New Study Combines Biology, Anthropology, and Economics for More Complete Picture of Illegal Wildlife Trade main content.

New Study Combines Biology, Anthropology, and Economics for More Complete Picture of Illegal Wildlife Trade

A brown slow loris standing in the bottom of a wire cage that's painted blue/green
A pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) in a household in northern Vietnam
© Hoang Thach

Wildlife trade represents a major threat to endangered species, especially in Southeast Asia, where illegal trade is widespread despite increased enforcement. In a new paper published today in the journal BioScience, conservation biologists argue that better success in managing trade could come from taking an interdisciplinary approach: combining data from genetic studies, anthropological interviews, and economics.

“By merging all of these sources, we get a more nuanced picture that gives us site-specific advice for conservation managers and practitioners on the ground,” said Mary Blair, director of biodiversity informatics research at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, who led the study along with Minh Le, a lecturer at Vietnam National University and research associate in the Museum’s Department of Herpetology. “If we only had one piece of the picture, we could give out incomplete advice, which might end up with what we call ‘fixes that fail.’”

The researchers took a closer look at the trade of key Southeast Asian species groups, including turtles, pangolins, muntjacs (barking deer), and slow lorises, small nocturnal primates that are the focus of Blair and Le’s collaboration. Analysis of DNA taken from pygmy slow lorises confiscated by Vietnamese authorities in northern Vietnam had suggested that the animals originated in southern Vietnam, while no animals that were confiscated in the south appeared to be coming from the north. The researchers inferred that animals were being trafficked from the south to the north of the country, and then possibly up to China and beyond. However, after speaking with key informants in the trade, they learned something unexpected.

“Based on our interviews, there is definitely trade going from central Vietnam to the south and out to other countries from there,” Blair said. “But we can’t capture that in the DNA, either because our sample size isn’t big enough or because we can’t tell the animals apart based on the genetic markers that we have used thus far.”

Economic information can also be a vital tool for protecting animals such as turtles and pangolins, which are under immense pressure from the rising demands of the international trade. As turtle and pangolin populations decline, their value in the trade is increasing at rates greater than inflation. Because of their rarity and high price, all pangolins and turtles caught in local villages are sold to traders for sale in urban or international markets. Therefore, data on the trade of these animals may not be able to tell researchers what’s happening locally.

The authors also argue that wildlife trade management recommendations meant for one particular species shouldn’t be applied to all, as they are likely influenced by different markets. “A plan devised for the Bengal slow loris might be different from what you should use for the pygmy slow loris,” Blair said. “You can’t assume that one practice will work for all.”

Other authors on this work include Gautam Sethi from Bard College, Thach M. Hoang and Nguyen T.H. Van from Vietnam National University, Mark Birchette from Long Island University, and George Amato and Eleanor Sterling from the American Museum of Natural History.

This work is partially supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, grant # CHE-1313908, the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, the Eppley Foundation for Research, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the Turtle Conservation Fund, the NAGAO Natural Environment Foundation, and USAID-PEER science project # 3-149.

BioScience paper: https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix113