How isolating six countries will shut down the global wildlife trade

While there are possibly six degrees of separation between any two people on this planet, there are definitely six countries that could separate (in other words “disrupt”) 98% of potential tiger trading partners from one another on the global wildlife market.

The illegal trade in wildlife products isn’t only a serious environmental crime with devastating effects on the diversity of endangered species, biodiversity and ecosystems. It is also a serious threat to national and global security and public health.

Thousands of animals are shipped around the globe daily as food, pets, medicines, clothing, trophies and religious amulets. The industry is fuelled by the rising Asian middle class` demand for animal product status symbols, which again fuels the proliferation of weapons and corrupt money in poaching or trading hotspots. It is clear that innovative approaches are needed to combat this extensive industry

The researchers behind the paper Quantitative methods of identifying the key nodes in the illegal wildlife trade network must have had quite a eureka moment when realizing that a tool developed to track and map bearers of contagious disease, could be used to track and visualize the previously unclear structure of the wildlife trade network.

By using a database called HealthMap Wildlife Trade, the team were able to identify the key countries which removal from the network would cause the maximum disruption of the trade. They believe strategic, concentrated interventions aimed at putting an effective stopper to all import to and consequent export from these countries, will be more effective than current technologically based efforts at prevention and control.

In theory, removing only six countries from the complex equation would mean that between 89% and 98% of the global trade in elephant, rhino and tiger parts would be severely disrupted.
Not surprisingly, China is on the top of the list.

The devil is in the details

The program collects and analyses data from 50,000 webpages ranging from discussion forums to news media outlets, sourcing reports on the volume, frequency, composition, and routes of the trade. By combining official data and informal, real-time media stories and reports from the general public, the researchers can identify which countries are involved in the trade and to what extent.

By studying data collected between August 2010 and December 2013, the researchers found reports on 232 shipments of elephants, 165 shipments of rhinos, and 108 shipments of tigers. A shipment is defined as an animal product, being sourced from one country to be shipped to another.

When looking closer at the exports and imports patterns, the researchers noticed a huge discrepancy between the number of registered exports/imports and the total number shipments. In other words, there was clearly more countries involved in the logistics of any one shipment than a simple export-import exchange. For example, the average number of shipments imported by a country was 1, whereas the total number of shipments were 50 for elephants, 50 for rhinos, and 45 for tigers. This is because an elephant tusk discovered in Nepal on its route from India to China, would be entered as two separate shipments in the researcher’s database.

This way, the researchers were able not only to find the key export and import countries for the different wildlife products, but more importantly, they could map out the key transit countries where products are imported to shift modes of transport, or to manufacture byproducts. In other words the main connection points between the source and the customer.

Information is key

The research team also used the data to identify the countries where awareness campaigns about the cruelty of the industry are most likely to result in a reduction in customer demand. They found that by focusing on 6 countries they could reach about 80% of the trade nodes involving elephant, rhino and tiger parts. This could be particularly important in countries where information of the impacts of wildlife trade is missing.

Next steps

The authors suggest that the accuracy of using internet data to identify illegal wildlife trade might increase as more population gains access to the internet, particularly non-English users.

Likewise, looking into domestic smuggling and domestic consumption centres would provide further clues to devise more targeted conservation interventions that considers the cultural and economic circumstances under which these trafficking patterns occur.

Blog post courtesy of Karianne Skjæveland


Patel, Nikkita Gunvant, Chris Rorres, Damien O Joly, John S Brownstein, Ray Boston, Michael Z Levy, and Gary Smith. 2015. “Quantitative Methods of Identifying the Key Nodes in the Illegal Wildlife Trade Network.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112 (26): 7948–53.