BLOG | The Diary of a Frequent Flyer: What can airports tell us about conservation?

Airports may seem unlikely sites for research into conservation issues - but they can reveal a lot.

Airports are probably the last place you’d want to find yourself at the moment. As the symbol and prime enabler of mass global travel, airports have played a key part in turning COVID-19 into a pandemic. Yet, lately I have found myself thinking about them for another reason. Reviewing material collected for my PhD research and sorting through pictures and notes taken over the last three years, I realised just how many of these I have taken in airports. Yet my research was not about airports at all. Airports were  just somewhere I passed through on the way to my interviews, visits and conferences. Airports are not major wildlife habitats (although you can usually find plenty of rabbits and sparrows living next to the runways), nor are they a priority conservation landscape. However, after many aimless walks through duty free and boarding areas, I couldn’t help but notice that airports are places where conservation issues and the illegal wildlife trade are often brought to the fore.

Airports as advertising and campaigning spaces

Airports are (were?) busy places with thousands of citizens and consumers on location each day. They are also the first and last impression you get of a place. Airports provide an opportunity to celebrate local species and showcase what natural wonders the country has to offer. For instance, last time I passed through Terminal 3 of Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport, it was lavishly decorated with white and purple orchid cultivars reminiscent of the wild ones that grow across the country.

Governments, private companies and NGOs are also making the most of these transient yet captive audiences by advertising their efforts to protect the environment as well as encouraging passengers to take action. This is exactly what WWF Indonesia was doing with this fundraising poster I came across in a boarding hall at Jakarta airport. 

Image: WWF poster at Jakarta airport. Credit – Laure Joanny

I was also surprised to find the display below at the luggage pick up area of an  airport which is the gateway to  a key palm oil production region.  A number of government and not-for-profit partners made the most of the space and passenger attention to showcase their efforts in protecting peatlands, many of which have been drained for palm oil cultivation.

Image: Advertisement for a peatland protection programme. Credit – Laure Joanny

Airports as commercial venues for wildlife products

Airports are also the place to shop for your last minute souvenirs and local delicacies. Some of these may be wildlife products ready to be bought by affluent travellers. In a corner of the Heathrow Airport departure lounge, I was faced with a counter full of colourful caviar tins. A year later, I found caviar again on a refrigerated shelf in the Doha duty free shopping area. These displays immediately reminded me of my colleague Hannah Dickinson’s work. Hannah’s research highlights the blurred boundaries between legal farmed caviar and illegal wild caught caviar, particularly as the two products look exactly the same. She explained that the only way to distinguish between wild and farmed caviar is through stable isotope testing, which is not widely practiced. Thus,  sometimes it is not clear if caviar really is what it says is on the tin. Quantities of this product are also restricted: each passenger is limited to approximately 125g of fish eggs. But this rule is often disrespected.

Image: A caviar display at Heathrow Airport. Credit – Laure Joanny. 

On another of my airport rambles I came across a shop selling decorative entomological mounts i.e. pinned brightly coloured butterflies, large horned beetles and other insects as well as a few small reptiles. On a corner of the shelving was a little ‘no photography’ sign. Why this particular sign at this particular place? I don’t presume to know. However, collectible butterflies and insects are also the object of a trade where it’s hard to distinguish legal from illegal specimens due to the complex tangle of laws regulating their capture and sale.

Airports as illegal wildlife trafficking hubs and sites of law enforcement

This leads me to the side that is most obvious to wildlife conservationists and researchers, but the one that you can’t directly witness while wandering around departure lounges with a cup of coffee. Airports are a key enabler of the illegal wildlife trade as products are shipped along air routes. A recent report by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies highlighted that over one million illegal wildlife products and live animals were seized at airports in 2019. If one million were found by authorities, imagine how many more were smuggled through undetected. 

This realisation has sparked collaborations between airport authorities, airlines and conservation organisations with the aim of making it harder for illegal traders to use air transport. They work to improve the detection of wildlife through training airlines, customs and security personnel to deal with these issues as well as investing in sniffer dogs and scanning technologies. 

As transportation hubs, commercial venues and communication spaces, airports are actually crucial places to reflect on and act for wildlife conservation, despite the lack of endemic flora and fauna on site. Airports are worthy sites of intervention and scholarly observation. They are also proof that neither pre-travel jitters, long flights nor jet lag can completely switch off the researching brain.