While there is much academic debate about the role of wildlife trade in supporting or encumbering conservation and economic development efforts in developing countries, there is agreement on one issue – that illegal wildlife trade threatens conservation. It undermines nations’ efforts to manage their natural resources sustainably and causes massive economic losses in lost earnings. It damages legal wildlife trade (which can be a useful economic incentive for conservation if properly managed) by threatening the resource on which so many people rely (Traffic.org). It provides few conspicuous incentives for good land management by those living with the natural resources or for those in the supply chain to invest in good management practices.

Illegal wildlife trade is a significant market and although by its very nature is impossible to measure, it is thought its value runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. Significantly, illegally traded products are less likely to contribute to sustainable conservation initiatives on the ground. In the case of wildlife trade, illegal is defined under CITES.

By its very nature, illegal activity is unseen, and there are few robust analytical approaches to help us understand the economic system of illegal trade or the scale of it. Yet, the recession provides an ideal opportunity to understand the drivers of wildlife trade [good and bad] by allowing us to better understand market dynamics by glimpsing change as it happens. We can see what happens to trade and to conservation when for instance, demand for all commodities falls or if demand for luxury handbags in Japan falls (of which crocodile leather is used to make some), or if the costs of captive-breeding and farming crocodiles increase. Might we see illegal trade increase relative to legal trade? Or vice versa? Or more subtle changes? Are illegal and legal trade complementary or substitutes? Do they work in parallel or in opposing ways?

Furthermore, how do these insights translate on the ground: as demand for some commodities fall, what options are there for alternative income sources for communities and under what circumstances might illegal activities become attractive as a viable source of income? How will land use patterns change and how will this affect wildlife habitats? How will the incentives for conservation change?

Sustainableslump is calling for more research right now to help us better understand this illegal trade, the economic and social drivers and how cross-cutting policies might be effective in reducing or eliminating illegal trade and establishing effective market-based incentives for conservation and sustainable wildlife trade.