A new framework has been developed to determine how best to manage trade in particular wildlife species under commercial pressure. Described in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the framework has the potential to help the conservation community assess the most appropriate regime for managing wildlife trade in a transparent, open, and scientifically-based way. Authors are Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Fiona Underwood of the UK’s National Trust and an independent statistical researcher/consultant, and E.J. Milner-Gulland of the University of Oxford.

International commercial trade in wildlife, whether legal or illegal, is one of the greatest threats to multiple species of wildlife today. Opinions on how to address it are deeply divided across the conservation community. Approaches fall into two broad categories: making the trade illegal to protect against any form of commercial trade, or allowing some or all of the trade to be legal and seeking to manage it through sustainable trade. The conservation community is often deeply polarized on which is the better option.

Said study author, Elizabeth Bennett, Vice President for Species Conservation for WCS: “If adopted and applied, the approach could help the conservation community move beyond some of the heated controversies that we see at CITES and beyond, by allowing for objective, scientific considerations of likely outcomes from different approaches.”

The paper describes how to construct a model to make decisions on approaches more likely to succeed in conserving a species, given its productivity, management context (e.g. the level of corruption along the trade chain), and types and levels of demand.

The model can be used to assess which trade regime is more likely to succeed in conserving a species given the particular characteristics of the species and the context. In addition, it provides the opportunity to explicitly explore how assumptions about the way in which humans could respond to different trade regimes might affect the outcomes.

Co-author E.J. Milner-Gulland said: “It's so important that we come together as a conservation community and aim for our goal of sustainable and healthy wildlife populations. This framework could help conservationists to think through the factors affecting sustainability for a particular species, and come to a consensus about how to manage the species better.”

The framework uses a Bayesian Belief Network (BBN) – a type of mathematical model that describes causal relationships between variables and can be used to explore the probabilities of outcomes under different scenarios. The authors discuss how the BBN can be adapted for species with different characteristics, for example those that can be stockpiled or when there are multiple products.

Co-author Fiona Underwood said: “BBNs are transparent and user-friendly tools that allow us to lay bare the underlying structure and relationships between different attributes of the wildlife trade. Our proposed approach can provide a basis for discussion amongst different interested parties because they can contribute to the development of the BBN itself, explore for themselves the consequences of decisions and examine the interplay and relative importance of different drivers of the trade on the sustainability of a species.”