REVIEW | Bold new vision, or more of the same? Launching the London 2018 Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade

Rosaleen Duffy was invited to the the launch of the London 2018 Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. Here, she reflects on the launch event and argues for more critical, inclusive and socially just responses to conservation at the London 2018 Conference and beyond.

BIOSEC PI Rosaleen Duffy was invited to the the launch of the London 2018 Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, which took place on 30 October 2017. 


I was very pleased to be invited along to the launch of the London 2018 Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade on 30th October at Lancaster House. I went along, passport and invitation in hand, curious to hear what the Ministers would say, and who else would be on the guest list. The event did not disappoint.

At the launch, the long awaited dates and venue for the conference were finally announced: 10-11 October 2018 at Lancaster House. Three MPs introduced what they saw as the important themes for the conference, and John E. Scanlon, Secretary-General of CITES, had sent a video message highlighting the positive news about reductions in elephant poaching, but reminding us that much work was still to be done to combat IWT.

Rosaleen with official invitation. 

Engagement with the private sector and links to global security were central themes. The Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mark Field MP, pointed to the successes of the United For Wildlife Transport Task Force, which specifically worked towards commitments from private companies involved in transport, shipping and aviation. He suggested that partnering with the private sector would also be important in the deployment of technology to tackle IWT. Technology, though, is not a magic bullet; it can be an important way of responding to IWT and it is one that many donors and philanthropists are keen to invest in. However, technology needs to be seen it its social context: is it a good use of resources if rangers are not well paid and well equipped?

Minister Field also suggested that there was a need to improve our understanding of the connections between IWT and security, and as PI of BIOSEC I couldn’t agree more. But we also need to be open to the idea that claims about links to global security issues are regularly made, but not necessary proven. There is a politics in play here; emphasising the security dimensions of IWT attracts attention and funding, which can be funnelled in to more forceful, but possibly counter productive approaches to conservation. There are reasons to be cautious about the growing militarisation of conservation, especially in areas of conflict or delicately balanced peace agreements. Providing more military training, partnering with national armies, international military forces and private sector military/security companies inevitably changes dynamics and can put conservationists, communities and even wildlife on the ‘front line’ in new ways.

Mark Field MP speaking at the launch.

We must also be careful about the evidence base we use – in Minister Field’s introduction I heard lots of numbers which form the basis of well intentioned NGO campaigns, including the oft repeated more than ‘1000 rangers’ killed in 10 years. This is a significant under estimate – the truth is we don’t know how many people are being killed. Not all ranger and poacher deaths are recorded. We may never know the human cost of the escalating violence around protection of some of the world’s most iconic species. Yet, all these deaths are important – and I include the deaths of those defined as poachers as well. These are people, with complex stories of their own, yet we hear very kittle about them. They are often just dismissed as greedy criminals whose passing is not worthy of comment. It seems we are able to collect fairly accurate figures for elephant deaths across Africa, but not human deaths.

The problematic focus on charismatic species also featured in the discussions at the launch event. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment, Therese Coffey MP, made the excellent point that while attention as often focused on rhinos and elephants, she is also willing to ‘protect the ugly ones’. This prompted a giggle from the audience – but it is an important point. A great deal of attention and funding is lavished on charismatic species, the elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins. Yet, IWT affects thousands of species around the world: many of them are not instantly recognisable, and they are certainly not cute, furry or cuddly. Dr David Roberts (University of Kent), a specialist in IWT in plants, regularly reminds me of the plant blindness in IWT research and policy even though orchids are the most listed species under CITES.

The final speaker was Rory Stewart MP, Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs. He reaffirmed UK government commitment to tackling IWT and extended thanks to the USA, China, Vietnam, Botswana and Gabon for leadership on these issues. He also reminded us that tackling IWT is not a technocratic issue for conservationists – it is about power. He interpreted power in terms of how people may engage in IWT because of structures of incentives and disincentives, and talked in a language of carrots and sticks. We need a more expansive way of thinking about the role of power, which addresses how the blunt instruments of carrots and sticks are shaped and structured in the first place.  People get involved in IWT for all sorts of reasons, incentives or disincentives are produced by wider power structures which are shaped by global patterns of wealth, poverty and inequality. Engagement in IWT may also be for reasons of resisting historical injustices, such as the removal of hunting rights, and exclusion or dispossession from lands to make way for the sorts of wilderness produced and sustained by protected areas. It may also be because of a need to gain social status or recognition. Incentives and disincentives are not always about the material gains from trafficking wildlife.

Successful conservation needs to be socially just, and this means thinking about power dynamics in a wider sense. Our BIOSEC project is centrally concerned with thinking about how to make wildlife conservation socially just – and this goes far beyond the idea of wildlife protection or even finding ways of ‘living with wildlife’ via strategies of human- wildlife conflict mitigation. We may need a radical new model of conservation to achieve this. Here I return to the question of who was on the guest list. There were many familiar faces from conservation NGOs; perhaps it is time to be more active in drawing in organisations that question and criticise conservation, representatives of indigenous communities, development NGOs, human rights advocates and those pushing for alternative economic models. They will need a lot of persuading if they are to join the debate in a meaningful way– they may not see IWT as within their remit, or they may assume their voices will not be listened to. Drawing in a wider range of voices also has its risks, of course, but it might just ensure that we don’t produce ‘more of the same’ but instead offer something fresh and innovative for conservation of the future.

If you would like to contact Rosaleen Duffy about her research, please email