The illegal wildlife trade is ecologically destructive and extremely lucrative, generating an estimated $7 billion to $23 billion per year. Marine animals constitute a large portion of these unlawful sales, and are sold as food, decorative items, live pets, traditional medicines, trophies, and other consumer goods. This criminal enterprise not only reduces wildlife populations but can also compromise natural ecosystems while presenting risks to people and habitats from invasive species and pathogens.
In China, rapid economic growth and an expanding middle class have fueled the market for illegally traded marine species. Wuying Lin, a 2018 Pew marine fellow and co-founder of the Guangxi Biodiversity Research and Conservation Association (BRC), has spent more than a decade documenting south China’s threatened biodiversity. After completing her graduate studies at Florida International University in 2012, Lin returned to her home base of Guangxi, China—where, as the BRC’s scientific director, she oversees the organization’s portfolio of research projects.
Lin’s Pew marine fellowship project is focused on understanding the population dynamics of illegally traded marine wildlife in southern China, promoting public participation in the monitoring of marine wildlife markets, and offering data to inform policies to curtail poaching. Lin discussed her background and Pew fellowship work with The Pew Charitable Trusts.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you become interested in the illegal wildlife trade?
A: Wildlife conservation work has been my passion from the beginning of my career. In China, much of the conservation effort has been focused on illegal trade of ivory, rhino horn, shark fin, and pangolin scales. But other species have been highly neglected, so I decided to focus on four taxa that represent many threatened and illegally traded marine animals that very few people are looking at: sea turtles [hunted for their shells and meat], ornamental coral, giant clams [often substituted for ivory in decorative products], and horseshoe crabs, which are consumed or used for cultural purposes. These species are commonly sold as marine wildlife products in China, particularly in southern areas.
Q: How does your project address this issue?
A: We’re recruiting and training volunteers to do market and consumer awareness surveys, which help us understand where these products are being sold, in what form, at what price, and in what quantity. We use key interviews and the scientific literature to gather information about illegal trade hot spots and the population statuses of traded species. We’re also learning about the buyers and sellers. Who’s buying these products and why? Where are they coming from? Where are they selling or buying these products? And how are they transporting them? Finally, we do fieldwork to assess the condition of the species’ current habitats in the region.
Q: Where is your work focused?
A: We spend most of our time on market surveys in four provinces on the South China Sea: Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan (see map). Fujian province has many factories and skilled artisans, so wildlife products are shipped there to make artwork or jewelry, which are then shipped to other places. Guangdong province is infamous for illegal trade and consumption of wildlife. Guangxi is one of the most important centers of illegally traded products. Hainan is one of the biggest sources of sea turtle and giant clam products. Together, these provinces create a large market, which is the hot spot we’re focusing on.
Q: How do you plan to use the information you collect from markets, sellers, and buyers?
A: We’re gaining a better understanding of how serious this issue is and where we should be paying more attention, which helps us to establish our conservation action strategy. We’re also learning more about the customers for illegal wildlife products; if we know more about them, we know who we should influence and what kinds of information we can provide to help them change their behavior. In tourist areas, we see more visitors than local people buying wildlife products; in the jewelry markets, we see mostly women, and more senior people, rather than younger people. Eventually, we plan to work more closely with enforcement departments to reduce this illegal activity.
Q: Why are people buying products made from these species?
A: Corals, turtle shells, and giant clam shells are used in decorative work or to create jewelry or eyeglasses. Horseshoe crabs are usually sold in food markets. And many of the items bought by locals have special meaning in Chinese culture, since people believe that a particular item can bring good luck or better health. People also buy marine wildlife to set free as part of Buddhism releasing events, religious rituals in which animals are captured and blessed before being released alive back into the environment as the assembled people pray.
Q: Are there any risks associated with your work?
A: Our major concern is safety. When we do market surveys, we can’t let the sellers feel like we’re a threat. So we have to be very careful in how we approach them and gather our information.
Q: What’s been most surprising about your work so far?
A: Sellers often know these products come from rare or endangered species, which they use as a marketing tactic. Almost all of them know what they’re doing is illegal. They tell you, “You’ll have to buy this soon because it’s going to be gone and you won’t be able to buy it anywhere.” They can afford to be so upfront about what they’re doing because very few of them are punished; enforcement of the illegal wildlife trade hasn’t been prioritized in these provinces. And not only are the enforcement departments short-staffed and underfunded, but good enforcement requires collaboration between many different government departments. If they don’t work together, they can never deal with this issue.
Q: What’s the next step in your project?
A: We’re trying to engage more volunteers to monitor illegal wildlife markets, both online and offline. We’re establishing a citizen science-based program to track websites that engage in illegal wildlife trade. Our work has been attracting a lot of attention and some potential partners. The Pew marine fellowship has been very important for addressing the illegal wildlife trade in south China. Without this funding and this opportunity, we wouldn’t have been able to start this work.
Polita Glynn directs the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation.