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This essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest



It’s easy to connect the concept of biodiversity to wildlife protection. After all, the more we prevent illegal wildlife trade (IWT), the better the chances of improving a locale’s biodiversity index. 

But who could make the connection between wildlife protection, global health and the prevention of pandemics? 

On the seemingly other side of the spectrum, who could predict a correlation between the illicit trading of wildlife with transnational crimes such as the global illegal drug trade and human trafficking?

How is wildlife and natural resources protection contributing to on-the-ground battle against crippling poverty? 

As a young economics professor and consultant for artificial intelligence, I seek to specialize in building robust networks of data from various fields and sources, and discovering interconnections between them. In turn, I apply these spheres of knowledge into my work as a lawyer in fortifying international and regional policy for lasting social change. 

My PhD project for Wageningen University, one of the world’s foremost institutions on ecology, has allowed me to zoom in on a very important, but often overlooked aspect, of environmental protection: the prevention of illegal wildlife trade (IWT).

In this essay, I will highlight the following:

First, the global problem of transnational illegal wildlife trade, and how it is intimately connected to a number of focus areas that Open Philanthropy supports. I posit that supporting this particular cause is in line with the global health & well-being and longtermism portfolios which Open Philanthropy seeks to further develop.

Second, the importance, neglectedness, and tractability of preventing IWT at the source, independent of other philanthropy causes. It will focus on why fighting the illicit trafficking of fauna is essential in order to accomplish key social goals. This is especially true in underprivileged communities where the returns on innovative interventions can potentially exceed even Open Philanthropy’s 1000x goal. 

Third, potential data-driven counter-IWT projects which could be funded within the field. Aside from providing why the cause of IWT is a worthy philanthropic investment, this shallow report also seeks to provide ideas on how additional funds coming from Open Philanthropy and other funders can support potentially ground-breaking field research and projects for implementation. In particular, it will discuss project ideas which are data-driven, and why this is an essential component to their success.

These three major discussion points form the basis of this report.


Wildlife trade is defined as the international market of supply and demand for fauna and their derivative products. Majority of these activities are considered legal, and the annual export value of wildlife resources has been pegged at around US$160 billion.[1] For a number of developing countries in the world, such revenues constitute an important stream of income for those involved in this line of business.[2]

However, behind these legitimate activities hide the illegal trade of wildlife (IWT), particularly affecting species with populations considered endangered or at-risk. 

IWT is a significant global problem. Its estimated annual value ranges from US$19 billion (estimated in 2012)[3] to US$23 billion (estimated in 2016).[4] These are modest figures, considering the inherent difficulty to keep track and provide metrics for illicit activities. This black market has only grown in the past few years due to increased migration to online trade, significantly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.[5] 

IWT is estimated to be one of the most profitable illicit activities in the world, with only illegal drugs, weapons smuggling, and human trafficking more profitable.[6] IWT has many side implications, including threats to biodiversity, rise of zoonotic diseases, and funding related transnational crimes and conflicts.[7]

For the purpose of this shallow report, we will focus on the effects of IWT on biodiversity and its role in the potentially massive spread of zoonoses.

The illegal wildlife trade deals significant damage to global biodiversity,[8] the latter's second biggest threat right after habitat loss.[9] IWT allows the annihilation of particular fauna,  with at least 950+ species at risk of extinction because of high international demand.[10] In fact, since the 1970s, an estimated 60 percent of global vertebrate wildlife populations has gone extinct due to human causes.[11] A draft UN agency report states that within decades, up to 1 million species risk extinction because of this.[12] IWT paints an alarming state of events, moreso because of its cascading effects. 

Biodiversity is essential to ensure a healthy ecosystem.[13] Although it can seem invisible, biodiversity is a key pillar for economic development.[14] Sustainable environmental functions rely on biodiversity, including pollination, organic waste disposal, soil fertilization, symbiotic habitat preservation, and biological pest control. These are crucial factors for the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries. 

As the International Monetary Fund reports, this issue impacts underserved communities in developing countries the hardest, especially the rural poor.[15] Conversely, addressing the second biggest threat to biodiversity in the form of projects and programs battling IWT directly and indirectly helps these poor communities the most. 

Tourism and recreation are also reliant on biodiversity and related ecosystem services.[16] As of 2019, the tourism and travel industry contributed an approximate US$8.9 trillion to the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with a predicted Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 3.1% from 2021 to 2026.[17]

Similar to agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the travel and tourism industry affects marginalized communities disproportionately. Nearly 94% of the world’s least developed nations relies on tourism as their primary source of income.[18] The UN World Tourism Organization touts sustainable tourism as “one of the few development opportunities for the poor.”[19]

IWT undermines rural economies by causing damage to these key industries.[20] As an example, the elephant population, which is an important feature of the tourism industry in many developing countries in Africa, has declined by 30 percent since 2007 due to wildlife crime.[21] 

Biodiversity also plays an important supporting role in pharmaceuticals and the life sciences.[22] After all, the Earlham Institute estimates that 80% of registered medical products globally are inspired by nature. 

Maintaining biodiversity and preventing wildlife crime therefore becomes a necessary task to ensure the subsistence of these important industries. 

Protecting biodiversity also reduces the risk of zoonotic diseases.[23] Studies indicate that richer biodiversity provides a stronger buffer between fauna-borne diseases and the human population.[24] To highlight how important this is, more than 60% of infectious diseases affecting humans in the past few decades are zoonotic in origin.[25]

The most famous one in recent memory is of course the SARS-CoV-2 virus, related to viruses found in Rhinolophus bats and Manidae pangolins.[26] Interestingly, pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world.[27] Is this another pandemic waiting to happen? Sincerely hoping against it, but there is a considerably high probability for this, unless their global illegal trafficking is mitigated.   

Addressing the illegal wildlife trade helps ensure Global Health and Wellbeing by protecting biodiversity. Economically speaking, it facilitates better natural resources production, including goods derived from agriculture, forestry and fisheries, as well as non-provisioning environmental services. It also spurs the life sciences industry, particularly research in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. This in turn also boosts public health, in addition to preventing zoonotic diseases and the rise of future pandemics.   

Based on this discussion, it is clear that delving into the global illegal wildlife trade problem is highly related to the various focus areas that Open Philantrophy already supports, namely: (Farm) Animal Welfare,[28] Global Aid Policy,[29] Global Health and Development,[30] Scientific Research,[31] and Biosecurity & Pandemic Preparedness.[32] These fall under both portfolios of Global Health & Wellbeing and Longtermism. 

From this section, we see that funding projects related to battling IWT is therefore both complementary and supplementary to Open Philanthropy’s ongoing impact. 

In the next section, we’ll zoom in to discuss the importance, neglectedness, and tractability of preventing IWT throughout the entirety of its transnational supply chain. 


Approximately US$44 trillion of global economic value generation come from businesses which are dependent on nature.[33] Those which are highly dependent on nature comprises 15% of the global GDP, amounting to US$13 trillion, while those moderately dependent bring US$31 trillion in value, 37% of the world’s GDP.

Of course, there are many threats to a healthy world economy, foremost of which are climate change and marine pollution. But the illegal wildlife trade does not fall far behind, especially considering it is touted as the second biggest threat to global fauna.[34] Compounded over time, the harms to nature that IWT poses can result in severe global economic losses.[35]

In this section, first we’ll discuss the extent of the ill effects of IWT, both in terms of economic measure and human capital, as well as the expected socioeconomic outcomes of funding IWT-related projects. Second, we’ll talk about the impact of every dollar spent on this particular cause. We will illustrate potentials greater than Open Philanthropy’s 1000x goal, due to compounding and network effects. Lastly, we will identify the different funding players in this market. We will highlight why despite the seemingly considerable number of international funders (n > 30), IWT still remains significantly underfunded to this day, especially in comparison to its global impact.


While the estimates for the global illegal wildlife market falls at an approximate US$20 billion per year,[36] aggregated economic losses are much more staggering. The World Bank reports that illegal logging, fishing, and wildlife trade cost the global GDP $1 trillion–$2 trillion per year.[37] This means that the opportunity cost that IWT causes is exponentially higher than the benefits that this black market produces. Now imagine if these resources were channeled properly instead: the added value to the global GDP can solve world hunger twice over until 2030, affecting at least 600 million people worldwide.[38]

Again, it is important to note that the problem of illegal trade in wildlife and its economic effects impact underserved communities in developing countries disproportionately. As of the latest World Bank survey, around 689 million people around the world, 9.2% of the global population, live in abject poverty.[39] The number of rural poor is estimated to be 580 million.[40] Because a considerable fraction of them are engaged in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism, they are reliant on natural resources for their livelihood. This is the global population most likely to be affected by policies and programs related to wildlife protection, as both the IMF and the UN World Tourism Organization affirms.[41]

Pouring resources into the cause of battling IWT does not only amount to potential economic value created and the number of people directly affected thereby. It also translates to benefits for the global population in terms of risk reduction. 

As of date, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected  more than 570 million people worldwide.[42] The IMF estimates its total costs rising up to US$12.5 trillion by 2024.[43] If only a miniscule fraction of this amount was previously allotted to the prevention of threats to the Chinese bat population in the Wuhan market,[44] then maybe, 6.40 million deaths could have been prevented.[45] In scale, the human damage is larger than the total population of, say, Denmark, Singapore, or New Zealand, along with 97 other countries in the world.[46]

Of course, everything is clear in hindsight, but there is nothing we can do about the past. However, we can prevent such things from happening again in the future. After all, this is not the last pandemic. Because of the increased interaction between humans and wildlife, zoonoses are on the rise, more so considering that increased mobility in people, goods and services around the world also means faster spread of communicable diseases.[47]

In conclusion, funding projects related to countering the illegal wildlife trade is important because it can significantly and directly create billions of dollars in economic value and improve the lives of millions of the rural poor through environmental resources and income gains. It also helps mitigate the risk of another pandemic due to zoonotic diseases, reducing the odds of another global catastrophe and increasing the chances of flourishing planetary health. 


The next question relates to tractability. What is the expected rate of return for every dollar invested in the cause?

We turn again to the dollar estimates provided by the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme for back-of-the-envelope calculations. Note that this is a challenging estimate considering that biodiversity and other non-provisioning ecosystem services are currently not priced by the market, unlike natural resources, hence the rough estimates provided by both institutions.[48]

Estimating IWT costs at its average valuation across multiple sources, and opportunity cost at its minimum, results in an annual difference of US$880 billion, which represents the lower limit of the amount to be gained by adopting wildlife protection strategies.[49]

To further understand tractability, it is important to look closer at the economic analysis of IWT as an enterprise crime.

The illegal wildlife trade is considered a crime with low risk and high reward.[50]  It is low risk because it is easy to conduct without threat of penalties severe enough to deter such activities. For one, there is poor enforcement of wildlife laws, particularly at the customs borders and within the open market. Altering the required permits to import or export wildlife products has been characterized as relatively easy; changing minor details in these forms, such as species or country of origin, enables illegal wildlife and derivative products to pass off as legitimate ones.[51] At the same time, the lack of awareness of the magnitude of the impact of wildlife crimes has resulted to both legislators and judicial bodies imposing very lenient penalties on violators.[52]

This low-risk situation is in stark contrast to its high-reward status. Profits are guaranteed to be huge, precisely because of the rareness of the endangered species and the process to deliver it to consumers.[53] The commodity chain allows for the exponential increase in valuation of such products, with the final sale value to the end-consumer ranging from 25 to 50 times the original amount.[54]

Risk versus Reward of Criminal Activity (Enterprise Crime)

The illegal wildlife trade can sufficiently be described as an enterprise crime: this means that more than exhibiting social deviance, this legal offense comes as a product of the market.[55]   However, not all markets are created equal, and this particular one created by such an environmental crime has a number of externalities which pose heavy social costs.[56] Aside from the immense negative impact on biodiversity and sustainability, the existence of these markets support and fund other criminal enterprises, including the promotion of the culture of corruption and intimidation of public officials, the use of violence against environmental advocates, and the over-all rampant abuse of human and environmental rights. 

The problem remains in on-the-ground implementation and enforcement. For one, most of the efforts of the anti-illegal wildlife trade are concentrated on import and export. This means the burden to enforce this heavily falls upon customs and other checkpoint officials for national and international entry and exit. This is in addition to their duties to look for other items of contraband nature, including illegal drugs and counterfeit. This creates inefficient chokepoints for purposes of both regulation and free movement; at the same time, it becomes easier and less expensive for criminal elements to take advantage of the system, as the process will only entail a one-stop bribing shop for all their smuggling needs, making these areas hotspots for further corruption and intimidation.[57]

The fact that most penal laws target only the act of smuggling, and not the open sale, use and consumption of these illegal wildlife and their derivatives, compounds the problem even more.[58] Some products, especially ivory, are masqueraded as ‘vintage’, which allows their sale and transfer to be open and unregulated. This is especially so since there are no pre-CITES statistics and certification of existing stock; to prove otherwise would require lengthy professional forensic investigation techniques, which is inefficient at most. For live animals, smugglers would use licensing schemes for zoos, farms and wildlife sanctuaries in order to smuggle them into the country, but then abuse these schemes to sell wildlife into black markets. Primary victims of this scheme are Asian big cats like tigers, which are sold either as pets, or for their animal parts as traditional medicine or items of luxury.[59]

This problematic situation suggests that instead of focusing on entry and exit points of these illegal goods, it is necessary to view the entire process as primarily economic in nature, complete with a production, distribution and consumption chain of supply. This means that every step within the chain should be addressed, and if applicable, the individuals who form the links between them civilly and criminally held liable. Interventions must then be made at every step of the supply chain.

One way to spearhead interventions for measurable social impact is to focus on the rural communities affected. Projects and programs geared towards fighting IWT can be in the form of behavioural disincentives and alternative incentives for those traditionally engaged in the crime.  In addition to stronger penal implementation, these initiatives can also focus on providing alternative sources of livelihood to poachers, smugglers and traders of illegal wildlife, many of whom come from the rural poor.

In doing cost-benefit analysis, relative prices must be taken into account. Consider that the purchasing power of a dollar in a rural area in developing countries is typically much more than that in developed countries, an economic observation otherwise known as the Penn Effect.[60] This affects the value of aid money being poured into the recipient state, where purchasing price parity (PPP) plays a huge role in any interventions by development institutions and philanthropic organizations alike. This means that funding IWT-related projects in rural communities of developing countries enjoy compounding multiplier and network effects. 

Based on socioeconomic standards, increasing (alternative) income and (wildlife) crime reduction create better communities. As discussed above, they also improve both provisioning and non-provisioning environmental resources for several key industries, including agriculture and tourism. Indeed, from direct benefits alone, funding IWT-related policies, projects and programs clearly creates more than 1000X social return.

Another interesting perspective is that tractability can be measured by risk aversion: the number of dollars spent compared to an alternative scenario, say, that of the eruption of another pandemic.

For instance, the price of a pangolin reaches up to US$600 per kilogram, dead or alive.[61] Depending on the species and origin, it can weigh an average of 3.2 kilos per full-grown animal, so a ton of pangolin shipment worth US$600,000 has approximately 312 pangolins. Because pangolins are prized primarily for their scales, used in traditional Chinese medicine, the number of pangolins affected grow exponentially if poached only for this reason.  A 2022 report details how a shipment of 13.1 tons of pangolin scales has been intercepted by port authorities, equivalent to 30,000 pangolins.[62] This is just small scale, considering that an estimated 1 million pangolins have been poached in the past decade alone.[63] Interestingly, a 2019 study sequencing the genetic structure of viruses isolated from pangolins are 99% similar to that of the SARS-COV-2 strain causing the COVID-19 pandemic.[64] If this is not stopped, this is another global catastrophe waiting to happen, another US$12.5 trillion or even more down the drain.[65] 

In sum, social return should be measured not only as direct, short-term benefits from the alternative sources of income generated, but also its network effects compounded in rural communities in the long-term, as well as the more-difficult-to-measure but equally-as-important risk mitigation in terms of global health crisis prevention. And as we can see, funding IWT projects see returns exponentially more than 1000X the original goal. 


Thus far, we’ve established the importance and tractability of battling IWT as a worthy cause for Open Philanthropy to pursue. The next question is to look at its global funding landscape. 

At first glance, wildlife conservation seems to have a considerable number of funders already. For sure, governments, development organizations and philanthropy organizations have started funding projects related to battling IWT. This influx of support especially comes at the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic and the role that wildlife poaching has played in its instigation. 

In fact, we have compiled a rudimentary list of organizations and institutions funding projects geared against the wildlife trade (n > 30).[66]

The question is: is there room for another major player in the game?

The answer is yes.

An incomplete conclusion based from the funder spreadsheet provided is that projects related to fighting IWT fails the test of neglectedness. After all, in its website, Open Philanthropy states that “all else equal, [it] prefer[s] causes that receive less attention from others, particularly other major philanthropists.”[67]

However, once the numbers are crunched, it is clear that IWT deserves more support from all major funding actors. Why so?

The total damage dealt by IWT, at the low-limit estimate above, amounts to US$1 trillion per year. This is only the environmentally-related aspect of the losses that it causes; this does not yet compute the related human security and socioeconomic harms of IWT, including arms smuggling, illegal drugs, human trafficking and terrorism.[68] At the same time, this does not yet take into account the high risk of another pandemic waiting to wreak havoc on the world population and economy.

On the other hand, the World Bank reports that average yearly funding commitments of key players in the field of battling IWT falls at a rough estimate of US$260 million as of 2019.[69] This is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the benefits that strong IWT prevention mechanisms produce. 

Even as the Global Environment Facility (GEF) announces new funding amounting to US$43 million in grants,[70] this is not enough to address a problem potentially worth millions of human lives and trillions of dollars to the global economy. 

An example is geographic scope. In a report published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), anti-IWT funding opportunities trend tend to focus on Asia and Africa, but Latin America is often overlooked.[71] This is ironic considering that according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), around 60 percent of global life can be found within Latin America and the Caribbean.[72]

A 2014 report notes how legal systems, both at the level of implementation and prosecution, are often underfunded.[73] The GEF admits that wildlife conservation areas, territories needed to be protected against IWT, are significantly underfunded.[74]

Even at present, according to personal experience and informal interviews, researchers and local NGOs are still fighting over funding scraps.

Based on available data, and the admission of the primary funders of the global battle against IWT, it is crystal clear that the entry of a new philanthropic entity to assist in this endeavor would be very much welcome. 


If I were Open Philanthropy, and I deemed countering the global illegal wildlife trade has passed the triple standards of importance, tractability, and neglectedness based from the evidence above, I would then consider investigating the following projects of interest worth potential funding:

Data-Driven Regulations Against IWT

At present, existing laws do not effectively address the illegal wildlife trade problem, at the level of both policy creation and implementation.[75] In particular, there is a gross mismatch in the potential reward of the crime, versus the risk of being caught compounded by the penalties imposed by the law. As an example: in the Philippines, the focus of my PhD, the masterminds of such crimes get away with them without significant repercussions.[76]

There is also a lack of scientific evidence and data on the scale of harvests, trade, and sustainable limits, as well as the impacts of existing policies.[77] While IWT is a national, regional, and global problem, the root cause are individual incentives to engage in these activities. This requires further data-driven microeconomic analysis to map them out. This, in turn, applies hybrid methods derived from economic analysis of law and behavioural environmental economics (i.e., program evaluations, impacts assessments, survey, and economic experiments) to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of domestic, regional, and international policies when it comes to preventing illegal trafficking of wildlife.[78]

The objective of this particular set of studies is to evaluate existing policies to contribute evidence that help to inform and co-design new policies preventing IWT. The results will contribute to a sparse but growing evidence base that provides policy recommendations applicable to transnational frameworks for promoting the protection of wildlife and preventing its illegal trade.

AI-Powered Criminal Enforcement Mechanisms

IWT has moved online in large part thanks to the pandemic. E-marketplaces abound where it is relatively easy to purchase trafficked fauna.

However, given the fact that there are not enough law enforcement agents properly trained to catch physical IWT transactions, it is definitely much more difficult to catch online sellers of illicit fauna. Social media alone offers poachers and wildlife traders relative anonymity and global reach,[79] which poses an even greater problem for criminal justice implementation.

This is where Artificial Intelligence can come in. Logarithms which identify certain keywords or images  through AI technologies like natural language processing, image recognition, and computer vision can be used to alert law enforcement agencies when IWT transactions are attempted. 

A real-life prototype is Microsoft’s Project SEEKER, which is used by law enforcement in border crossings to curb IWT.[80] However, this is limited only to x-ray inspections at physical ports in select countries. This does not cover countries with contiguous land boundaries and open movement, as well as smuggling from bodies of water. 

Now imagine if this kind of technology were to be implemented on social media and other online marketplaces. In 2019, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Chinese company Baidu chose to do just that, in a project called “AI Guardian of Endangered Species”, with a 75% accuracy rate. However, the latest project update was in 2020; no news of the project has been released since.   

Indeed, the IWT field could use stronger AI application in policy implementation and enforcement.

Geomapping Transnational IWT Supply Chains

One of the key recommendations above is addressing the entirety of the IWT supply chain. This ensures that both demand and supply are disincentivized to continue their activities. 

Recent studies provide comprehensive data on wildlife trafficking. These shall be useful in identifying target communities which will serve as the experimental and control groups for policy intervention. 

  • 2021 CITES Annual Illegal Trade Report[81]
  • 2021 Dataset of Seized Wildlife and their Intended Uses[82]
  • 2020 World Wildlife Crime Report by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime[83]
  • 2020 Southeast Asia: At the Heart of Wildlife Trade[84]
  • 2019 The Illegal Wildlife Trade in Southeast Asia[85]

These data, as well as national law enforcement knowledge management bases on the topic, can help trace the supply chain, generate heat maps of regions of high IWT activity, and identify areas of potential disruption.[86] In addition, mapping the supply chains through the use of geographical data models facilitate measures which could make them easier to implement on the part of law enforcement agencies.

Interestingly, in many cases, wildlife trafficking use the same smuggling routes and techniques as human trafficking and illegal drugs smuggling.[87] Funding projects related to this can actually address many birds with a single stone.

Multi-Disciplinary Project Teams

Data-driven methods should take into account not only the integrity and robustness of the data gathered, it must also strive to interpret data from a variety of perspectives. This allows policymakers to cover all bases and address loopholes which might have been missed if taken from the viewpoint of only a single discipline. 

Of course, scientists measuring concrete, external, easily-verifiable data are necessary in this endeavor, including wildlife biologists, behavioral neuropsychologists, and data and computer scientists. But equally important are academics and field experts in different disciplines such as sociology, economics, criminology, and consumer and social psychology.[88] This ensures that the human dimension is highlighted in all aspects of data-driven wildlife conservation and protection, which makes efforts towards this goal more likely to succeed.[89]

There are many other potential, data-driven IWT projects which could benefit from funders, but these four already comprise heavily underfunded concepts which offer maximum impact, sometimes even more than 1000X due to compounded network effects. At the same time, these projects are not mutually-exclusive, as they can be implemented alongside each other and serve as complementary support to their respective goals. These make excellent starting points to gain a foothold in the long, upwards journey to battle IWT.


The vision is a better, safer, more prosperous world: a biosphere whose economic systems offer sustainable, inclusive development. There are, of course, many gaps before we can reach this promised land. Foremost among them is how we treat our wildlife.

For sure, the past few years have seen increased interest in IWT. More research has been conducted, but there still remain innumerable questions. After all, if we had all the answers, we would have had solved this global problem by now.

Some of the questions involve the price of human incentives to disengage from these crimes; the most efficient policy designs in order to achieve objectives; the social cost of incompetency and inaction on this front. The list goes on.

In order to answer these, we must be able to conduct strategic studies and experiments both at the highest level of policy creation and on the ground in the most affected areas, oftentimes impoverished rural communities in developing countries. We then merge all these data together and make sense of this massive information mosaic in order to find workable solutions that benefit everyone in a Pareto efficient manner.

Unfortunately, despite the benefits of action on IWT prevention, and the magnitude of the risks of failure to curb it, there still remains a lot to be done. A number of global funding actors are already coming in, but the resources they pour into this cause are chump change compared to the grunt work that needs to be done in order to find strategic solutions.

So my final question is: through these data-driven initiatives, is Open Philanthropy up for the challenge of battling the global illegal wildlife trade?


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