Rotten to the core: tackling the corruption at the heart of the illegal caviar trade


Produced by TRAFFIC, WWF, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre (U4 ACRC), Northumbria and

Utrecht Universities, Corruption and wildlife crime: A focus on caviar trade examines how corruption facilitates the flow of illegal caviar along the value chain, to identify possible intervention strategies.

The study identifies a range of corrupt practices, ranging from bribery of border officials, poachers painting marks on their fishing boats to show police officials they had paid bribes to avoid inspection, the abuse of scientific fishing permits as a cover to legalise catch of wild sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, and even “black washing” - the misdeclaration of legally farmed caviar as “wild- sourced” because of the higher price that attracts. The authors describe the latter as “a unique corrupt practice for wildlife crimes, and possibly unique to the caviar industry.”

“Effective elimination of corrupt practices is a pre-requisite to enable regulation of the caviar trade in a sustainable manner, to protect sturgeon stocks from over-exploitation,” said Louisa Musing, Research Officer-Europe, TRAFFIC.

Corruption is a severe threat to wildlife conservation globally: the study recommends adoption of a “top-down and bottom-up approach” to address corruption within wildlife crime given the large differences between commodity types. For example, smuggling caviar uses different mechanisms to smuggling timber due to the scale of the commodity and different ways of shipping it.

Among the solutions put forward for dealing with corruption generally are considering social norms and conducting social network analysis to understand how corrupt wildlife crime networks operate in practice—if corruption has become normalized, individual behaviours will be shaped towards corruption rather than away from it.

The study also recommends ongoing collaboration between anti-corruption and wildlife experts, with a focus on sharing lessons from different environments; further research into the links between legal and illegal actors to establish how corruption works in practice; following the money; developing interventions to mitigate or reduce corruption taking place; and establishing mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of interventions—and be prepared to adapt as events unfold.

“Changing attitudes through understanding and changing the social norms could be more effective than an enforcement orientated approach and is key to addressing this most intractable yet critical wildlife crime issue,” said Rob Parry-Jones, WWF Wildlife Crime Initiative Lead.

However, the study notes the lack of knowledge about what actions are effective in dealing with corruption, which undermines the effectiveness of conservation programmes, reducing law enforcement and political support, establishing incentives for the over-exploitation of resources, undermining the effectiveness and legitimacy of legislation and acting as an indicator of organised crime.

“Future research in this area should adopt social network or political ecology-type analysis to further investigate patterns of corrupt behaviours in caviar trade across contexts. We can then help improve techniques aimed at disrupting or shutting down the illegal trade, by minimizing corruption’s role in undermining law enforcement and customs controls,” said Aled Williams, Senior Program Advisor, U4 ACRC.

It can be downloaded here:



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