Examining the illegal trade in Bears, Eels and Songbirds in Europe

We’re explaining the drivers of the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in European species, to shape and transform policies tackling this major threat to biodiversity.

Beastly Business: Examining the illegal trade in Bears, Eels and Songbirds is a two year project running 2021-2023 and funded by a £859,000 UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant. 

IWT is a policy priority for global institutions, donors and NGOs. However, illegal trade in European species has been overlooked even though Europe is an important site of production, consumption, and transit.

This project directly addresses this gap in knowledge, and in doing so delivers new empirical data and a novel analytical framework that synthesises the strengths of two key approaches – political ecology and green criminology.

Green-collar Crime & Political ecology

The project will develop the conceptual lens of political ecologies of green-collar crime. Green-collar crimes (a form of white-collar and/or corporate crime) are environmental crimes that are committed by legally registered companies involved in illegal activities, or which use their infrastructure to facilitate illicit trade (Van Uhm, 2016).

Yet analyses of these crimes tend to overlook the political explanations underpinning them. Part of the reason for this analytical oversight is that whilst there are clear intersections between green criminology and political ecology, to date, there has been little engagement between them. Therefore, a key innovation of this research project is that it will bring together these two schools of thought.

Green criminology

Political ecology has not (to date) sufficiently engaged with debates about the production of crimes, the intersections between legal and illegal activities, and how to define environmental harms. While green criminology has often engaged with issues of political economy and international power relations, discussions of IWT can be significantly enriched by the analytical frameworks and lenses offered by political ecology.

This project will advance both fields and leverage its findings and insights to develop a new synthetic analytical framework that draws upon the strengths of each to explain IWT in Europe.

A key question for the field of IWT is whether and how charisma shapes the trade in species and policy responses developed. The project will focus upon three species that are at risk but enjoy varying levels of charisma (understood as their attractiveness and charm which galvanises attention and support): European eels (non-charismatic); European songbirds (semi-charismatic); and European brown bears (charismatic).

The project will uncover and analyse the dynamics that drive these trades and will develop policy-relevant information. In particular, the team will examine the interplay between charisma and a further three factors that have been posited as key drivers of IWT in European species: consumption patterns, uncertain scientific knowledge, and legal loopholes.

The project will address three research questions


What are the main drivers of IWT in European species?


What is the relationship between consumer demand, uncertain scientific knowledge and legal frameworks in shaping green-collar crime in IWT?


How does charisma shape patterns of IWT? Does charisma shape levels of attention and funding for tackling IWT?

Our objectives

The Beastly Business project has four objectives


To develop a novel theoretical framework that synthesises political ecology and green criminology.


To map systematically and reconceptualise the drivers of IWT in European species through a novel conceptual lens of political ecologies of green-collar crime.


To generate original empirical data on IWT in three specific European species: brown bears, songbirds, and eels.


To provide policy-relevant advice to key stakeholders involved in tackling IWT, to transform and improve policy responses.