Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy

The illegal wildlife trade: Oxford Martin’s approach to a better understanding

Nafeesa Esmail

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade has been created from funding by the Oxford Martin School, supported until 2020, but with the aim of long term continuation. The Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford is a unique research centre that addresses global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, across disciplines, that have the potential to have real impact beyond academia.

The illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade is recognised as a major threat to biodiversity by many governments, researchers and practitioners, yet work within this field is relatively uncoordinated, and robust monitoring and evaluation is limited. Our programme, directed by Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland and Dr Joss Wright endeavours to address this challenge by making a step change in scientific understanding by drawing theory and methods from public health, computer science, economics, business, psychology, ecology and sociology. In so doing, we aim to advance these disciplines as well as create a solid research foundation within conservation science, which is end-user focused and collaborative to support on-going and future global efforts.

Our research feeds into the understanding the underlying question, “How can consumer behaviour be changed to reduce trade in illegal and unstainable wildlife products?” We are doing this by characterizing and exploring the dynamics of both physical and online marketplaces, consumer motivations and behaviours, as well as the interactions between product types to better understand the trade. Through various case-studies, we will test and define best practices for intervening effectively (from design to implementation and through to evaluation), particularly in regards to behaviour change campaigns. One of our research elements is to gain a predictive understanding of the likely responses of consumers and markets to interventions, in order to inform policy-making in this controversial and uncertain field.

The programme was developed to respond to the need for more focus on consumer demand, alongside investment in improving enforcement and Protected Area management in range states. Whilst addressing the demand side of the trade is recognised as fundamental to solving the problem in the long term, little research has been dedicated to comprehensively understanding consumer and trader motivations and approaches. There is also a need for tools and guidance to support those working on the ground on this topic. Hence, our work aims to fill this research gap. We are also committed to creating a hub for information and networking, useful for all those working in the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. We hope this will enable all sectors to work more effectively together and bridge gaps between academia, practice and policy realms.

Almost one year since our official launch, we are making progress on both the research and networking fronts. A major milestone was our first Annual Wildlife Trade Symposium, Evolving Perspectives on the Demand for Illegal Wildlife Products, which was held with support from San Diego Zoo Global and TRAFFIC, in Oxford, UK, September 25-27, 2017. Aiming to foster relationships, collaborations and knowledge exchange, 178 delegates came together from different disciplines, backgrounds and institutions to do just that.

Visual minutes of a programme meeting on wildlife trade by Cecile Girardin and Lisa Curtis

The symposium started off by presenting different approaches to better understanding and addressing the diverse challenges and motivations of wildlife consumption and trade. It showcased three examples illustrating the contextual complexities and how consumer demand links to the supply side of the chain (shark and ray trade in Indonesia, rosewood in Thailand, and lion bone trade in South Africa). We then discussed opportunities for shifting wildlife trade onto a sustainable and legal path. In lieu of a report, they symposium presentation playlist can be found here and podcast series here.

The second part of the event consisted of interactive knowledge exchange sessions enabling delegates to dive deeper into specific topics and have more focused discussions in small groups. Topics ranged from considerations of conceptual and practical issues (i.e. modelling drivers of illegal wildlife trade or connecting to policy in the CITES context); exploring opportunities for engaging with different stakeholders (i.e. religious groups, businesses, zoos); adapting and applying interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies (i.e. economic theory or machine learning). Summaries of discussions and outcomes for some sessions will soon be available on our website.

Some of the symposium contributors and team

Our next symposium is still under discussion, but we are working to closely align it with the London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference (October 10-11, 2018) so to support the UK government in their aims, build synergies, and inform international policy processes.

Conservation science is a field that takes and adapts methods from different fields to solve novel problems. This programme is an example of just this approach. We hope to continue to create new partnerships within our programme, as well as catalysing them others. We welcome engagement with all who are interested in this topic, through twitter @IWTnet, our website:, mailing list and Trading Ideas, our quarterly e-newsletter. Subscribe here to receive updates on our research and events and to connect with others in the network. 


Nafeesa Esmail, Research Coordinator, Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Contact: .

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