What is illegal wildlife trade?

By Jacob Phelps, lecturer in tropical environmental change and policy at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.

My co-authors and I study and think about wildlife trade in a wide range of contexts, from the actions of wildlife harvesters imprisoned in Nepali jails, to orchid traders at Thai markets, to criminal groups poaching South African rhinos. In the context of global conservation, we call all of their activities “illegal wildlife trade.” Many policy debates treat illegal wildlife trade as a uniform problem, but in fact it represents a wide range of species, actors, and situations. Broad labels like “poacher,”“middleman,” and “criminal” obscure the specific circumstances and motivations of the people involved in different kinds of illegal wildlife trade.

In our work, we have been challenged by the lack of consistent terminology and analytical frameworks. To help researchers and practitioners think through these very different phenomena, we devised more descriptive categories for illegal trade activities, distinguishing, for example subsistence harvesters from commercial harvesters. We describe these roles in a review published this month in ESA’s Frontiers.  As highlighted in this video, our review aims to begin a more structured dialogue about how we discuss, research and respond to illegal wildlife trade—in all its forms.

Network of illegal trade in protected ornamental orchids harvested in Southeast Asia. (a) Overview of trade network of plants from Lao PDR (People's Democratic Republic) and Myanmar for sale in Thailand and internationally, including the roles of harvesters, intermediaries, and consumers (Phelps 2015; Phelps and Webb 2015). Colored lines illustrate selected examples of trade network structures (see Table 2). (b) Ornamental orchid (Eria ornata) commonly harvested in Myanmar. (c) Ornamental orchid (Dendrobium lamyaiae), a narrowly distributed (possibly endemic) species harvested in Lao PDR. From Figure 2 of Phelps 2016 Front Ecol Environ 14(9):479–489.

Network of illegal orchid trade: protected ornamental orchids from Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar flow through many hands to reach sale in Thailand and internationally. Colored lines illustrate selected examples of trade network structures. Phelps and colleagues define the roles and connections depicted here in their review. (b) Ornamental orchid (Eria ornata) commonly harvested in Myanmar. (c) Ornamental orchid (Dendrobium lamyaiae), a narrowly distributed (possibly endemic) species harvested in Lao People’s Democratic Republic. From Figure 2 of Phelps 2016 Front Ecol Environ 14(9):479–489.


november-frontiers-coverJacob Phelps, Duan Biggs, Edward L Webb (2016) Tools and terms for understanding illegal wildlife trade. Front Ecol Environ 14(9):479–489, doi: 10.1002/fee.1325

Author: Frontiers Focus

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