A CSU professor is using supply chain research to tackle illegal wildlife trafficking

What if we could reduce illegal wildlife trafficking by disrupting the illicit supply chain that enables protected wildlife species to be carried across borders and into the hands of buyers?

A CSU College of Business professor, John Macdonald, is part of a unique interdisciplinary team that’s examining illegal activity through the lens of supply chains.

Macdonald, an associate professor in the Department of Management, spent the first 15 years of his academic career studying how companies can prevent and recover from supply chain disruptions. He was focused on the kinds of disruptions that we saw during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, from toilet paper shortages to furniture delays.

Until a few years ago, he had never considered using his research to examine how to intentionally disrupt a supply chain – but that’s exactly what he and his colleagues are doing.

“By analyzing the characteristics of illicit trade from a business and logistics perspective, we’re aiming to stimulate the kind of research needed to reduce illegal wildlife trafficking around the world,” Macdonald said. “We believe that disrupting a supply chain could be a powerful crime-fighting tool.”

Funded by an $809,666 grant from the National Science Foundation, Macdonald and eight other researchers at various universities recently published “Quantitative Investigation of Wildlife Trafficking Supply Chains: A Review” in Omega, a journal of management science.

Macdonald and three other researchers also recently published a related article, “Illicit Activity and Scarce Natural Resources in the Supply Chain: A Literature Review, Framework, and Research Agenda” in the Journal of Business Logistics.

John Macdonald, Associate Professor of Management

“Quantitative Investigation of Wildlife Trafficking Supply Chains: A Review”
Burcu B. Keskin1, Emily C. Griffin², Jonathan O. Prell1, Bistra Dilkina³, Aaron Ferber³, John Macdonald, Rowan Hilend⁴, Stanley Griffis⁴, Meredith L. Gore⁵

1 University of Alabama
² Babson College
³ University of Southern California
⁴ Michigan State University
⁵ University of Maryland

‘A pervasive and global problem’

Illegal wildlife trafficking is an extremely profitable crime, with an estimated value between $5 to $35 billion per year, according to a citation in the Omega article. The crime is driven by strong demand for wildlife and wildlife products, which have a wide range of uses, including fashion, food and traditional medicine.

It can be difficult to crack down on wildlife crime, in part because it spans more than 150 countries and more than 37,000 species of animals and plants. But the scale of the problem only makes it more important for researchers to understand how supply chains are used for criminal activity.

Through their research, Macdonald and his colleagues are hoping to encourage social and environmental sustainability in areas beset by illegal wildlife trafficking.

“The illicit wildlife trade is a pervasive and global problem that has far-reaching impacts on both society and the environment,” the Omega article explains. “Aside from threatening numerous species around the world and acting as a potential disease transmission vector for several zoonotic diseases, including the COVID-19 pandemic, this complex system is often linked with other illicit networks such as drugs, weapons and human trafficking.”

Research into illegal supply chains is also becoming increasingly important as countries begin to pass laws that deal with sustainability and supply chains, Macdonald said. These new laws – and increased social awareness – are pressuring companies around the world to better understand their operations.

The power of an interdisciplinary team

The National Science Foundation-funded research team is made up of several logisticians — Macdonald included — as well as conservation criminologists and computer science researchers.

The beauty of working with an integrated, interdisciplinary team is that each researcher approaches the problem with a different perspective, Macdonald said. Academics have been researching how to stop illegal wildlife trafficking for decades – just not always through the lens of logistics. But with this effort, researchers from different disciplines are coming together to combine their ideas.

Take, for example, a conversation that Macdonald and two of his colleagues from Michigan State University had about the pangolin, the most trafficked animal in the world. Macdonald and Stanley Griffis, a logistician, were talking with Meredith Gore, a conservation criminologist, about how to potentially disrupt the supply chain for trafficking the scaly mammals.

“Stan and I were talking with Meredith, and Stan said, ‘Well, wait a second, that’s fresh meat, right? Oh, well that needs to be kept fresh, and that’s a cold chain problem,’” Macdonald said. “She said, ‘Wait, what’s cold chain?’ Well, that’s just refrigerated supply chain, which we use all the time.

“That got her brain going, and she said, ‘Well, if you’ve got to keep meat fresh, where would there be small warehouses that would have electricity in the Democratic Republic of Congo?’ It’s using the concepts that all of us already know, but we just hadn’t put the terms together.”

‘The building blocks of synthesis’

Because this type of interdisciplinary research into disrupting illegal wildlife trafficking hasn’t been done extensively before – and because the nature of illegal activity means there isn’t readily available data on the subject – the researchers essentially had to start from the beginning, building a foundation on which to do further study.

“These two efforts don’t represent quantitative analysis that allows you to predict the next piece — these represent two building blocks of synthesis,” Macdonald said. “We wanted to analyze what else was out there already by other researchers in other disciplines so we could learn how to build on it.”

Despite significant research and increasing awareness around the importance of wildlife conservation and the dangers of illegal wildlife trafficking, little is known about the supply chain structures and operations of these illicit networks, the Omega article says. That makes this research an essential step toward better understanding wildlife crime.

By analyzing the obstacles to eliminating illegal wildlife trafficking, Macdonald and his colleagues have laid the groundwork for future developments in how to detect and hopefully, drastically reduce it.

The NSF-funded team, whose grant funding began in 2019 and was extended until October 2023 due to Covid-19, expect future publications from this research.

Macdonald is on sabbatical as a Fulbright scholar in Tangerang, Indonesia, for the first half of 2023.

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