How Reliable Are Media Reports Of Illegal Trafficking?
The illegal wild animal trade is a major driver of species extinction. To get a handle on it, experts need reliable data about its scale, transportation routes, and species affected. However, this is usually difficult to come by. Most often, data on wild animal seizures (records of instances where law enforcement officers have found and seized illegally owned wild animals) are the only clues as to the workings of the trade.
But the difficulties don’t end there—official seizure data are often unavailable or difficult to access. For this reason, researchers often use news media reports as a “best guess” of actual seizure numbers. In fact, seizure databases maintained by international non-profit organizations are mostly based on media reports, and many countries that are hotspots for the illegal wild animal trade lack the resources needed to compile and maintain centralized databases of official seizure records.
Besides providing the numbers themselves, media reports play an important role in influencing public (and policymaker) perceptions on the importance of the issue. But how reliable are media reports, really?
Biases are already present in official seizure records and police records, which are what media reports are based on. For example, certain species or products may be easier for enforcement officers to detect or identify, and police may prioritize seizures linked to other crimes. Media reports likely add an additional layer of bias. To make a better story, seizures of charismatic mammal species (e.g., tigers), “high-value” seizures, or larger seizures may be more likely to be reported on. Media outlets also face barriers to accessing seizure data and are likely influenced by their reporters’ level of interest in the issue, the amount of conservation attention given to certain species, and competing news stories.
In this study, researchers set out to explore the reliability of news reports of wild animal seizures, setting their focus on Nepal (an important source and transit country for the illegal wild animal trade in South Asia). They analyzed 12 years of archives (2005–2017) from three different Nepali newspapers: the official newspaper of the Government of Nepal, the most popular privately owned newspaper, and a privately owned English-language newspaper. They then cross-checked the information with Nepali police and government records to see how the media stories aligned with official reports.
In total, they identified 317 wild animal seizures. Of these, only five were reported in all three newspapers, and 26 were reported in at least two newspapers. Roughly half of the seizures took place in just five districts, all of which were either near protected areas or had a regional trade hub.
In general, most official seizures went unreported in the media. For example, 78% of the 289 official seizures from Kathmandu district were not reported. Although the overall number of media-reported seizures was positively correlated with official seizure data, the proportion of seizures that ended up in news reports varied substantially from year to year (9–38%).
The species with the highest proportions of reported seizures across all three newspapers were: tigers (57%), rhinos (33%), red pandas (23%), and leopards (23%). Bears (9%), pangolins (13%), and elephants (15%) had the lowest proportions of reported seizures. Interestingly, enforcement officials in Nepal have received the most training in tracking the trade of tiger and rhino-derived products.
Neither the level of protection (e.g., threatened status) of a given species, number of arrested individuals, or the year had a significant influence on the likelihood of a seizure being reported in any newspaper. No one newspaper appeared to under-report more than another, as the number of reported seizures was evenly distributed amongst them.
These findings have some important consequences. First, given the extent of media underreporting, news reports do not provide an accurate account of the overall scale of the illegal wild animal trade. However, this study suggests that they can be of some value for assessing overall trends and general characteristics of the seizures. The researchers recommend combining data from multiple media reports to get a better sense of these trends, while keeping the biases and limitations associated with these data in mind.
Activists should also understand that as the transition from print to online media continues, biases in media-reported seizures will change. On one hand, online channels are less limited by time and page space, which means the illegal trade may receive more attention. However, news stories may become more driven by social media trends and public concern, which can be a double-edged sword.
For now, media-reported seizure data remain an important tool for activists, especially as official seizure data remain less accessible. Advocates should encourage transparency through increased data sharing among NGOs, enforcement officials, and media outlets. They can also push for the development of centralized databases, which will increase the quality and quantity of wild animal trade data available to the general public.