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Seahorse Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) from Africa to Asia

Executive Summary

The research under investigation provides insight into the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) at global level between countries in dried seahorse. The literature review and data (secondary) analysis suggest that the demand for seahorses is in the East Asian countries of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. Furthermore, illegal markets form Africa are directing their exports towards East Asian through transit country of Belgium. Major purpose for the demand of dried seahorses, that is, almost ninety-percent of the total global demand, serves the purpose of traditional Chinese medicine. CITES Trade Database provides reporting of the member states to the agreed 2012 convention suggest discrepancies in the export and import figures, while latter exceeding prior. Data analysis suggest that the African countries of Guinea, Senegal and Togo are primary exported of dried seahorses to the East Asian market despite legal barrier prohibiting export of the wildlife species. Policy recommendations include focus on East Africa, capacity building, and awareness of the law enforcement agencies, and effective trade and international collaboration as way forward for research, policy, and practice in curtailing global trade for dried seahorses.


Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) in ‘Seahorses’ accounts for significant portion of the trade of wildlife animals in the illegal trade categorization, and ranks top. The primary cause for the demand of dried seahorse is to provide for traditional Chinese medication that believes to cure erectile dysfunction, infertility, and arthritis, which accounts for ninety five percent of the total demand for seahorses. Analysis of the paper takes into consideration the causes, demand, and sources of supply for seahorses trade at international level, which follows assessment of the trade from Africa to Asia. Major purpose of seahorse import in East Asia is to utilize the powder of specie for traditional Chinese medicine. Trade from Africa is growing, and the official reporting of statistics on export either do not exist, or heavily understated. It is evident that the African countries are expanding the operations for exporting dried seahorses through main transit hub of Belgium, which directs the export towards its destination in East Asian markets. The paper attempts to understand trade dynamics of dried seahorses from Africa to Asia between the signatory countries to the CITES Trade Database.

Decline in Seahorse Population

As per classification of seahorse, it can be one of forty-six species in the genus ‘Hippocampus,’ which are small marine fishes. They reside in temperate salt water, and tropical regions around the world, that is, between 45 degree south to 45 degree north. Most commonly, coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and estuaries are the areas for seahorse to find shelter. Seahorses form part of the family, ‘Syngnathidae,’ which includes sea dragons, pipe horses, and pipefish. The family as a whole is vulnerable to exploitation and habitat loss; with global seahorse population sharply on decline over the last few decades. Few of the causes for rapid decline are in the form of biology, life history, and ecology (Foster and Vincent, 2004). The estimates for seahorses in the IWT data from Pacific and South East region also suggest that the grouped species (seahorses) stands at 15.95 million individuals for the year 1998-2007, which are exported toward the countries of China, Hong Kong, SAR, Taiwan, and Poland with the purpose of traditional (Chinese) medicine usage.

Data Methodology

The adopted method of data analysis is qualitative and quantities assessment of illegal trade dynamics in seahorses. Most of the quantitative and qualitative data is available in published literature, which is cited to provide assessment of the illegal seahorse trade dynamics. The secondary data on quantitative aspects of import and export of the illegal seahorse trade in the present study is “CITES Trade Database” for the trade of seahorse from Africa to Asia during ten years (2008-18). In the year 2002, all the seahorse species received listing as ‘Hippocampus spp.,’ within Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). All the signatory members are bound to submit their respective seahorses trade figures of import and export; however, the official records are often under-represented and fails to accurately explain the actual trade volumes.

However, the centralized nature of the CITES database provide empirical evidence related to the trade dynamics between the signatory countries to the convention, and consequently assist in understanding of global trade patterns. Data set of CITES is the best available through formal reporting process of parties to the convention, and assist researchers in evaluation of the trade dynamics from Africa to Asia in dried seahorses. The value of dried seahorse is weighed in kilograms is adopted, and labelled as ‘bodies’ and ‘skeletons,’ for distinction of desired sub-demand from the consumers. Thirty percent of the record, from a total of 314 records on “importer reported quantities” and “exporter reported quantities” is assumed as individuals due to lack of provided unit on in records; furthermore, the figures are then translated into kilograms for proper assessment of the volume and flow of quantities. To avoid recounting, the paper involves assessment of dried seahorse trade originating from the country of export as part of direct trade assessment.

Analysis of Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) of “Seahorse”

The existing literature on the illegal wildlife trade for seahorse suggest that there exist three main anthropogenic factors, which includes, “targeted exploitation, accidental capture in non-selective fishing gear (retained by-catch) and habitat degradation” (Louw, S. and Bűrgener, 2020; Otero-Ferrer et al., 2017). In the process of direct exploitation, seahorses are targeted with the purpose of supplying dried seahorses for trade purposes, that is, import and export. Direct exploitation takes place when local fishermen utilizes methods of large industrial scale fishing like trawl gears, which has damaging consequences for the seahorses’ costal habitats around the world that results in global decline of seahorse population (Pollom, 2017a). The global decline of seahorse population owes to the extraction through bycatch in large number, which is also unsustainable at the cost of tens of million seahorses on annual basis. The removal of a vast portion of seahorse population on yearly basis significantly hampers the ability of seahorse to recover from decline; moreover, the situation worsens with each passing year.

Demand: Trend, patterns, and Characteristics

Louw and Bűrgener (2020; p. 1) analyzes the dynamics of seahorse trade, and ranks Indonesia, mainland China, Senegal, Malaysia, and Hong Kong as top five countries that accounts for ninety-nine percent of global reported exports in dried seahorses. The estimated number of individual Seahorse exports over the last ten years stand at 11,250,098 with estimated total global imports of Seahorse at 15,772,838 (Louw and Bűrgener, 2020). Furthermore, the findings state that seventy-one percent of the reported global exports for Seahorse comes from Indonesia, followed by Senegal, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Malaysia with 10, 1, 15, and 2 percent, respectively. In a similar way, the illegally exported seahorses in South East Asian region has ‘Indonesia’ as origin, in the time between 1999 and 2009. Indonesia, along with Malaysia, is the major corals source in the South East Asia. For example, approximately between one and two million individuals of dried seahorses were confiscated in Poland (Mallari, 2014).

Overall, Nijman (2010) argued, harvesting and trading wildlife has reached staggering level, and during the years 1998 and 2007, an estimated 34 million animals were traded globally. Uhm (2012) also argues that the wildlife trade continuous to grow after the publication of Nijman (2010), and World Bank (2014) estimates suggest that the crimes related to natural resource and environment is approximately 213 billion U.S. dollars industry with booming prospects. In a similar way, IWT figures for countries, such as, Colombia, United Kingdom, Brazil and Norway is around six to twenty billion U.S. dollars on annual basis. The trade for seahorses in all the wildlife categories is the most, while the number of individuals reported are approximately 15.95 million, which subsequently follows trade of reptiles at around 17.43 million U.S. Dollars (Nijman, 2010). In terms of consumers, China and Hong Kong ranks high in Southeast Asia, and United States of America (USA) and European Union (EU) follows afterwards. Mallari (2014) argues that the illegal products of wildlife from the common wild life products (source) countries, such Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Viet Nam, towards the exporting countries, such as Japan and China, are also establishing the link that the South East Asian countries are predominated with IWT.

Destinations, Consumptions, and Methods of Sales

The international trade of seahorses involves dried seahorses for the consumption purpose of “Traditional Chinese Medication” (TCM); although, live seahorses for curiosities and ornamental display are among the remaining five percent demand of dried seahorse (illegal) trade globally. Target for the seahorse involves smooth, pale, and large seahorses that is believed to have higher value for medication purposes (Louw and Bűrgener, 2020). The processing of dried seahorse specimens to power through grinding allows for medication as a sole ingredient, and sometimes in combination of other products with the intent of treatment. The immediate discrepancy to identify in the data is overstatement of imports, and understatement of exports. Estimated global figures for dried seahorses in exports are slightly more than 11.25 million individuals, while the total imported dried seahorses figures listed in Figure A are approximately 15.77 million individuals. Table A also explains the total globally exported dried seahorses, which accounts for ninety-nine percent of the total exports to five countries, that is, Thailand (71%), mainland China (15%) , Hong Kong (1%), Malaysia (2%), and Senegal (10%).

Figure A: Total imports and exports reported in KG (All Countries)

On the other hand, global imports of dried sea horses split between the top three countries in a way that a large chunk of eighty-eight percent is imported to Hong Kong, followed by mainland China, which accounts for eleven percent, while Singapore accounts for only one percent, eighty eight percent. This phenomenon explains the exporting nature of dried seashore from Africa to Asia, which accounts for ninety seven percent of the total exported dried seahorses. However, there is lack of availability in records for data on live seahorses that assists in analysis for the use of dry seahorses from African countries in exports for commercial purposes.

The reporting data of CITES Trade Database suggest Togo, guinea and Senegal as high dried seahorse exporting countries in Africa within time frame of 2008-10. Apart from major discrepancies that assists in reporting of the data, Senegal rankings highest in exporting number of dried seahorse individuals with a staggering percentage of ninety-eight percent. The growth pattern for Senegal exports suggest that the approximate figures in for the year end 2016 are three tones. Surprisingly, the import figures for countries in the database suggest literally no exports during the years 2017 and 2018. An approximately eleven years between the year 2008 and 2018 reports only once export figure for the first year; however, the figures for import in the records of several East Asian countries mentions higher quantities of dried seahorses from Guinea. In the case of Togo, reported figures suggest a smaller quantity of export only in the year 2011 to Hong Kong; although, the statistics of Hong Kong reporting import of dried seahorses from Togo does not exist.

The vulnerable population of West African Seahorse is subject to source for the wild exclusive seahorses export in dried form. Moreover, the only country from South East Asia to report import of dried seahorses from Africa is Hong Kong, but the African countries only reporting for the exports to Taiwan, mainland China, and Hong Kong. A total of five countries and territories accounts for the total ninety-nine percent of global exports in dried seashores for the period between 2008 and 2018, as cited in the CITES Trade Database; that is, Malaysia with two percent, Senegal with ten percent, Hong Kong with two percent, mainland China with fifteen percent, Thailand with seventy one percent.

Figure B: Reported Quantities (Kg) Of Dried Seahorses

The peak of Hong Kong import of dried seahorses take place in the year 2009 with an estimate of 10t, which reduces over the next three years to an estimated 2t. The imposition of Thailand’s policy and law enforcement for allowing a quota of 1.5k kg per annum for export as maximum limit might reflects in the declining figures for the imports of Hong Kong. The resulting impact of the difference in quantity demanded and quantity supplied defines the rise in prices of import value for dried seahorses in kg, that is, USD 600/kg in the year 2013 from USD 250/kg in the year 2008.

Illegal Seahorse Trade from Africa to Asia

Media reports in online sources between years 2010-2019, some of African countries reporting to have seized seahorse shipments (TRAFFIC, 2018) (300). The illegal exports form African countries are destined for meeting the demands of South East Asian countries. Madagascar accounts for the highest exporter of dried seahorses from Africa to Asia with Belgium as its major transit location. Western African countries like Senegal, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra, and Congo relies on Belgium as transit location for shipments to East Asian countries, which includes Indonesia as its top consumer. The seahorse seizure taking place in the region of South Africa did not show any evidence for possible trade route because the seizure took place on the land, even before taking place of the shipment to another country for transit purposes. An interesting finding in the literature is that the ninety-five percent of the total global dried seahorse exports is coming from countries with laws and customs prohibiting seahorse exports (Foster et al., 2019). For example, the Biodiversity Act of 2004 in South Africa protects certain species have listing as engendered species in the notification of IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Pollom, 2017b). Despite the legislations in place, Hong Kong reported to have imported seahorses from South Africa; and Senegal remained the key exporter of dried seahorses to Asia in spite of legislations in 2016 that makes it prohibited to import H. algiricus from the country. The unstable levels of seahorse exports from African countries of Senegal and Guinea owes to the lack of regulations, which is reflected in the major data discrepancies reported within member filing at CITES database.

The countries involved in import of the dried seahorse are primarily East Asian countries that relies heavily on sea food, and the legal trade accounts for a significant portion of the global trade. However, hidden economy in which trade is sourced for dried seahorses from the region of Africa, especially west and East of Africa, are increasingly exporting the products to the destination markets of East Asia in a growing number. However, there are two barriers to the process of exporting dried seahorse form Africa to East Asia. Frist, the legal barriers for export of seahorses to world instigate illegal trade that benefits the source country in terms of financial inflow; however, states cannot openly commit to the export reporting due to social and legal commitment to prohibition of the seahorse trade at local, regional, and international level.

Moreover, the resulting impact of the global trade in dried and live seahorses is affecting the wildlife species within ocean, and threatening number of decline is probably going to disturb the marine ecosystem in a relatively lesser time frame. In the recent years, consensus on the platforms like 2012 convention for safeguarding the wildlife species encouraged the process of accountability; however, underestimation of reporting is an obstacle that adds obstacles to the research and policy processes. Since, the year 2012, the constant decline in reporting due to understatement of figures for export form African regions calls for collective action in incentivize manner. The functioning of international regulatory bodies, coupled with national law enforcement and government regulation can be an effective model for reducing the threatening figures for decline of seahorse populations. Last, but not the least, the growth in consumption and production of dried and live seahorse trade owes a great deal to the traditional Chinese medicine, which can be effectively ado vacated by civil society groups to avoid serious threat to the endangered species.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The impact of seahorse illegal trade on the wild population of Hippocampus algiricus in adverse manner, which subsequently makes it to the list of IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The reported statistics on the trade of dried seashores not only explains the understatement of exports figures because import figures exceeds in net fashion. Additionally, the reported data explains a major decline since the year 2012, which may not be the authentic reflection of the state of international trade pertaining to dried seahorses. The policy recommendations for the member countries to the CITES in the year 2012 was to consider suspension of dried seahorse trading export with Viet Nam, Guinea, Thailand, and Senegal, which is most part (98%) of the total global trade in dried seahorses. However, the actual effect on the suspension of dried seahorse trading resulted merely in the understatement of the export figures in records.

The analysis of the Hong Kong’s import in the research study illustrates the high quantities of imports from the countries with which the suspension of dried seahorses’ trade is taking place. The localized decline in trade volumes also owes retained bycatch for incidental capture through trawling vessels, which adversely impacts the habitats. The exploitation of seahorse individuals from source countries is due to high demand for dried seahorse in the countries of South East Asia. The under investigated nature of literature on seahorse trade in Africa over the last few decades, although it should not overshadow the fact that countries in Africa continues to export dried seahorses to the consumer markets in Asia despite the legal barriers to export. Additionally, countries like Guinea and Senegal from West Africa emerged as a key player for exporting dried seahorses to the countries in East and South East Asia (Louw, and Bűrgener, 2020).

Focus on East Africa

The future focus of research and policy reform needs to be East Africa, which investigates the trade of seahorse in East Africa. The legal trade list does not include any figures for dried seahorse trade in the region; however, known harvesting and confiscations of quantities for trade signifies the presence of dried seahorse hidden-economy. The region of Africa is underdeveloped, and the struggle for improving the standard of living navigates the masses towards actions that might endanger survival of species like seahorses; which is why the increased attention for understanding the pattern underlying seahorse trade is instrumental for reducing the steady decline of seahorse population in the world.

Trade Regulations

The trade regulations standards require upgradations, and custom and government agencies attempting to limit the opportunities for illegal operations of seahorse trading from South Africa, Senegal, and Guinea. Higher barriers for entry of African countries to export dried seahorses in the international trade market means limiting the opportunities available to source the illegal operations in African regions from expanding their respective trade volumes. Trade regulations are at the core of saving the steady decline of seahorse population in marine life. Policy makers need to improve the process of policy making through utilization of empirically sound research that is policy-oriented.

Training and Capacity Building

Knowledge through research is one thing, and practically implementing the laws through law enforcement agencies is another. Training and capacity building of law enforcement officials, such as, border police, fisheries, port officials and compliance officers, is necessary in supporting CITES implementation of agenda in African countries of South Africa, Senegal and Guinea.  UNODC report suggest that the strengthening of law enforcement with respect to crimes in fishery industry of West Africa is officially an indicator for measuring the effectiveness of legislations, coupled with reducing the level of illegal trade, especially from African countries that has legal barriers to trade in seahorses.

Rising Awareness among Law Enforcement

ECOWAS member states agreed in the year 2018 to develop a coordinated response for tackling trafficking of wildlife species in West Africa, which requires awareness of the custom and law enforcement agencies within the region of Guinea and Senegal. The potential for trading in illegal seahorse products within the region of Guinea and Senegal suggest that the products may be smuggled through land borders within the countries, either as part of legal or illegal, and whether concealed and otherwise. In this regard, increased awareness of law enforcement officials, such as border police, fisheries compliance officers, and port officials can be extremely useful in ascertaining the desired results.

International Collaboration

The international collaboration avenue for mutual coexistence is at the core of the debates at international organizations with representation form states that are either producing or consuming in the illegal trade of dried seahorses. The process of incentivizing efforts for curtailing the production and distribution of illegal trade in seahorse for countries of Africa can be extremely useful in mitigating the future threat to aqua life. International collaboration between the major suppliers and consumers of East Asia to West Africa can be extremely useful in balancing off the reported figures for trade in seahorse individuals.


Foster, S.A. and Vincent, A.C., 2004. Life history and ecology of seahorses: implications for conservation and management. Journal of fish biology65(1), pp.1-61.

Foster, S.J., Kuo, T.C., Wan, A.K.Y. and Vincent, A.C., (2019). Global seahorse trade defies export bans under CITES action and national legislation. Marine Policy103, pp.33-41.

Louw, S. and Bűrgener, M. (2020). SEAHORSE TRADE DYNAMICS FROM AFRICA TO ASIA. [Online] TRAFFIC: The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2021].


Otero-Ferrer, F., González, J.A., Freitas, M., Araújo, R., Azevedo, J.M., Holt, W.V., Tuya, F. and Haroun, R., (2017). When natural history collections reveal secrets on data deficient threatened species: Atlantic seahorses as a case study. Biodiversity and Conservation26(12), pp.2791-2802.

Pollom, R. (2017a). Hippocampus algiricus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 8235.

Pollom, R. (2017b). Hippocampus capensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 8235.



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