the world’s largest reforestation effort. By paying farmers to plant trees on their land and providing degraded land to rural families to restore, it has transformed more than 15 million hectares of degraded agricultural land and 17 million hectares of barren mountainous wasteland to natural vegetation. Though at a local level some results have been more mixed.

“The figures are really big — US$40 billion spent, over 30 million hectares of land restored and some 32 million households engaged,” said Himlal Baral, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, based in Indonesia. “This is a great restoration effort and many countries can learn lessons from this. It shows that if you put in economic incentives, there is potential to restore degraded and marginal land.” He noted while some of the programme’s benefits such as soil and water conservation and landslide protection are local, the carbon storage achieved by planting so many trees benefits the whole planet.

Ways forward

Having worked in China for several decades, Jianguo (Jack) Liu, a professor at the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University is hopeful. “Enormous change has already taken place,” he said. “The government has increasingly paid attention to the environment. That is very positive, of course, but there are still challenges to be addressed.”

Liu pointed out that, in the past, assessments of government officials were based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and took no regard of environmental performance. “The higher the GDP, the more likely someone would be promoted,” he said. “Now, they are evaluated by environmental and economic performance. If you have had a bad environmental record, you will be punished and will not be promoted.” Liu said he would like to see this approach “scaled up, implemented and enforced nationwide.”

A new global deal

All eyes will be on China’s efforts to conserve nature next year, when Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China, hosts the 15th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Representatives of nearly 200 governments will meet there to agree a new 10-year framework to halt biodiversity loss and protect ecosystems. It could be a sombre meeting, as delegates will confirm that progress towards the last agreed targets, set in Aichi, Japan, in 2010, has been abysmal. The IPBES report suggests that most of the 20 Aichi targets will be missed.

“The IPBES Global Assessment tells us how much we have achieved, where we are on track, where we are not, why, and what the options are for moving forward,” said the CBD’s executive secretary, Cristiana Paşca Palmer, who added that it will make an “invaluable contribution” to the process of setting ambitious, achievable targets in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

“The assessment also shows that threats to biodiversity cannot be addressed by governments alone,” said Paşca Palmer. “In fact, it underscores the urgent need for transformational change to safeguard nature and the ecosystem services that underpin all life. This requires everyone to get involved – including businesses, communities and individuals – as we lay the foundations for an even more ambitious biodiversity agenda for the next decade.”


Photo credit: Landscape in Guilin, China – iStock/IPBES

This post was first published on 7 May 2019 by ChinaDialogue here, and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.


This ancient biomaterial making a 21st-century comeback could change millions of lives

Across the tropics, people worked out long ago how to transform fig tree bark into comfortable cloth—the practice could even predate weaving. In Uganda, such barkcloth has served as a symbol of protest, a form of money, and the exclusive raiment of kings and queens. It has been suppressed by religion, colonialism, and war, yet the tradition has persisted. And now barkcloth has found a new life as a source of local pride, as well as in international markets for home furnishings, high fashion, and even aerospace materials. It is creating jobs, and is entirely sustainable.

It takes strength, stamina, and practice to make traditional barkcloth. The producers of this surprisingly soft and supple material first scrape away the outer bark of fig trees called mutuba (usually Ficus natalensis), then slit inner bark with a knife and peel it upward off the tree. They boil the bark in great pans of water to soften it, and then pound it for several hours with heavy wooden mallets until it is much, much thinner, wider, and softer. The cloth is dried in the sun, where it darkens to a ruddy brown, while the exposed trunk is wrapped in banana leaves for a few days to protect it as new bark grows, for another harvest.

In her doctoral thesis on the history of the textile, Venny Nakazibwe of Makerere University says the material has served as “a connecting thread” between past and present generations, but that its role and meaning has been in flux, based on the “dynamics of the social, economic, cultural and political structures at a given historical moment.”

While myths and legends surround the origin of the craft, historians date it back to the reign of Kimera, who ruled Uganda’s Buganda Kingdom from around 1374 to 1404. Then, only royalty wore barkcloth, but as news of the product spread, demand—and prices—grew. In the late 18th century, King Ssemakookiro ruled that all his subjects must produce it. Trade flowed and the Buganda Kingdom grew rich. The felt-like fabric became more common, as an everyday cloth, worn as a wrap or toga-style, and for use in religious ceremonies and as burial shrouds. Farmers used it to pay land taxes.

The emissaries King Muteesa I sent to London in 1879 presented gifts of barkcloth to Queen Victoria. But within fifteen years, Victoria’s empire had absorbed the land of barkcloth and folded it into the newly formed British Protectorate of Uganda. The colonial rulers had little use for the industry. They compelled farmers to produce cotton for English mills instead, stopped the practice of paying taxes in barkcloth, and banned traditional religion. Missionaries even called the fabric “satanic” and handed out imported textiles to discourage its use.

During World War I, the British felled more than 115,000 barkcloth trees to secure the border with German East Africa. Many skilled barkcloth producers had to emigrate. Nakazibwe says that those who stayed were compensated—but only after three years and what she terms a “painful process.” After the war, farmers began planting more barkcloth trees to boost yields of coffee plants with their shade, but when the British conscripted all local men under 45 to serve in the military during World War II, barkcloth production ground to a near halt.

Woven textiles had come to dominate the market, but a new role awaited barkcloth—it became a symbol. In 1953, when the British arrested King Muteesa II and sent him to England, many people began wearing the cloth again to express loyalty to the king and anger at the colonial administration. When he was finally allowed back in 1955, his supporters erected barkcloth-covered arches emblazoned with triumphal messages, and waved barkcloth banners along the 19-mile route from the airport to his palace.

Seven years later, Uganda gained its independence. In the following decades, the barkcloth industry rode waves of political crisis, dictatorship, civil war, and the end of the institution to which barkcloth was most closely tied—the subnational Buganda monarchy, its original patron. When it was restored in 1993, the new King Ronald Mutebi II wore ceremonial barkcloth at his coronation. The festivities entailed widespread use of barkcloth throughout the kingdom, sparking renewed interest in the material.

“Today, barkcloth has potential both for artistic expressions and industrial mass production of items for economic ventures, not only in Uganda but globally,” says barkcloth scholar Catherine Gombe. “The knowledge and skill of barkcloth production continues to be handed down to the younger generation through the informal education of apprentices.”

A new wave of artisans now fashion barkcloth into clothes, shoes, and bags. Designers have turned it into wallpaper, lampshades, and furniture. Zandra Rhodes shaped it into haute couture. Architect Zaha Hadid called it an “exceptional material.” And when the leaders of the G7 nations met in Germany in 2015, they did so in a room with walls covered in decorative barkcloth.

G7 leaders met in 2015 in a room lined with barkcloth. Credit: Federal Government of Germany/Kugler

G7 leaders met in 2015 in a room lined with barkcloth. Credit: Federal Government of Germany/Kugler

That barkcloth was supplied by Ugandan-German couple Mary Barongo-Heintz and Oliver Heintz, who have been in the business since 1999. They found early in their enterprise that the cloth itself is just the start—it can be dyed, rubberized, bleached, or hardened. By blending it with other materials, they could make it water repellent, fire retardant, or abrasion resistant—presenting a range of alternatives to leather or synthetic, petroleum-based materials.

“Money really does grow on trees,” says Heintz. His company BarkTex now sources barkcloth from 600 small-scale farmers in Uganda, and employs 50 more local people to upgrade the barkcloth, with priority given to women. “Many of our women workers earn an income far higher than their husbands,” says Heintz.

But under some traditional rules, women can be frozen out of the industry. In Baganda culture, the barkcloth tree symbolizes male power and ownership of land, and it is taboo for women to plant the trees. The Center for International Forestry Research and the Association of Uganda Professional Women in Agriculture and the Environment have now helped 50 women negotiate with their husbands to allow them to plant barkcloth trees. It’s a small move, but a start.

Heintz estimates that at least 500,000 farmers in Uganda could provide bark, with their income benefiting roughly 4,000,000 people. There are broader benefits. The trees store carbon. Their leaves provide fodder for livestock, their figs help sustain wildlife. Barkcloth production requires little energy or water and is carbon neutral.

In 2007, Gombe and her fellow researcher Celia Nyamweru reported that concerned Baganda elders feared their fig trees would outlive the knowledge of how to make barkcloth. Today, Gombe says, barkcloth’s “future is bright.”

Barkcloth is now appearing in architecture, industrial design, and fashion. Credit: Barktex

Barkcloth is now appearing in architecture, industrial design, and fashion. Credit: Barktex

This post was first published by Atlas Obscura, here. Read more about how fig trees have shaped our world, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future in my book Ladders to Heaven (called Gods, Wasps and Stranglers in North America).



Nakazibwe, V.N. 2005. Bark-cloth of the Baganda people of southern Uganda: A record of continuity and change from the late eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century. PhD Thesis. Middlesex University. [PDF]

Nyamweru, C. & Gombe, C. 2006. From coronation robes to car seat covers: the changing uses of Ugandan barkcloth. Kenya Past and Present 36: 53-58.

Nyamweru, C. & Gombe, C. 2007. The story of barkcloth in Uganda: An ancient craft in modern times. Old Africa. October-November 2007: 10-13.

Nyamweru, C. & Gombe, C. 2012. Barkcloth in Uganda: The modern day importance of an indigenous craft. Lambert Academic Publishing.

Tibazalika, A. & Mukasa, C. 2016.  A once forbidden tree: How Adaptive Collaborative Management is breaking cultural taboos in Uganda and empowering women. CIFOR Forests News, 24 October 2016. [Read online]

Warden, S. 2016. Tradition and Transition: The changing fortunes of barkcloth in Uganda. Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America’s 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. 19-23 October 2016. [Read online]


How poop could counter calls to resume commercial whaling

This post was first published by Scientific American in August. As such, it refers in the future tense to a meeting that took place back in September. You will find an update — and some good news — at the end of the story.

Before whales dive into the darkness of the deep ocean they often come to the surface and release a huge plume of faecal matter—which can be the colour of over-steeped green tea or a bright orange sunset. When Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, saw one of these spectacular dumps in the mid-1990s, he got to wondering: “Is it ecologically important? Or is it a fart in a hurricane?”

Roman and other researchers have since shown whale excrement provides key nutrients that fuel the marine food chain, and that it also contributes to the ocean carbon cycle. These important roles are now influencing scientific and economic arguments for protecting whales, at a time when calls for a resumption of whaling are growing.

“The scientific community is coming to understand a new value of whales: their role in maintaining healthy and productive oceans,” says Sue Fisher, a marine wildlife consultant at the non-profit Animal Welfare Institute. “We are beginning to see governments use this rationale to justify measures to protect whales.” But as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) prepares for its biennial meeting next month*, the ecological services whales provide are set to split the gathered countries—with an unknown outcome for the whales.

Fertilising the ocean

Whale poop’s importance is nothing to sniff at. In a 2010 study, Roman’s team found whale defecation brings 23,000 metric tons of nitrogen to the surface each year in the Gulf of Maine—more than all the rivers that empty into the gulf combined. This nitrogen fertilises the sea by sustaining microscopic plants that feed animal plankton, which in turn feeds fish and other animals including the whales themselves.

Studies have found similar effects elsewhere, and with other nutrients found in whale faeces. And when they migrate, whales also redistribute nutrients around the globe. By moving them from higher latitudes, Roman says, the giant mammals could be increasing productivity in some tropical waters by 15 percent.

By stimulating the growth of microscopic plants called phytoplankton, whale scat may also help limit climate change. These tiny aquatic plants remove carbon from the atmosphere and carry it deep into the ocean when they die. Research in the Southern Ocean showed that the iron defecated each year by the 12,000 resident sperm whales feeds phytoplankton that store in the deep ocean 240,000 more metric tons of carbon  than the whales exhale. This means that, on balance, whales help lock carbon away.

But today’s benefits are a fraction of what these animals provided prior to the era of commercial whaling, which devastated whale populations during the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2016, ecologist Chris Doughty of the University of Oxford and his colleagues estimated ocean animals’ capacity to move nutrients around has decreased to just 5 percent of historic values. The IWC—the global body with greatest say over the fate of these animals—is beginning to take note.

Paradigm shift

The IWC was set up in 1946 not to conserve whales but rather to ensure populations remained healthy enough for continued economic exploitation of their blubber and meat. It ultimately presided over decades of overexploitation, which saw the world’s whale numbers fall by 85 percent over the second half of the 20th century. In 1986, an IWC moratorium on commercial whaling entered into force, allowing many species to begin to recover.

For the next 30 years, the IWC focused on whether there were enough whales to sustain resumed hunting. But in 2016 it passed a paradigm-shifting resolution that recognized for the first time the central role whales and dolphins play in ocean ecosystems, specifically because their poop boosts productivity and could help limit climate change.

As a result, the IWC Scientific Committee is now tasked with considering the broader environmental effects of allowing whales to continue to recover. It is planning an expert workshop to review knowledge of the ecological functions whales and dolphins serve, and to develop a list of research priorities.

“The 2016 resolution put the IWC at the centre of an opportunity to reconsider whales; not just for their economic or social value—to be consumed or watched—but their global ecological contributions,” Fisher says. “In the future, when policy makers can factor in the value of the ecological services of the whales affected, they will be able to make a much more informed and holistic decision.”

Clash of ideals

The subject will be on the agenda again when the IWC meets in September in Brazil*. Representatives of the 88 member nations will consider adopting a new resolution, proposed by Chile, that would encourage governments to integrate the ecological value of whales and dolphins into local, regional and global decision-making on the environment—including climate change and conservation policies. Under another draft resolution, submitted by Brazil, the IWC would agree its mandate includes a responsibility to ensure whale numbers increase to precommercial hunting levels so that they may “fulfil their ecological and nutrient cycling roles.”

But Japan, which has led the push to resume commercial whaling, opposes these resolutions. Hideki Moronuki, a senior negotiator with Japan’s fisheries agency, says Chile’s proposal “is outside the competence of the IWC” and Brazil’s “is inconsistent with the objectives of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling,” the multilateral agreement under which the IWC was created.

The resolutions will face votes at the September meeting and will pass if a majority of IWC members agree. But some countries have not yet paid their annual membership dues and will lose the right to vote if the fees remain unpaid. With nearly half of the IWC members siding with Japan in recent years, the votes could be tight. The U.S. has not yet decided whether to support either resolution but “will seek to advance key conservation initiatives” and will “continue to support the moratorium on commercial whaling and will continue to oppose lethal research whaling,” says Scott Smullen, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some conservationists are excited that the resolutions are even being considered. “Seeing this move forward at the IWC is heartening,” says Astrid Fuchs, who heads the program to end whale hunting at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a U.K.-based nongovernmental organisation. “The fact that whales play a significant role to maintain healthy oceans as ‘the oceans’ gardeners—as they sustain fish stocks and help combat climate change—is a powerful argument for their strict protection.” For Roman’s part, he says he is “thrilled” that the IWC is giving weight to his and others’ findings. “I hope,” he says, “this work will lead to better, more informed conservation efforts.”

*This post was first published (here) by Scientific American in August. When the IWC met in Brazil in September, a majority of its member nations voted to adopt the resolutions proposed by Chile and Brazil, and voted against a proposal by Japan that would allow a resumption of commerical whaling. Patrick Ramage, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called it “a big win for whales and a clear signal of intent.” He said: “The IWC has evolved from an old whalers’ club to a forward thinking conservation body.”

Photo credit: Humpback whale – Whit Welles / Wikimedia Commons


Doughty, C.E. et al. 2016. Global nutrient transport in a world of giants. PNAS 113: 868-87 [Read online]

Lavery, T.J. et al. 2010. Iron defecation by sperm whales stimulates carbon export in the Southern Ocean. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences 277: 3527-3531 [Read online]

Roman, J. et al. 2016. Endangered Right Whales Enhance Primary Productivity in the Bay of Fundy. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0156553. [Read online]

Roman, J. et al. 2014. Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 377-385 [Read online]

International Whaling Commission. 2016. Resolution 2016-3. Resolution on Cetaceans and Their Contributions to Ecosystem Functioning. [Read online]

Cocaine of the sea, ‘epic failure’ and how following the money can limit illegal wildlife trade


Two vaquitas. Only ten more remain.

It has been called the ‘cocaine of the sea’ — the dried swim bladder of the totoaba fish, when smuggled from Mexico to China, sells for US$40-60,000 per kilo thanks to its supposed medicinal qualities. While the fish is critically endangered as a result, the situation of another animal that gets caught in totoaba nets is even more dire. The illicit trade has driven the world’s smallest marine mammal — a kind of porpoise called a vaquita — to almost certain extinction. At the last count, only 12 remained alive.

That’s despite around US$100 million being spent on efforts to save the species in the past ten years, according to wildlife crime investigator Andrea Crosta, who calls it “one of the most important, epic failures in conservation”. Crosta says scientists in boats in the Sea of Cortez have been watching the vaquita population plummet, while behind them on the beach totoaba traffickers went about their work unhindered.

“For years and years, they tried to tackle the vaquita/totoaba issue by focusing only at sea and only on the fishermen,” says Crosta. “The key to stopping totoaba illegal fishing and trafficking is on land, and more precisely by targeting the Chinese illegal traders residing in Mexico.”

“It is a criminal issue that must be put in the hands of criminal experts, not biologists like it has been done for years,” he told me. “I see the same problems around the world, where biologists and conservationists are still in charge of problems that are criminal in nature. We do need biologists of course, but in many cases, they should not run the show.”

Crosta — a co-founder of the Elephant Action League and creator of the wildlife crime whistleblowing initiative WildLeaks — says the cartels buying up the totoaba swim bladder and smuggling it to China are also involved in money laundering. “This means you can get them for other crimes, instead of using environmental law, which is too weak.”

The totoaba trade is just a small slice of a very lucrative pie — worldwide, the illegal wildlife trade is worth tens of billions of dollars. It is driving dozens of species towards extinction while enriching criminal syndicates. As a recent conference in London heard, a widespread ‘evidence failure’ is thwarting efforts to stop it. Crosta says the decline of the vaquita is a prime example.

Last month, the UK government announced a £3.5 million boost boost for the approach he advocates, with what it calls “the largest known project of its kind to crack down on financial crimes associated with the illegal wildlife trade”. Among other things, it will support investigations of money laundering and tax evasion to disrupt criminal networks and target high-ranking bosses.

On the same day, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, launched a ‘wildlife financial taskforce’. More than 30 banks and financial institutions have signed up and pledged to “not knowingly facilitate or tolerate financial flows that are derived from illegal wildlife trade and associated corruption”. They will share resources and intelligence in an effort to disrupt flows of money generated through illegal wildlife trade.

“We cannot afford for this fight to be a priority solely for conservationists anymore,” said Prince William, Duke of Cambridge in a speech to launch the initiative. “It is an issue for all of us. We need to take these criminals on from every direction. One particularly vital way is to follow the money.”

Crosta welcomes the news — with a caveat. “Everyone is repeating the mantra ‘follow the money’ but they don’t know what it means in concrete,” he told me. “And it’s very, very difficult to do it, as a lot is done in cash or through payments systems like WeChat or even cryptocurrencies. You need intelligence if you want to follow the money for real.”

But even the best intelligence seems unlikely to save the vaquita. The next fishing season for totoaba will begin in February or March when, once again, the Sea of Cortez will be full of illegal gillnets.

“I don’t think the last vaquitas can survive another fishing season like we saw this year,” says Crosta, “So it’s critical to act now on the Chinese traders in Mexico and stop the supply chain, from the sea to China. If, once again, they focus only on the fishermen we will lose the vaquita.”

As the species slips ever closer to extinction, Crosta says its story carries an important lesson for broader efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. “Stop giving biologists and scientists the responsibility to tackle complex transnational criminal endeavours like wildlife trafficking,” he says. “It’s a criminal problem, with capital C.”

Photo credit: Paula Olson (NOAA) / Wikimedia Commons

‘Evidence failure’ blights fight against illegal wildlife trade


In Vietnam, enough people want to consume rhino horn — and are willing to pay enough for it — that smugglers risk jail to bring the product into the country, while poachers in Africa risk their lives to kill the rhinos for their horns. South Africa lost more than a thousand rhinos to poaching last year alone.

With consumption driving the illegal trade, efforts to reduce demand clearly have a big role to play in saving the rhinos. So, on the face of it, it was a good thing that in recent years several major conservation organisations launched initiatives to reduce demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.

But when researchers assessed nine of these interventions last year they found that only one — by TRAFFIC — had been adequately designed. Did the others have any effect? It is impossible to say. They lacked the elements needed to achieve and demonstrate impacts.

This is just one example of an ‘evidence failure’ that researchers say is thwarting efforts to stop the illegal trade in wild animals and plants, leading to inadequate, unethical and counterproductive policies and other interventions. The upshot is that conservation efforts risk failing to protect endangered species, harming vulnerable people and wasting vast sums of money.

Speakers at a conference in London on 9 October highlighted several factors at play, from misinformation and lobbying to poor uptake of evidence by policymakers and a basic lack of adequate information. They want to see a more scientific approach to designing, monitoring and evaluating interventions intended to prevent wildlife crime, deter illicit trade or reduce demand for wildlife products.

“Is there an evidence failure in this area? I think there probably is,” said Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “And that’s something we need to address. We really are struggling to provide the evidence we need to move forward.”

Dominic Jermey, Director-General of the Zoological Society of London, said the lack of evidence prevents policymakers from knowing whether, for instance, overseas aid budgets should finance conservation because conservation supports development goals, or whether is militarisation of conservation is effective. “It is hard to make the case without evidence,” he said. “The answer is more or less ‘we don’t know’ because the evidence base is not there”.

“Monitoring and evaluation of impacts is absolutely crucial so lessons can be shared, so successful interventions can be scaled up and unsuccessful ones can be revised for better outcomes,” said Jermey. But it appears that conservationists are not collecting and sharing enough evidence of what works and why.

Janine Robinson of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent presented data that showed the scale of the gap. She and her colleagues screened hundreds of publications for evidence of the impacts of wildlife trade policies and practices. They found only 42 articles published between 1970 and 2015 that had evaluated impacts and used a study design that reliably attributed outcomes to actions.

“Overall, there was a low volume of empirical evidence on the impact of international wildlife trade actions, indicating that more concerted and explicit research is needed on impacts,” says the report’s lead author Samantha Cheng of Arizona State University.

The conference heard how the evidence gap leads to a focus on big mammals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers and not on endangered fish, reptiles and plants that are trafficked in far greater volumes. Tens of millions of seahorses are illegally traded each year, for example, and several of their species are now threatened with extinction. Scott Roberton, Director for Counter-Wildlife Trafficking at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program, said priorities are being driven by subjective views, rather than data.

Such bias tends to focus attention on wildlife products from Africa and consumers in Asia. However, this ignores the growing importance of wildlife trafficking from Latin America and the rising roles of Europe as both a transit hub and a market for illicit products. There is also a disproportionate focus on tackling the supply side of the illegal trade. Boyd pointed out that, although demand drives the trade, only 6% of global funding spent between 2010 and 2016 to counter illegal wildlife trade had focused on reducing demand.

EJ Milner-Gulland — of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford— told me the likely consequences of failing to address the evidence gaps are “no action, inappropriately targeted action — by place or species — or inadequate action”.

Some change is on the way. In plans announced this month by the UK Government, the Oxford Martin Programme will join a consortium of researchers, conservationists and behaviour change specialists to develop evidence of how best to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products. Diogo Veríssimo, a researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme, says that because the consortium will bring together practitioners and academics it “has the potential to both improve technical standards and be meaningful in terms of impact on the ground.”

These efforts and more will be needed to make a dent on an illegal trade that is worth 23 billion dollars a year and involves a huge variety of species, from rhinos and seahorses to orchids and rosewood trees, from freshwater turtles and sungazer lizards to pangolins and helmeted hornbills. For many of these species, time is running out. That much is evident.

Follow the experts on Twitter

Ian Boyd (@DefraChiefScien); Dominic Jermey (@DomJermey); Janine Robinson (@JanineERob); Samantha Cheng (@pilesofsquid); Scott Roberton (@owstons‏); EJ Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland); Diogo Veríssimo (@verissimodiogo).


Cheng, S.H. et al. 2017. Mapping the evidence: Effectiveness of international wildlife trade practices and policies. Conservation International Working Paper. January 2017 [Read online]

Milner-Gulland, E.J. et al. 2018. Evidence to Action: Research to Address Illegal Wildlife Trade. Briefing note for policy-makers and practitioners. DOI:  10.31235/ [Read online]

Olmedo, A. et al. 2017. Evaluating the design of behavior change interventions: A case study of rhino horn in Vietnam. Conservation Letters. [Read online]

Veríssimo, D. & Wan, A.K.Y. 2018. Characterizing efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products. Conservation Biology. [Read online]

Photo credits

White rhinoceros — Karl Stromayer / Wikimedia Commons; Black-Sea seahorse — Florin Dumitrescu / Wikimedia Commons