ban wildlife trade

Why we shouldn’t ban wildlife trade: interview with Oscar Morton

Many people assume that a ban on wildlife trade would be good for biodiversity. And in the wake of the pandemic, with photos of Chinese wet markets in the news, calls for a ban increased. However, a recent meta-analysis of wildlife trade revealed we know little about its impacts.

One of the authors of that study was Grantham Scholar Oscar Morton, so we spoke to him to find out more. Keep reading to find out why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about wildlife trade – and the devastating implications for people, biodiversity and ecosystems if we do.

Oscar Morton interview: we don’t know enough about wildlife trade

Oscar was teaching science to school kids when, saddened by all the ‘cool science’ that wasn’t on the curriculum, he quit and returned to The University of Sheffield. After his Masters, he joined the Grantham Centre to research wildlife trade. But then 2020 happened and he had to rethink his research because fieldwork wasn’t an option.

Showing an admirable adaptability, Oscar took on a meta-analysis of wildlife trade research. And on its publication it made headlines around the world. However, as Oscar explains here, many people got the wrong idea about this research.

Recently you got international media attention for your paper about wildlife trade. Why was the paper so newsworthy?

The paper was a response to statements by high profile people who claim wildlife trade has decimated species. For example, Jane Goodall wrote in the New York Times that wildlife trade has driven species to extinction. But there were no references for her statement.

Conversely, there are academics pushing that wildlife trade is sustainable. Now, we agree trade can be sustainable, but again, where’s the evidence? Considering the thousands of species used/traded globally, findings showing trade is sustainable in a handful of species is a drop in the ocean compared to the work that needs doing.

Overall, both sides have blanket statements with little behind them given the magnitude and importance of trade. There’s a thimble of evidence in an ocean of opinion.

So the meta-analysis assessed existing evidence about wildlife trade impact?

Yes. In order to see what evidence there is out there for either side of the argument, we (Oscar and his team) did a meta-analysis of papers about the impact of wildlife trade. We wanted to assess the state of the literature and assess the baseline: where wildlife trade occurs and what happens from a purely biological perspective.

People might assume ‘of course if you hunt things there will be less of them’ but we wanted to show if that’s the case or not.

We looked at more than 2000 articles, but found we could only use 31 of them. All in all what this really showed was a lack of data. The fact of there being a lack of data as our main message seemed to bother people. I guess ‘there’s a lack of quantitative data’ isn’t seen as a good story, but it’s actually really important. Because of that lack of data we can’t say if wildlife trade is sustainable or not. Lots of people asked about sustainability after publication, but to even comment on it is to contribute to opinion-based knowledge.

The paper got a lot of attention in the media. What was the response like?

In the Daily Mail the actual article was ok, but when you look at the comments – I know I shouldn’t have – everything was ‘China this and China that’. There were more than 40 comments and most of them mentioned China. They obviously didn’t read the article as it didn’t even mention China! It’s dark where people’s assumptions lie.

Similarly, there’s been a lot of media attention on Chinese wet markets recently. People perceive them as terrible – perhaps because they look different. Yet, they’re often perfectly legal and, depending on the animals there, sustainable (of course exceptions exist). They’re abhorrent to many but it’s not clear what the reason is. Because they’re in China?

A picture of Oscar working on his research about wildlife trade
Oscar and his cat working from home during lockdown.

It must be depressing to see your research used as part of a racist narrative.

It was pretty unpleasant to be honest. Especially because one of our key findings was a lack of information. But some people decided this research HAD to show that everything is China’s fault. I didn’t expect anyone outside of academia to read the actual meta-analysis, but we thought that if people were going to comment on it they could have at least read the article in the newspaper!

Were you worried before you published?

It weighed on me heavily, because I was aware that the 60% figure from the paper would be easy to twist into an anti-trade, pro-ban mindset. Of course, this is the opposite point of the actual text of the paper, but that doesn’t matter once you’ve pulled out the percent and put your own message around it. Waiting for someone to misuse it in some sort of way wasn’t pleasant.

However, I’ve only seen normal things about it on social media, though perhaps that says more about my bubble than about how it’s actually been taken.

Can you explain a bit about what wildlife trade is?

Everyone has their own preconception about what wildlife trade is. For some it’s high value things like ivory horns they see on the news. To others it’s the wet markets that we currently see a lot of in the media because of the pandemic. Others visualise things like snakes or scales in jars for traditional medicine. However, often without realising it, most people across the world engage in wildlife trade in some way. This could be through fashion, food, or pets.

Some of what is traditionally included within wildlife trade can seem arbitrary. For instance, illegal logging isn’t usually seen as wildlife trade. Logging often (but not always) has separate literatures and researchers. But fundamentally there isn’t a reason why it is separate. Similarly, overfishing of charismatic species like sharks is also kept partly separate. Although as fields and research become more intersectional this separation is reducing.

Is there a difference in terms of impact between legal and illegal trade?

Most people think of trade as either legal or illegal, good or bad, sustainable or unsustainable. But it’s more nuanced, because there is legal trade that’s unsustainable and illegal trade that’s sustainable, and everything in between. Overall, determining if trade is sustainable is difficult because there just isn’t enough data on it.

What about hunting?

Importantly, often what people believe is a terrible type of wildlife trade – like hunting – feeds and supplies income for millions of people.

Many public-facing people decry wildlife trade and call for it all to be banned. However, that’s a terrible thing to say because you’re also saying that we should let people starve, that those people who rely on wildlife trade for an income don’t need that income.

Your meta-analysis revealed a lack of data about wildlife trade. But what areas were well covered?

Most of the papers we analysed were from Central America and Central Africa. As a result, our conclusions were mostly about these places. However, Central Africa has specific habitats, e.g. savannahs with antelope or forests with primates. Similarly with Central America. You can’t use data from a specific habitat in other locations.

Further, most papers were about mammals, with a few reptile and bird studies. Plus there were no arachnid or plant studies at all. Therefore a huge amount of wildlife trade is not covered, for instance the fashion industry or lab animals.

So basically we actually don’t know a lot about wildlife trade’s impacts?

Overall the meta-analysis showed that we only have data on limited geographies and habitats, a lack of taxonomic diversity, and lack of purpose diversity.

Further, about 80% were looking at what is usually called bushmeat: species that people hunt for meat but don’t eat themselves, selling it locally instead. Given the focus of the papers what we ended up with was mainly information about bushmeat impacts.

How does wildlife trade research fit in with the biodiversity crisis?

Lots of things are feeding into the biodiversity crisis. What I want to find out is if the management of wildlife trade is feeding into it in a negative way. I’m not convinced it is. However, if it is, that opens up a whole new set of problems.

Who are the actors in wildlife trade? Are there big corporations involved?

For certain things there are. However, it is often still a local person’s issue. For example CITES keeps records of legal international trade in thousands of species. The database is full of farmed and wild-sourced species all of which involve local people on the ground. Honestly, that’s the horrible issue. Because any changes you suggest will, at some point down the line, affect local people.

An awful truth may come out of further research: we might find that some trade is really hurting specific species, so to help that species the trade may have to stop (at least for a time – a moratorium) or change drastically in a short space of time. However, stopping it will have a huge impact on local people. And that’s going to be hard to navigate: what results show, and what should and shouldn’t be done.

Often science ends up weighing biodiversity uncertainty against local outcomes for local people. Personally, I’d never feel comfortable suggesting an action that affects people on the other side of the world.

What are the impacts that a ban on wildlife trade could have on local people?

As an example, there’s currently a focus on hunting for meat, with lots of people calling for a ban. But, if you make people stop hunting, what are they going to do instead? Hopefully they’re not going to starve (although that is a very real possible consequence). Instead, they might clear more land to grow food or raise animals. When you scale that up, you’re essentially talking about mass land clearance and mass agriculture. As a result, there will be landscape level losses of biodiversity.

Overall, you have to weigh up the negatives of the status quo vs the negatives of mass clearance (or other alternatives). Currently, we don’t know the impact of the status quo – we’re trying to work that out. But a paper came out recently looking at what happens if you ban bushmeat and they reported mass land clearance. And that’s another step on the biodiversity crisis.

What do you think will happen if research shows that wildlife trade is harming biodiversity?

There will be people looking at the impact of trade and what it does to species and comparing that to the consequences of removing trade from the system. How that is weighed up could have huge implications. The worst of it will be if it stirs up – or is used to justify – xenophobia and racism.

Currently, racism and xenophobia have been fuelled by the pandemic. But when the media starts to appreciate the biodiversity crisis it will be worse. People will say ‘ban hunting’ but there will be no practical grounds for some people who currently hunt to expand their lands. So what will they do?

You’re never going to solve this in a sentence, and yet people try to. People try to push a science driven message, but they don’t appreciate how it will translate. Doing anything globally affects millions of people in thousands of geographic locations and it’s not going to work for most of them. If you take the overall message from a paper and apply it, the cost of propounding that single sentence message will only help the average situation, and people on either side of that will be hurt.

There’s plenty of extinction issues in the UK – should we focus on hedgehogs or bats here rather than a wildlife trade ban in other countries?

100%. Within academia, it’s easy to go do fieldwork in another country for a limited time, get what you want, write it up, and disseminate it across Europe. And all the people you’re writing about are on the other side of the world and aren’t going to see any of it. For example, in my original fieldwork plan there was no time to do anything that would be useful to local people.

We (academics) sit here and focus on things really far away and I’m not sure sometimes who we are helping. It’s too easy not to help people, especially as the people we work with in the field most likely know a lot more about what we’re studying than we do. So there’s no new info to give them, nothing helpful. However, most people don’t even try. Collaboration and reinvesting evidence back into communities and systems we study is the only way.


Interview by Claire Moran. Do you want to read more interviews? Then look here.