African Elephants
African elephants. Credit: Creative Commons

Wildlife Trafficking in Africa: Opportunities for Science Diplomacy

Conservation Conservation diplomacy Sub-Saharan Africa

Although wildlife trafficking has been documented in more than 120 countries around the world, Africa is home to many high-profile sources and points of transit for the practice. This includes elephant ivory, pangolin scales, and rhino horns transported to Asia; gray parrots to Europe; cheetah cubs to the Middle East; and vulture brains to southern Africa.1 The African Development Bank recently estimated that illicit trade in natural resources removes 5 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product annually.2 Alongside the scientific components of wildlife trafficking, the crime can be assessed according to its cross-border, transboundary nature, the diversity of human and wildlife populations affected, various decision-making precedents, and community-based management regimes. To help address the problem in Africa, the research and policy communities must work closely along a broad spectrum of fields, among them conservation and criminology.

Multiple governments, regional economic communities, parastatals (i.e., state-supporting actors), and international organizations have produced declarations, policies, agreements, and documents designed to combat wildlife trafficking in Africa. These strategies apply science and policy in multiple ways toward addressing combating wildlife trafficking (CWT), although some of the initiatives are still in their infancy. For this paper, the authors reviewed seven current strategies to combat wildlife trafficking in Africa in 2018. Each had been formally approved by various authorities and included specific objectives and implementation plans relevant to science diplomacy. Our goal was to identify common benchmarks in CWT policies using multiple measures. In alphabetical order, the strategies are as follows:

  • African Strategy to Combat Illegal Exploitation and Illegal Trade in Wild Flora and Fauna in Africa, May 20153
  • East African Community Strategy to Combat Poaching, Illegal Trade and Trafficking of Wildlife and Wildlife Products, 2017/18–2021/224
  • Economic Community of West African States: Combating Wildlife Trafficking in West Africa5
  • European Union Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking6
  • Intergovernmental Authority on Development: Regional Strategy on Wildlife Management, July 20177
  • Southern African Development Community: Law Enforcement and Anti-Poaching Strategy8
  • U.S. National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, February 20149

The illegal trade and trafficking of wild flora and fauna pose environmental risks with implications beyond species extinction and animal welfare, although those impacts are substantial.10 Wildlife trafficking can be associated with, for example, corruption, money laundering, degradation of the rule of law, national insecurity, spread of zoonotic disease, undercutting of sustainable development investments, erosion of cultural resources, and convergence with other serious crimes.11 Perhaps also in part because wildlife trafficking can involve multiple serious aspects of criminality, violence, and rule of law violations, it is increasingly emphasized by decision makers and donors as warranting interdisciplinary and multisectoral remediation—including by the scientific and foreign affairs communities.

New Evidence to Support an Integrative Approach

In the basic, social, and applied natural sciences, new evidence is emerging in support of efforts to regionally integrate policy vis à vis wildlife trafficking. For example, in May 2019, the Lusaka Agreement Task Force and African Union Commission convened the second of four regional meetings for directors of wildlife authorities seeking to promote international cooperation on combating wildlife crime. Participants—including experts in law enforcement, biodiversity conservation, customs, security, anti-corruption, foreign affairs, and other fields—affirmed a need to work at both the bilateral and multilateral levels to enhance individual and collective efforts to prevent and combat wildlife crime in all its forms. Directors detailed how wildlife trafficking problems were being exacerbated by inadequate cooperation among states, agencies, and scientists, and profiled the benefits of increasing evidence-based monitoring and surveillance in shared ecosystems.12

These assemblies illustrate how the science-diplomacy interface can be smoothed to achieve positive outcomes. Specifically, they demonstrate the value of enhanced mobility across multiple disciplines and sectors to discuss shared problems associated with wildlife trafficking, anticipate learning needs to build the expertise of young professionals, deepen support for instruments and conventions (e.g., Nagoya Protocol, Maputo Convention), and leverage best practices from previous experiences.13 Other examples include the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) funding basic scientific research on wildlife trafficking. The NSF’s Operations Engineering Program has funded Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research, which cover operational methods to detect, disrupt, and disable illicit supply networks such as those involved in wildlife trafficking in Africa. Submissions have been encouraged from transdisciplinary teams, including researchers from the fields of geography and spatial science, law and criminal justice, data and computational science, and public health. The NSF’s Office of Integrative Activities, meanwhile, has issued calls for partnerships,14 wherein proposals on understanding illicit trade and economic deceit have been submitted to engage students in training programs, while leveraging multi-institutional, multidisciplinary, and cyber-physical-social approaches to understanding illicit economies, including wildlife in Africa. Further, Michigan State University’s Alliance for African Partnership has funded an early career female scientist from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to explore the gendered dimensions of wildlife trafficking, including transboundary movements and possible convergence with human trafficking. These and other forms of scientific inquiry are building new knowledge about how to best disrupt illicit supply networks and their ability to withstand shocks, as well as how computational approaches support methods to detect patterns of weakness and resilience in illicit supply networks.

At multidisciplinary scientific meetings, members from a range of sectors network, foster dialogue, formulate achievable plans, and explore how to collectively strengthen handling of wildlife trafficking worldwide. For example, the “Evidence to Action” symposium, hosted by the University of Oxford’s Martin School, was held on the margins of the 2018 UK Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade. Experts in areas such as social marketing, gender studies, foreign affairs, criminology, sustainable livelihoods, and geography gathered to discuss how scientific insight about the different stages of the wildlife trafficking supply chain might be enlisted to support sustainable livelihoods and reduce threats to biodiversity.

Prospects for Bilateral Cooperation

The science associated with wildlife trafficking can foster bilateral and multilateral relationships. For instance, Gash Setit Wildlife Reserve in Eritrea and Kafta Shiraro National Park in Ethiopia share a migratory elephant population. With movement toward normalized bilateral relations after a “no war, no peace” interval, the neighboring countries can use a Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) as an opportunity for collaboration. A park spanning the national borders could permit shared research on wildlife and other areas in the natural sciences. In addition, such a development could facilitate enhanced coordination of authorities on wildlife, customs, sustainable livelihood, and border patrols toward reducing trade in various illicit products, including wildlife. Scientists and economists focusing on sustainable tourism have helped domestic and international NGOs and other groups in their attempts to create a wildlife-economy toolkit that bilateral agencies, investors, and philanthropists can use to deliver major economic, social, and environmental benefits.15

In another border area, between Boma National Park in South Sudan and Gambella National Park in Ethiopia, there are suspicions of intermittent wildlife, human, and arms trafficking. A TFCA in this region and a focus on wildlife trafficking might therefore help formalize relations among national wildlife authorities, conservation organizations, and scientists, as well as parastatal groups working to address the challenges associated with internally displaced persons. Likewise, the Horn of Africa Wildlife Enforcement Network, whose members include, among others,  conservation organizations (e.g., TRAFFIC), countries (e.g., Kenya, South Sudan, Djibouti), parastatals (e.g., African Union Commission, International Union for Conservatoin of Nature), is supporting development of an evidence-based platform to monitor wildlife-trafficking data across member countries and enable better data sharing. In turn, it aims to facilitate stronger prosecutorial cases and, ultimately, indictments and sentences for high-level offenders. Whether these efforts count as formal or informal science diplomacy, they suggest rewards associated with enhancing the long-term secure governance of border spaces for inhabitants and natural resources alike. Successes have been registered in previously very insecure spaces experiencing wildlife trafficking such as Chad’s Zakouma National Park and Central African Republic’s Chinko Nature Reserve. Moreover, through its Embassy Science Fellowship and U.S. Speaker Program, the U.S. Department of State has demonstrated the value of science diplomacy by matching scientists focused on wildlife trafficking with peer stakeholders in Ethiopia, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These efforts have helped build trust and science-based collaborations.

Our review of strategies herein is not comprehensive with respect to efforts in Africa. For example, it does not consider the Economic Community of Central African States’ Declaration on Antipoaching Campaigns in Africa, the Marrakesh Declaration, or the Lusaka Agreement Task Force on Cooperative Enforcement Operations Directed at Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora. Rather, the review is illustrative of the myriad types of connections between the application of science (both natural and social) and policy analysis on the combating of wildlife trafficking. One can detect similarities and differences between these strategies based on social and applied natural science, entry points for future diplomatic efforts, scientific collaborations, and international coordination (see table 1). We used, as the basis for our analysis, seven categories identified in the African Union’s Africa Strategy. Across the seven categories, described in seven corresponding documents, we identified twenty-eight characteristics with potential connections to science diplomacy. We considered three established types of science diplomacy in interpreting results: (1) science in diplomacy (i.e., science providing advice and support for foreign policy objectives); (2) diplomacy for science (i.e., the facilitation of international scientific cooperation); and (3) science for diplomacy (i.e., scientific cooperation toward improving international relations). These distinct types signal a diversity of implications for cooperative activities, engagement, funding, and expectations regarding outcomes. The three types of science diplomacy also involve varying stakeholders.

Three characteristics were harmonized across all strategies, suggesting substantial opportunities for science in diplomacy. The background here is that wildlife trafficking is a transboundary issue that covers a mosaic of private and public spaces. Scientific understanding about the scope, scale, nature, and impacts of wildlife trafficking may enable new or strengthen existing cooperative agreements in transnational spaces, yield advice, and inform policy objectives. The three characteristics were:

  • Having a current CWT strategy, indicative of political commitment
  • Supporting information exchanges with other governing bodies, indicative of regional and international cooperation
  • Promoting the presence of data management in support of CWT efforts, indicative of knowledge, information, and technology

Seven characteristics were harmonized across 85 percent of the strategies, suggesting synergy with diplomacy for science. The maturity of knowledge underlying these characteristics is based in part on interdisciplinary and multisectoral engagement and participation. Extant knowledge can be leveraged to further facilitate cooperation. Some scientific and technical understanding is still lacking, however. Characteristics in common across strategies were:

  • Integrating CWT into other economic, environmental, or developmental policies, indicative of political commitment

  • Holding meetings with other governing bodies, indicative of regional and international cooperation

  • Promoting joint initiatives with other governing bodies, indicative of regional and international cooperation

  • Recognizing the need for local communities to be represented in management, indicative of enforcement and compliance

  • Training officials in CWT enforcement, indicative of enforcement and compliance

  • Promoting the presence of anti-corruption programs in CWT governance, indicative of governance

  • Considering stability and security in CWT governance, indicative of governance

Five characteristics were harmonized across less than 30% of strategies, connecting with efforts in science for diplomacy. By our measures, these characteristics represent the most understudied content in this analysis. If and when the social and natural scientific communities enhance the knowledge base on these topics, efforts can serve as a mechanism for relationship building between countries or Africa’s Regional Economic Communities. These characteristics were:

  • Awarding recognition and commendation for CWT efforts, indicative of political commitment
  • Using geospatial technology in CWT, indicative of knowledge, information, and technology
  • Engaging media with CWT efforts, indicative of awareness and advocacy
  • Supporting programs that develop organizational compliance with laws and regulations, indicative of enforcement and compliance
  • Engaging local communities in CWT governance, indicative of governance

As stakeholders from different countries, sectors, ecosystems, and crime-impacted spaces seek to build scientific evidence in support of policies that reduce risks from wildlife trafficking, data and research may become increasingly coordinated with foreign affairs. Quantitative bench sciences can contribute new advanced forensic techniques that link confiscated wildlife products such as ivory with protected areas of origin.16 Qualitative and applied legal sciences can contribute knowledge about more effective joint interstate law enforcement options or mutual legal agreements. Exploring harmonization in strategic policies to combat wildlife trafficking may help create benchmarks for the knowledge base, track changes over time, and reflect the three primary types of science diplomacy (i.e., science in diplomacy, diplomacy for science, and science for diplomacy).

The implications of this benchmarking can include, at a minimum, helping to develop more effective ways of communicating across disciplines, identify starting points upon which to adopt common frameworks, and delineate the scientific language that best reflects real-world programs and policies. “Big data” analysis may be enabled through data standards, such as those associated with geographic information science.17

Wildlife trafficking in Africa, as elsewhere, involves multiple regions, people, and types of spaces. Questions remain about how these spaces will affect the nature and goals of cooperation to combat wildlife trafficking. As the scientific and technical dimensions of wildlife trafficking are clarified, these questions include: How will the political and security dimensions be incorporated? Will wildlife trafficking strategies at the regional economic community level offer a sufficient proxy for transboundary ecosystem-wide efforts to address the problem? What is and will be the role of social and natural science versus politics and policy decision-making processes? Where does science link to decision making during discussions between countries in managing transboundary spaces? Relatedly, how are science-policy linkages reflected on the ground in managing transboundary spaces within which wildlife trafficking occurs? How can science diplomacy enhance international collaborative policy efforts to more effectively collect, share, and use data?

The Africa-focused strategies reviewed herein provide a useful baseline for answering these and other questions to aid further science diplomacy connections with CWT. These strategies portend benefits from, and obligations to, more directly incorporating local and community voices as well as multidisciplinary/multisectoral perspectives into programs and activities. Protected areas, TFCAs, and their buffer zones offer spatially explicit and locally relevant venues to practice science diplomacy to combat wildlife trafficking. Over time, monitoring the implementation of strategies discussed here, and others, will produce evidence-based trends across indicators and performance categories. There is much room for growth in the applications of science diplomacy to combat wildlife trafficking. This paper is the direct result of collaboration using an Embassy Science Fellowship to compare and contrast varying strategies. One immediate benefit of this work is collaboration between actors—for example, the African Union is now working with Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development to write a joint action plan to bridge their respective efforts and play to each other’s strengths.

Table 1. This harmonization table illustrates key science diplomacy areas for combating wildlife trafficking, according to the African Union Commission strategy, characteristics of those strategic areas, and the presence or absence of those characteristics across seven strategies relevant to wildlife trafficking in Africa. Green shading denotes total harmonization. Yellow shading denotes moderate harmonization. Orange shading denotes low harmonization.


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Diplomacy for Science Regional Integration and Trade Science for Diplomacy Science in Diplomacy December 2019