A New Approach to Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking main content.

A New Approach to Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

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Research posts

Illegal trade remains a top threat to endangered wildlife around the world. To understand and address the threat effectively, researchers are suggesting that biologists team up with anthropologists and economists for a more accurate picture of the connections among socioeconomic conditions, cultural and political contexts, demand for wildlife products, and illegal hunting and trade.


Pygmy slow loris sits on a tree branch and peers through the leaves.
Pygmy slow loris in Lam Dong Province, Vietnam.
© T. Mai Hoàng

In an article published in the journal BioScience this week, a team of conservation biologists propose an innovative, holistic approach to investigating and managing the illegal trade of animals based in part on preliminary studies of slow loris trafficking across Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The slow loris research is led by Mary Blair, director of biodiversity informatics research at the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), and colleagues.


Pygmy loris lies beneath a nest of branches.
Pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) spotted at night in Dong Nai Culture and Nature Reserve.
© T. Mai Hoàng

Slow lorises—small nocturnal primates—are illegally hunted and traded for traditional medicine, for food, and as pets. Blair and colleagues have used genetic analysis to better understand trade dynamics, verifying that some lorises confiscated by law enforcement in northern Vietnam originated from the south, which suggests that the slow loris trade flows mainly in one direction.


The genetic data were supplemented by interviews with informants, who confirmed but also complicated the original findings, revealing that trade also flowed south from central Vietnam. “We can’t capture that in the DNA,” says Blair. “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.”


Pangolin walks on a dusty path.
Ground pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.
Courtesy of David Brossard/Flickr

“As the project evolved, we realized we need to integrate information on human behavior in society alongside biological information to better understand the complexity of wildlife trade,” Blair explained in a 2016 video interview.

Blair and co-author Minh Le, a lecturer at Vietnam National University and research associate in the Museum’s Department of Herpetology, describe this type of interdisciplinary approach in the BioScience paper and suggest that it can be applied to studying illegal trade in other threatened animals, including turtles and pangolins. More comprehensive studies may also help policy makers create specific plans of action to reduce the impact of wildlife trade and to enact better conservation actions for affected species.

“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,” says Blair. “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.’”

Co-authors on the BioScience paper include Center for Biodiversity’s Jaffe Chief Conservation Scientist Eleanor J. Sterling and George Amato of the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. 

For more about Dr. Blair’s research on slow lorises, read her posts from the field or listen to her podcast.



Podcast: Download | RSS | iTunes (29 mins, 28 MB)