Penn Vet study identifies key culprits in wildlife trafficking

Elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn, tiger skin: all are illegally traded products from wildlife species that are in danger of extinction.

Government and private agencies have channeled millions of dollars, hours, and advanced technology into efforts to prevent this banned trade, but the problem is complex and not easily solved.

“There are not a lot of prevention and control strategies that are currently working,” says Nikkita Patel, who recently earned VMD and Ph.D. degrees from the School of Veterinary Medicine. “I wanted to do research to find more innovative and cost-effective approaches to tackle this issue.”

Patel came to Penn with a background in spatial analysis. Her master’s thesis and previous work experience used this approach to understand patterns of disease transmission and emergence in humans. As she began to consider ways of addressing wildlife trafficking—one of the biggest drivers of human disease emergence—she discovered that a similar type of analysis had been used to identify key players in terrorist and drug trafficking networks.

“I hadn’t seen this done with illegal wildlife trade, and I knew it would be a perfect fit,” she says.

Together with colleagues at Penn Vet and the Perelman School of Medicine, Patel performed analyses of information from a database called HealthMap, which scours the web for law enforcement reports, media coverage, and other sources about illegal wildlife trade seizures, covering a range of species. Patel and colleagues chose to focus on reports of elephant, tiger, and rhino products because they were the most frequently cited in the database. The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They mapped out trade networks for each species, including the countries of origin and destination. Their analyses revealed which countries were the most critical to the trade in each species, and which would be the best locations for targeting educational interventions to try to stop the demand for illegal wildlife products.

“One of the big things that I saw was that China was a key player for the trade in all three species,” Patel says, “and it was also a key country for disseminating an education message.” 

Chinese culture has historically valued ivory for art works and rhino horns for purported medicinal properties. Various products are derived from tigers, and live tigers have even been kept as pets.

“The aim of this research wasn’t just to find countries to point fingers at, but to identify key players in the trade and then further examine the cultural and economic drivers that underlie what we see,” Patel says.

The work could help agencies and nonprofits make more informed decisions about how to allocate resources for intervention and education. And Patel notes that, while reducing wildlife trafficking is a challenging problem, there have already been steps in the right direction.

“It was recently reported that the Chinese government destroyed a big stockpile of ivory and that they had changed policies to diminish or stop the legal trade of ivory,” she says. “That is huge and should be applauded.”

Tiger 145