Possession is nine-tenths of the law: David Macdonald explains how the work he and WildCRU’s Dr Chris Newman have been leading with Chinese colleagues sheds light on illegal wildlife trade

September 8, 2015

Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) is big business – Prince William’s initiative with United for Wildlife seeks to tackle IWT globally, and the UK government has just announced £5million to redress it. WildCRU is in the thick of this topic (a review of this subject by Dutton et al can be found in Key Topics in Conservation Vol 2, 2013), and just one aspect of our work with IWT in China is illustrated by the parable of the (metaphorical) guitar: imagine that you really wanted to own ‘a guitar’, but the sale and purchase of guitars is illegal. Worse yet, everyone else has a guitar, and playing the guitar brings kudos and social status. What would you do? Everyone you know already owns one, how can it hurt if you do? It would be tempting to get one illegally, thereby stimulating illegal-guitar-trade?

Of course, this example seems absurd, but, as we report in our recent letter in Nature (Zhou, Z. M., 2015, Illegal trade: Tweak Chinese law to end ivory demand. Nature, 518, 303), and now in greater detail in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Zhou, Z. M. et al, 2015, Private possession drives illegal wildlife trade in China. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 13: 353–354), this parable epitomises the problem facing enforcement barring IWT in China. There, the buying and selling of protected wildlife products is prohibited, as is trading live animals as exotic pets, but paradoxically it remains legal to own these goods and many people already do so (remember the guitars!). What’s more, for many Chinese, owning attractive artefacts derived from protected species, seems about as wrong as enjoying a musical instrument. We know this because amongst the WildCRU’s extended family of collaborators is Dr Zhao-min Zhou, a remarkably dedicated  Wildlife Enforcement Officer in Yunnan Province.

Zhao-min, and WildCRU’s excellent Academic Visitor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Prof. Youbing Zhou, have led us to understand how, in Chinese culture, there is generally no perceived moral dilemma in owning (e.g. ivory) or consuming (e.g. pangolin scales) luxury wildlife products. Consequently, as prosperity grows amongst China’s burgeoning middle class, the use of exotic animal ingredients in Chinese Traditional Medicine, and the cachet of owning animal products, leads to an inconsistency: a survey of 600 middle-class Chinese citizens revealed that while 84% planned to buy ivory products in the future – as a “rarity”, imbuing “prestige”  – ironically, 95% simultaneously supported a total ban on ivory sales, highlighting a disconnect between possession and policy.

These inconsistencies frustrate wildlife enforcement, not least because it is well-known that many wealthy and influential people legally own extensive collections of wildlife items. For example, in 2013,  Zhao-min investigated a government official who received a tiger pelt as a “gift”. Because no money changed hands, no offense was recognized, making prosecution impossible. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2013, Zhao-min prosecuted 288 cases of IWT in Yunnan, involving 78 terrestrial animal species. Cases concerning ivory (33.83%), large felids (11.54%), and rhino horn (3.92%) together accounting for one half of the US$4.69 million value of this contraband. An emerging “fashion” is to own exotic birds or turtles – protected under CITES Appendices I and II – as household pets; ornaments such as those crafted from helmeted hornbill skulls are also becoming increasingly popular. Black market trading in these commodities causes prices to rise and increases criminality associated with supply.

What does the law say? Actually quite a lot, because illegal wildlife trade is already subject to legislation and enforcement, through China’s accession of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1981, complemented by China’s national Wild Animal Conservation Law (WACL, 1998) – both prosecuted under China’s stringent Criminal Law (1997). The WACL was mainly intended to prevent the exploitation and poaching of protected native wildlife, and in this respect it has proven effective. However, this legislation has nothing to say about personal possession, and this omission was not rectified this April when the WACL was revised (although a month later 662 kg of ivory, confiscated from illegal traders, was symbolically destroyed). So, what’s to be done?  Ivory provides the best model. In the US, UK, European Union, and Australia, only pre-CITES certificated antiques and/or artifacts can be legally owned (but not sold). This is currently not the case in China, which is why the WildCRU proposes a ban on the manufacture, ownership, and subsequent re-sale of all post-CITES ivory and all other protected species and related products. Permits might exempt family heirloom antique collections on a limited basis, but should not authorise new ones. Really significant historical artifacts might better be taken into State ownership for museum exhibition to the wider public.

There are signs of progress: in May 2015, Zhao Shucong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration, said: “We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted” – this commits China to phasing out its legal, domestic ivory industry. Furthermore, China has also recently imposed a one-year embargo on imports of African ivory carvings acquired after CITES took effect. All this is good, but our point is that so long as private ownership remains a legal loophole, consumer demand will continue to drive IWT in China, limiting the effectiveness of protective measures.

Reported in our Letters:

Zhou Z-M., Johnson R., Newman, C., Buesching, C.D., Macdonald D.W.  & Zhou Y. (2015). Private possession drives illegal wildlife trade in China. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 13: 353–354.

Zhou Z-M., Johnson R., Newman, C., Buesching, C.D., Macdonald D.W.  & Zhou Y. (2015). Tweak Chinese Law to end ivory demand. Nature, 518:303.

See also:

Zhou Z-M., Zhou Y., Newman C. & Macdonald D.W.  (2014). Synthetic ivory fails to stop illegal trade. Nature, 507: 40

Dutton, A.J., Hepburn, C. and Macdonald D.W. (2011). A stated preference investigation into the Chinese demand for farmed vs. wild bear bile. PLoS ONE 6:e21243.

Dutton, A. J., Gratwicke, B., Hepburn, C., Herrera, E. A., & Macdonald, D. W. (2013). Tackling unsustainable wildlife trade. Key Topics in Conservation Biology 2, 74-91.


  • From Frontiers in Ecology and Environment