Jaguar ‘Poachers’

Melissa Arias


Whether it is through habitat loss, hunting, or poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, wild animals across the world are being decimated to the point of ‘biological annihilation’. While most people are still unaware or indifferent to the consequences of defaunation, we are starting to see its adverse impacts over our environment and the ecosystem services we rely upon, not to mention the loss of wonder from the world. I am deeply moved by this issue, and through my work I hope to bring wildlife science closer to people’s realities and to policy, so that one day we may coexist harmoniously with wildlife.

Throughout my career, I have aimed to achieve this goal by studying the social and natural sciences together, and by working with governments and communities just as much as within research labs. I have engaged in a wide range of projects related to: wildlife trafficking, endangered species’ ecology, landscape connectivity, protected area management and governance, deforestation and restoration, ecotourism, and climate change adaptation. These experiences have brought me closer to endangered fauna and wild places that are in urgent need of our protection, and that inspire me daily to continue fighting for this cause.

Research Interests

Broadly, I am interested in researching the patterns and drivers of defaunation, including wildlife trafficking, human-wildlife conflict, recreational or subsistence hunting, and habitat loss due to large scale forest conversion. I am also interested in conducting quantitative analyses of the effectiveness of wildlife conservation interventions, from protected areas to wildlife corridors and resource management policies.

I enjoy applying a wide range of interdisciplinary methods, from interviews to statistical modelling, and working at local and global scales.

Current Research

My PhD research will focus on exploring the illegal wildlife trade in Latin America. While much attention has gone to wildlife trafficking in Africa and Asia, less is known about the scale and operations of this wildlife threat in Latin America. Therefore, my goal is to create an overview of the problem in the region, drawing particular attention to how global changes in the demand and supply for wildlife products may affect wildlife trafficking in Latin America.

I am also interested in exploring how changing socioeconomic dynamics and cultural values can increase or decrease the impacts of this illegal industry in the region.

Mellisa’s PhD thesis was submitted in August 2021 and can be viewed here.

Previous Projects

Estimating the effects of Protected Area Mosaics (PAMs) on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon (2017), Advisors: Prof. Jean Paul Metzger and Prof. Paula Pereda (University of Sao Paulo): this research applies matching and fixed effects regressions to assess whether or not PAMs, an innovative Brazilian protected area governance strategy, have been effective in avoiding deforestation and protecting biodiversity in the Amazon.

Best practices for the use of scenarios for restoration planning (2017): this collaborative project provides suggestions and examples for how to use scenarios and models to improve restoration planning. It focuses on the importance of stakeholder participation, the use of a spatially explicit approach, and effective communication of results.

How is law enforcement monitoring (LEM) helping to improve protection, management and governance of protected areas? (2016): carried out in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, this report summarizes the results of a survey responded by protected area managers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, regarding the use of LEM and LEM technologies in protected areas to reduce threats such as poaching.

Designing a conservation landscape across heterogeneous land uses following the habitat suitability and ecological interactions of five sympatric felids in Sumatra (2015), Prof. Oswald Schmitz (Yale University): for my master’s research, I studied the implications of large-scale forest conversion on the distribution and ecological interactions of 5 felid species, including the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) in Central Sumatra, Indonesia.

Protected area management and financial sustainability in Ecuador (2013): as part of a consulting group working for the Ministry of Environment, I investigated the strengths and weaknesses of protected area management in Ecuador, focusing on the quality of management inputs such as staffing, financing, surveillance, research, education programs, etc.

Ecotourism in Galapagos (2012): in an effort to improve ecotourism practices in Galapagos, I worked together with the WWF to interview tourists and tourism operators about their experiences, interests, demands and the sustainability of their actions.

Climate change adaptation in the Andes (2011): I worked in the design and implementation of a climate change adaptation project in the Andes, carried out by the United Nations World Food Program. This project analysed the current and future effects of climate change on agriculture in the region, and sought to build adaptation capacity among local farmers.



Booth H, Arias M, Brittain S, Challender DWS, Khanyari M, Kuiper T, Li Y, Olmedo A, Oyanedel R, Pienkowski T and Milner-Gulland EJ (2021) “Saving Lives, Protecting Livelihoods, and Safeguarding Nature”: Risk-Based Wildlife Trade Policy for Sustainable Development Outcomes Post-COVID-19. Front. Ecol. Evol. 9:639216. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2021.639216

Arias, M., Hinsley, A., Nogales‐Ascarrunz, P., Carvajal‐Bacarreza, P.J., Negroes, N., Glikman, J.A. and Milner‐Gulland, E. (2021), Complex interactions between commercial and noncommercial drivers of illegal trade for a threatened felid. Anim. Conserv..