Michael t Sas-Rolfes


Growing up in South Africa I was fortunate to spend much of my early life exploring southern Africa’s incredible landscapes and wildlife and developed a deep interest in conservation. Starting out as a scientific scholar of biology, ecology and geography, my perspective broadened as an undergraduate commerce student and volunteer manager of a financially independent, NGO-run reserve. This experience led me to view conservation issues as complex, multi-faceted and intimately linked to the varied aspirations of people.

After completing an MSc in environmental resource economics, I accumulated two decades of varied work experience in the conservation sector, mostly as a specialist consultant. Recently, I decided to return to academia to deepen my understanding of conservation issues through rigorous research. When I get the chance, I still love to visit wild places and indulge my passion for nature photography!

Research Interests

My core research interest relates to how institutions (political, legal and economic) shape human behaviour by creating incentives for people to act in certain ways, and how this impacts upon conservation, especially in the terrestrial realm. Related to this, I am very interested in developing a deeper understanding of the complex mechanisms of wildlife trade (legal and illegal) and investigating potential new and innovative ways to improve conservation effectiveness and provide sustainable sources of conservation finance.


Current Research

The current working title of my DPhil is ‘Conflicting Framings in Global Conservation Governance: Consequences for Africa’s Megafauna. My research focuses on two broadly conflicting approaches to conservation, which are apparent in debates over commercial consumptive use and trade policy toward, among others, rhino, elephant and lion products. I will attempt to unpack the underlying concerns and determine to what extent they are driven by ethical stances as compared with beliefs about the consequences of certain trade policies.

Drawing on the rhino, elephant and lion cases, I will further examine the relevance of institutions for species conservation performance and consider whether controversial trade policy decisions can be assisted by techniques grounded in decision theory. Finally, I will examine the political economy of global wildlife trade policy as it plays out in the realm of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. I am hoping that my research will shed light on some of the most fiercely contested questions in wildlife trade policy debates.


My supervisors are Paul Jepson (School of Geography and the Environment) and Robert Hahn (Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment).

EJ Milner-Gulland has kindly offered additional technical support, as some of my work will overlap with and form part of The Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

Selected Published Work

‘t Sas-Rolfes, M., Challender, DWS. (2019) Evaluating the impact of pangolin farming on conservation. In: Challender, DWS., Nash, H., Waterman, C. (Eds.) (2019) Pangolins: Science, Society and Conservation. Academic Press.   

Williams VL, ‘t Sas-Rolfes MJ (2019) Born captive: A survey of the lion breeding, keeping and hunting industries in South Africa. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0217409. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217409

‘t Sas-Rolfes, M., 2016. Commodifying Wildlife. In Philosophy: Environmental Ethics, edited by David Schmidtz. MacMillan Reference USA, pp 185-219.

‘t Sas-Rolfes, M., 2016. Markets for Biodiversity. In Protecting the Environment, Privately, edited by Bennett, J. Imperial College Press, pp 89-112.

Smith, R.J., Biggs, D., St. John, F.A.V., ‘t Sas-Rolfes, M., Barrington, R., 2015. Elephant conservation and corruption beyond the ivory trade. Conservation Biology, 29 (3), pp.953-956.

‘t Sas-Rolfes, M., Moyle, B. and Stiles, D., 2014. The Complex Policy Issue of Elephant Ivory Stockpile Management. Pachyderm, 55, pp. 62-77.

\’t Sas-Rolfes, M., 2010. Tigers, Economics and the Regulation of Trade. In Tigers of the World, Second Edition: The Science, Politics and Conservation of Panthera tigris. Academic Press, pp. 477-492.

\’t Sas-Rolfes, M., 2000. Assessing CITES: Four Case Studies. In Endangered Species, Threatened Convention. Earthscan Publications Ltd., pp. 69-87.

\’t Sas-Rolfes, M., 1997. Elephants, rhinos and the economics of illegal trade. Pachyderm, 24, pp. 23-29.