Tackling illegal wildlife trade through science and partners

Madeleine Groves, the CITES Implementation Officer at Kew, describes how the application of science can help combat illegal wildlife trade.

By Madeleine Groves

Interior shot of the Palm House canopy

This week saw the gathering of global leaders at the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014. Tackling illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has generally concentrated on charismatic mega fauna such as elephants, rhinos and tigers. However, IWT policy and practice also address the illegal harvesting and trade in many plant species and their parts and derivatives. IWT is a serious criminal industry worth billions of US dollars every year. Proceeds of transnational crime in timber alone in the developing world have been estimated to be worth US$ 7bn (Haken, 2011). Plant groups affected by IWT include tree, orchid, cacti and cycad species and plant species used for medicinal purposes.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments and entered into force in 1975. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival and it is one tool available to tackle IWT. Kew is the designated UK Scientific Authority for plants under CITES and, as such, provides independent scientific advice, develops and disseminates CITES capacity building tools and training.

I have been working on wildlife trade issues since graduating from the Kew Diploma in 1991, specialising in the trade in tree species and carnivorous plants while leading at Kew on the training of enforcement officers and agencies on CITES-listed plant species. Working as part of the team in the Conventions and Policy Section (CAPS) at Kew, my role is to provide independent, science-based advice on CITES policy and implementation to Defra and other policy and enforcement agencies.

This work commonly requires scientific input on the identification or authentication of CITES-listed species and their products. Given that CITES regulates five times as many plant species as animal species, due to large family listings such as all orchids and cacti, Kew is in a unique position to to assist with the day to day implementation of these listings by utilising the scientific expertise across all of our science departments.

Over the last ten years the number of tree species regulated under CITES has risen dramatically. To inform our advice on existing and future timber listings, associated policy and enforcement, and to support new EU legislation to combat illegal timber trade (FLEGT and the EU Timber Regulation), Kew, often in partnership with other UK or international partners, agencies and institutes, is working to develop or test methods to identify tree species in trade. These include Dalbergia nigra (Brazilian rosewood), Gonystylus species (ramin) and Dalbergia and Diospyros species from Madagascar.

These methods complement existing processes used in timber identification, such as the examination of macroscopic features using Kew’s 120,000 microscope reference slides, of which a third are wood slides (Gasson, 2011).

Kew, in partnership with TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network, has collaborated on a feasibility study addressing each step required to develop a genetic identification assay for processed Gonystylusspp. (ramin) in trade that was robust, cost-effective and used transferable methods (Ogden, et al., 2008). In response to enforcement difficulties in identifying Dalbergia nigra (Brazilian rosewood) in trade, a team at Kew isolated a new neoflavonoid derivative, dalnigrin, absent in another rosewood species (D.spruceana) commonly used to make the same type of products. This research demonstrates that chemical analysis, in combination with anatomical investigation, can provide persuasive evidence to support the positive identification of untreated heartwood of D. nigra (Kite, et al., 2010).

At the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP16 - Thailand, March 2013) Madagascar listed its populations of Dalbergia and Diospyros on Appendix II of CITES, with an accompanying Action Plan that recognised the need for improved identification to aid implementation. Kew is working with Madagascar and international organisations and experts to help implement this listing. A number of Kew departments are supporting the UK’s Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in a proof of concept project to verify the declared origin of such timber using Stable Isotope and Trace Element (SITE) fingerprinting. RBG Kew and FERA will develop SITE fingerprint maps for Madagascar using a variety of Geographic Information System (GIS) tools, Maxent for niche modelling, and data on geology, topology, climate and other variables. 

If triangulation of isotopes gives reasonable resolution, SITE fingerprint maps will be made available to authorities and researchers in Madagascar. The latest on this project is that (two wood corers later!) Kew’s Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC) in collaboration with Madagascar’s National Parks has collected about 120 samples in total and analysis is underway on the first batch.

The importance placed on tackling IWT issues in the UK is demonstrated in the award of New Year and Birthday Honours to three Kew staff members (Monique Simmonds, Chris Leon and myself) and Guy Clarke (Border Force) for our contributions to addressing illegal plant trade.

Kew is also a long standing member of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW). PAW is a UK umbrella group and members include Border Force, Police, NGOs, the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), user groups and scientific institutions. Kew hosts the PAW Open Seminar each year (the next one is on Wednesday 12 March 2014) where PAW members discuss IWT issues, research developments and collaborative work. This partnership approach also extends through to our CITES capacity building work and the development of CITES tools and training modules for UK, EU and international enforcement officers and agencies, as well as aiding CITES compliance by trade and industry (Garrett, et al., 2010; Sajeva, et al., 2012).

London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014

On 13 February 2014 the UK Government hosted the London Conference on IWT aimed at tackling three interlinked aspects of the Illegal Wildlife Trade:

  • improving law enforcement and the role of the criminal justice system
  • reducing demand for wildlife products
  • supporting the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by IWT

The conference was attended by 40 governments and the EU. As a stakeholder in pre-conference discussions with Defra and other government agencies Kew staff members also attended the conference reception at the Natural History Museum on 12 February where many seized plant products were on display along with illegally traded animal parts and derivatives. I note that among the commitments contained in the London Declaration arising from the conference, the 'importance of CITES' and the need to 'invest in capacity building to strengthen law enforcement to protect key populations of species threatened by poaching' were highlighted, reinforcing the important role the collections and expertise at Kew can make in tackling the illegal wildlife trade.


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