Describing the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Before we can start to implement conservation policies and management plans on the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), we first need to understand the scope of the trade within its context; whether specific to a species, country or supply chain. To uncover a better nuanced picture, we should consider the actors in the trade, their connections to one another, and the products that they are supplying.

The IWT framework (Phelps et al. 2016) can help guide our construction of this picture. Using this practical tool, we can:

  1. Define the context, products, actors, and networks

  2. Ask additional questions about the context, products, actors, and networks

  3. Identify the implications for IWT and conservation interventions

I provide an overview to each of these steps below as a summary of this framework. Like what you see? Or have any ideas for how to improve this? Feel free to post in the comments!

Setting the Scene

Whether investigating the rhino horn trade from South Africa, the exotic pet trade in the Middle East or the global curios trade of seahorses, context is important. A single species could be used for multiple different products or species other than those targeted could be negatively impacted. Although there is value in learning from conservation efforts in each of these examples, we cannot apply the same critical thinking to these different value chains. So we must first define the context.

Kingpins, traffickers, middlemen, criminals… these are some of the words used to describe those involved in IWT. But there has been little consistency in the use of these terms. Existing literature in criminology has developed various typologies of wildlife crimes, wildlife offenders, and motivations behind offending (Muth & Bowe 1998; Nurse 2011; Crow et al. 2013; Wyatt 2013; von Essen et al. 2014; Moreto & Lemieux 2015; Boratto & Gibbs 2017). Phelps et al. (2016) further offers separate terminology to use for common actors and network configurations found in wildlife trafficking chains, which are shown below. This provides a flexible approach to define wildlife offenders and their interchangeable relationships and roles. These typologies are likely to be continually refined as we grow as a community and develop our understanding of the diverse forms of IWT.



Network Configurations


Asking Probing Questions

Once the key setting components have been outlined, we can begin to ask additional questions. Trade networks are dynamic, and the actors within them flexible. They can adapt to changes in market demand, legal controls, and biophysical factors. And so the IWT framework recommends furthering inquiry into the context, products, actors and networks of the trade, by asking about:

Asking questions graphic.png

Identifying the Implications

Finally, the IWT framework provides direction for planning intervention strategies. We can use this as a guide to consider the implications of our actions and better adapt to the context we are working in. An expanded version can be found here, link.


Selected Reference

  • Phelps, J., Biggs, D., & Webb, E. L. (2016). Tools and terms for understanding illegal wildlife trade. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment14(9), 479-489. Open-Access Link.

Header Photo Credit: Pixabay. Link.