Greater than the sum of its parts: a holistic approach to wildlife trade

In this post, Daniel Bergin discusses issue 54.3’s Practitioner’s Perspective, Holistic management of live animals confiscated from illegal wildlife trade by Dr. Thomas Gray and colleagues.

Armed detectives burst through the door. Traffickers are arrested, media coverage generated, and live animals are rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. But what happens next?

What happens next is the focus of a new paper by Gray et. al., providing applied solutions to the issue of how to deal with live animals after they have been confiscated from the illegal trade. ‘Law enforcement without care or consideration for seized wildlife’, the authors point out, ‘is likely to create additional problems and may be as irresponsible as doing nothing’. The authors stress the need, not only for a holistic approach to dealing with wildlife trade confiscations, but for this approach to be guided by evidence-based research, integrated policy measures, and transparency.

Gray et. al. report from a Practitioner’s Perspective and draw from more than 15 years’ experience of The Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT) in Cambodia as well as work in the global conservation community. The continued success of the WRRT (almost 25,000 live mammals, birds or reptiles were seized between 2007 and 2015) has highlighted the need for clear, transparent operational procedures for dealing with the animals ethically and efficiently after they are seized. There is also an urgent need to overhaul the national laws in Cambodia to effectively discourage illegal wildlife trade.

Applied solutions to conservation issues

An often-overlooked issue facing conservationists is how to deal with animals after they are confiscated. Lifetime care in a rescue facility is both expensive and difficult. For a gibbon rescued from the pet trade, organisations may have to provide animal husbandry, veterinary care, and natural enclosures for upwards of 25 years. Releasing an animal back into the wild may seem like an ideal solution to counter this cost but comes with its own problems – suitable habitat must be found, animals may not be capable of surviving in the wild, and animals that have spent time in markets may contract and spread diseases to wild populations. To relieve pressure on Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center with whom they work, the WRRT immediately release healthy, recently-caught animals back into the suitable habitat and perform reintroductions where appropriate.

Once animals are confiscated, prosecution provides a powerful deterrent to criminals trading in illegal wildlife. Unfortunately, because of political apathy and corruption, sentences are rarely handed down for wildlife trade crimes. Even if wildlife sellers are brought to court, the laws in Cambodia make prosecution difficult. Just 13 species in Cambodia are given the highest level of protection, including one globally extinct species, two nationally extirpated species and the mythical khting vor, a snake-eating cow purported to exist in Cambodia and Vietnam. For many other species suffering from wildlife trade, penalties are minimal, despite their globally threatened status. To counter corruption, the WRRT operate as a multi-agency inter-governmental team with technical oversight provided by an international conservation NGO, increasing transparency within the organisation. Conservationists and other stakeholders are currently working with the Cambodian government on an extensive and far-sighted modification of the country’s environmental legislation.

Research needs

While acknowledging that operations combating wildlife trade do not end at confiscation goes a long way towards a holistic view of wildlife trade, the authors suggest a number of research questions that need to be addressed. These will allow practitioners to do what is effective, efficient, best for the animals, and best for conservation as a whole.

  • Further investigation into the breadth and scale of the wildlife trade and a better knowledge of the ecology and wild populations of species is vital so that funds can be efficiently allocated to countries that need it most
  • Reintroductions must be guided by more comprehensive information on the natural history and taxonomy of species and must be followed by post-release monitoring
  • Pathogen levels in wild population must be investigated if we are to understand what constitutes “normal” pathogen levels, and thus whether an animal is suitable for release
  • The updating and enforcement of wildlife trade laws must be guided by a better knowledge of the complex criminal networks involved in wildlife trade

Having a narrow focus on only one aspect of the wildlife trade will ultimately prove counterproductive to conservation. Without considering the trade and how best to combat it from every angle, we limit the effectiveness of any conservation initiatives.

The full paper, Holistic management of live animals confiscated from illegal wildlife trade by Gray et. al. is free to access in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Watch Tom and the team’s video about their work here.

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