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Conservation Criminology for a Troubling Trade

UMD Researcher Examines Traffic in Poached Wild Meat in Urban Africa

By Sara Gavin

Aerial view of Brazzaville with the Congo River and Kinshasa, Capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo in the background

Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, is one of Africa's fastest-growing cities, but the trade in meat poached in rural areas is more closely linked to this and others urban areas than previously understood, new UMD-led research has found.

The illegal traffic of poached, wild meat into some cities in Africa is more dynamic than previously understood, according to UMD-led research that gives new insight into a practice that harms wildlife populations while risking virus transmission from animals to humans that can set off disease outbreaks.

The study published this month in Global Ecology and Conservation categorizes traffickers and sellers of illegal wild meat in two of Central Africa’s growing urban centers, the cities of Brazzaville and Pointe Noire in Republic of the Congo.

Meredith Gore, associate professor of geographical sciences, and colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society used crime science methods to identify different types of sellers and traffickers involved in trading illegal wild meat from endangered species such as pangolins, great apes and dwarf crocodiles in the two cities.

“A lot of times we think about wildlife conservation or wildlife poaching and trafficking as being an issue that’s limited to rural or forested areas,” Gore said. “Our research shows some of the ways illegal wildlife trade touches cities. It also provides a new tool to help develop effective solutions to combating the practice, which can be devastating to wildlife and contributes to food insecurity.”

Wild meat—also called bush meat—is a dietary staple in many rural areas of Africa and can be traded legally. However, the practice becomes illegal when it involves species protected by law or when animals are taken from protected areas or trafficked across borders.

The trade in illegal wild meat can present new biosecurity risks, creating new transmission routes for pathogens, particularly from meat that has been mishandled or undercooked. Disease outbreaks and even pandemics are thought to have originated from handling or eating wildlife, including AIDS and Ebola. In earlier research published in February, Gore and colleagues proposed ways to increase surveillance, biosafety and security efforts to head off outbreaks related to the illegal trade before they occur.

Identifying sub-types of people involved in specific illegal activities is a common approach used by criminologists in investigations of gun, drug and human trafficking. In applying this method to the wild meat trade, Gore and colleagues found that traffickers and sellers varied widely in terms of professionalism, offending rates, criminal background and need for resources to support continued criminal activity.

“Really trying to understand how the criminal dimensions of illegal wildlife trade connect urban and rural ecosystems can provide more insight to law enforcement officials, conservation authorities and other policymakers that are trying to reduce risk associated with illegal wildlife trade,” Gore said. “This is an issue that is not just relevant to Africa. As the planet increasingly globalizes, we are all aware of how connected we are.”

From illegal sea cucumber fishing in Mexico to wildlife snaring in Vietnam and rosewood logging in Madagascar, Gore has traveled the world and helped pioneer the field of conservation criminology—an interdisciplinary approach for addressing environmental risks through natural resource policy and management, criminology and criminal justice, and risk and decision science. She joined the Department of Geographical Sciences in the fall of 2020.

“I like to say that humans are my species and I study how they interact with the environment,” Gore said. “The science of conservation crime is interesting, but I also think it represents the current state of affairs where you have a messy problem and a single science is not going to solve it.”




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