Ecology and Society

Janine E. Robinson,  Richard A. Griffiths, , Iain M. Fraser,  Jessica Raharimalala,  David L. Roberts and Freya A. V. St. John


Much of the global wildlife trade is sourced from biodiversity-rich developing countries. These often have high levels of poverty and habitat loss, particularly in rural areas where many depend on natural resources. However, wildlife collection may incentivize local people to conserve habitats that support their livelihoods. Here we examined the contribution of the commercial collection of live animals to rural livelihoods in Madagascar, one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. Using questionnaires, we investigated the prevalence, profitability relative to other livelihood activities, and local importance of the trade, and its capacity to provide incentives for conservation. Thirteen percent of households were engaged in live animal collection in the study area (~5% trapped reptiles and amphibians and the remainder trapped invertebrates). This formed part of a diverse livelihood strategy, and was more profitable than other activities (in terms of returns per unit of effort), with median earnings of ~US$100 per season (~25% of Gross National Income per year). However, trapping was part-time, usually undertaken by poorer members of the community, and often perceived as opportunistic, risky, and financially unreliable. Further, trappers and nontrappers held similar perceptions regarding conservation, suggesting wildlife trade currently does not incentivize enhanced stewardship of traded species and their habitats. Our study brings together a range of methodologies to present the most comprehensive insights into livelihoods and conservation in poor rural communities involved in the commercial collection of live animals to supply international trade. This improved understanding of the wider socioeconomic dimensions of wildlife trade can inform policy and management interventions for both the threats and opportunities associated with global trade in biodiversity both in Madagascar and more generally.
Global trade in biodiversity is big business, and because collection
from the wild usually involves local people, it can frequently make
important contributions to livelihoods. Our study provides the
first comprehensive analysis of livelihoods associated with
commercial live animal collection, in a global biodiversity
We estimated that 13% of households collected live animals for
trade and ~5% trapped reptiles and amphibians. If we extrapolate
using the total number of households in the study villages, this
equates to 110 households engaging in wildlife trapping as part
of their livelihood strategy, and 45 trapping reptiles and
amphibians within the 16 systematically sampled villages. We
employed multiple approaches (systematic and snowball
sampling) to identify trappers, allowing cross-validation of
various sources of information, and through discussions with
village leaders, guides, and respondents, we identified a total of
69 people potentially trapping reptiles and amphibians in the
wider study area (including additional villages that were not
systematically sampled within the five communes). However,
despite visiting three villages, we could not verify the involvement
of all 69 people, and suspect some may no longer be engaged in
trapping. Indeed, ~8% of systematically sampled households
stated that they no longer trapped reptiles and amphibians for
trade and we expect that engagement is somewhat fluid in response
to fluctuations in supply, demand, and wider economic
conditions. Occasionally, despite our survey being anonymous
and investigating legal wildlife collection, some respondents were
reluctant to discuss the topic (more so for reptiles and amphibians
than for invertebrates), suggesting people may not have a
thorough understanding of the rules associated with wildlife
trade. Because our research team included local village guides, we
were able to triangulate and verify much of the information
provided concerning involvement in the trade. However, our
estimate that ~5% of households trapped reptiles and amphibians
may be conservative.
Wildlife collection forms part of a diverse livelihood strategy, and
was part-time and opportunistic, carried out alongside other
activities (predominantly agriculture). Indeed, diversification is
considered the norm in rural Africa, with few people dependent
on a single income source (Barrett et al. 2001). Equally, our models
suggest that trapping may support some of the poorest
households. Previous studies have documented that wild products
often form an important risk-reduction strategy for rural poor in
developing countries, supporting vulnerable households
(Brashares et al. 2011). In terms of returns per unit of effort
(HLR), trapping reptiles and amphibians proved relatively
profitable, providing an important source of cash income.
Trappers could earn a median income of US$105 per year,
whereas the 2015 Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in
Madagascar was US$420 (The World Bank 2016). Analyzing
relative livelihood contributions in a meaningful way is complex,
hence we compared profitability of different activities relative to
each other, rather than make interpretations based on each
household’s complete livelihood portfolio. For example, we did
not calculate HLR for activities that fewer than 5% of households
engaged in, because of low sample sizes. Also, although trapping
may be more profitable than individual crops, households
frequently cultivated a variety of different crops and therefore the
combined profit from farming may be higher overall. Although
recall accuracy is a concern, prior-year recalls can be more
accurate than shorter recall periods, particularly concerning rare
or seasonal events (Golden et al. 2013). By focusing on current
livelihood activities, which are mostly seasonal and/or rare, i.e.,
agriculture and wildlife trapping, steps were taken to minimize
recall bias to provide a snapshot of household livelihood
strategies. Additionally, Jones et al. (2008) showed that rapid
assessment interviews with villagers in Madagascar can provide
reliable information on harvesting activities.
The high relative profitability of wildlife trapping indicates that
households could potentially earn income from trapping from
fewer man-hours relative to other employment, and suggests the
activity could be an attractive alternative livelihood should
supply/demand allow. However, wildlife trapping was limited by
many factors including seasonal and quota restrictions, animal
availability, demand (orders), and opportunity cost (involvement
in other activities, e.g., agriculture). This type of trade may also
have limited ability to act as a risk-reduction strategy, because
whereas households can adapt patterns of bushmeat
consumption in response to lean seasons (e.g., SchulteHerbruggen
et al. 2013), research along the supply chain in
Madagascar (Robinson 2016) suggests the live animal trade in
Madagascar is predominantly “collection to order” and therefore
constrained by demand. Trappers’ health was also mentioned as
a limitation as was absence from home while travelling long
distances. It was also perceived risky from a livelihood or
economic perspective because of inconsistency and unreliability
of orders and payments, and concern regarding legality. This
insecurity may arise because some reptile and amphibian species
are constrained by quotas or not permitted in trade, and these
details may be unclear to people in rural areas. Additionally, local
trappers are usually employed by intermediaries, who are required
to carry collection permits, but there is no paperwork for trappers
themselves. These limitations mean that wildlife collection is
generally a supplementary activity, with most households
preferentially allocating resources to agriculture. However, given
that the households engaged in trapping appeared to be some of
the poorest, trapping may support those with more limited
alternative livelihood choices, providing important cash income.
Family involvement was also a significant determinant,
suggesting “who you know” to be an important entry point.
Because trapping households were significantly more likely to
agree that traded wildlife groups were important for income
compared to nontrappers, we might expect those benefitting
financially to have more positive opinions regarding its
conservation. However, despite generally positive perceptions
regarding species and habitat conservation, there was no evidence
of improved perceptions among wildlife trappers, suggesting
trapping may not offer sufficient incentives to lead to enhanced
stewardship of traded species and their habitats. However, wildlife
is valued for both social and economic reasons (Brooks 2010),
and perceptions toward conservation may be affected by other
values besides economic use for trade, e.g., medicine or food.
Additionally, although previous studies have shown that projects
focused on enhancing commercial value of resources can improve
attitudes toward conservation and provide economic incentives
for resource protection (Salafsky and Wollenberg 2000), wildlife
collection in this area is not currently managed as part of a specific
incentive-based project, but is regulated under wider national and
international legislation, e.g., CITES, concerning biodiversity
conservation. This study therefore provides an understanding of
the situation in areas outside of such targeted projects, which are
arguably more representative of wider national and international
landscapes where the majority of wildlife collection occurs.
In order to maximize conservation and livelihood benefits of
wildlife trade a number of factors require combined consideration
and our study constitutes part of a more complex picture. These
factors include “species-level,” “governance,” “supply chain,” and
“end-market” factors (Cooney et al. 2015). Species-level factors
include species suitability for harvest such as resilience and
accessibility. For example, Madagascar’s panther chameleon
(Furcifer pardalis) is abundant in disturbed areas and appears to
sustain collection for export (Andreone et al. 2005), whereas the
harlequin mantella (Mantella cowanii) has a small population and
its collection could lead to local extinction (Andreone et al. 2006).
Governance factors include property rights and policy settings.
In Madagascar, property rights are often poorly defined (Bojö et
al. 2013) and without security of tenure over land and resource
rights, there may be little incentive for local people to invest in
long-term sustainability of the wildlife resource (Roe 2008).
However, there are exceptions to this and in some cases users have
been shown to develop rules that limit use of common resources
in the absence of central resource control (Ostrom 2008). Supply
chain factors include organization and operation of the supply
chain including barriers to entry and supply chain length. In this
case, the supply chain appeared poorly organized leading to
mistrust between trappers and intermediaries, and concern over
payments and legal paperwork. Finally, end-market factors
include market size, demand elasticity, and consumer preferences.
This illustrates the complex range of factors that require
consideration in order to better understand the dimensions of
wildlife supply chains and inform appropriate management.
Research is ongoing to understand further aspects regarding
benefits, and information flow along the entire supply chain in
Although it was potentially profitable and provided cash income
to some households as part of a diverse livelihood strategy,
wildlife trapping was sporadic, and perceived to be unreliable and
risky. Consequently, there is currently limited evidence that
income from the trade creates incentives for wider species and
habitat protection at the local scale in Madagascar. Further
studies are required to understand if this is representative of other
parts of Madagascar, and in other countries where collection for
the pet trade occurs. Interventions aimed at enhancing benefits
to local communities, improving coordination and management
of the trade at the local level, and minimizing impacts on collected
species, could be considered to promote opportunities from the
trade. Improved understanding of the social and economic
dimensions of wildlife trade supply chains is necessary if the
global trade in wildlife is to be understood and appropriate
legislation and management systems put in place.