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legal trade of wildlife

The debate surrounding the farming and regulated, legal trade of wildlife is one of the most polarizing discussions in conservation. Supporters of both sides have reached an effective deadlock over the historical and perceived advantages and disadvantages of each approach. A new study by the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in the USA investigates the effects of bans/legalisation on the Chinese consumption of animal parts. The results caution against legalising trade.

In summary, the findings show that:

  • The legalisation of trade impacts personal and social perceptions of the use of wildlife parts;
  • The legal trade of wildlife reduces the stigma and increases the personal acceptability and social approval of animal parts’ consumption for both medicinal and non-medicinal purposes;
  • The effects of wildlife farming are more pronounced on the perceptions surrounding the use of mammals: farming mammals reduces the stigma attached to using mammal parts;
  • Reducing the stigma attached to the use of animal parts could see a massive increase in demand;
  • Trade and farming of one species has knock-on effects on the stigma attached to other, non-target species; and
  • For bans to be effective, they need to be purpose-specific – directed at both medicinal and non-medicinal use.

The background

One of the primary questions at the heart of the wildlife trade debate is the effect that legalisation has on demand for the animal part concerned – does a legal wildlife trade saturate the market or increase it? Following on from this question is whether or not farming wildlife can meet this demand and reduce poaching of wild populations. Yet even though these conversations dominate conservation circles, little empirical evidence exists to answer these complex questions. The study by Dr Rizzolo, an expert in conservation criminology, is based on an experimental vignette survey conducted in Mainland China to address some of these unknowns in a more quantifiable manner.

The survey

When used for research purposes, vignettes are essentially short stories about a hypothetical person or situation presented to the participants of the survey. The participants are then asked a series of questions based on the context of their specific vignette. In this case, the various scenarios presented in the vignettes focussed on four species (bears, tigers, snakes, and turtles) and two different uses of the animal product (medicinal or non-medicinal). It also dealt with three legal situations: the product is illegal; the product is legal and from a farmed animal; or the product is legal and from a wild animal.

Once the respondents had read the vignette, they were presented with a series of questions around the acceptability of wildlife consumption, the social approval of wildlife consumption and the legal repercussions for the various wildlife species. The survey was conducted online with a sample of 1002 adult respondents, and the demographic variables (age, gender, and income) were approximately representative of China’s population as a whole. The sample did include more highly educated respondents than is representative of China as a whole. However, given the link between social status and wildlife consumption, the researchers were comfortable that the survey captured the demographic relevant to the questions at hand.

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Legal trade of wildlife = increased acceptability and social approval

The results of these surveys provide empirical evidence for the stigma effect on wildlife consumption. There is strong evidence that the legal context of a particular animal part affects not only influences perceptions of legal punishment, but also the level of acceptability and social approval for wildlife consumption. Naturally, while this acceptability does not automatically alter behaviour (purchasing and using animal parts), it does act as a decisive motivating factor. The fact that illegality decreases both acceptability and social approval challenges the idea that demand can be saturated through legal products – because demand will invariably increase with legalisation.

Interestingly, the study also indicates that legalisation and wildlife farming are related but distinct policy contexts. Hypothetical bans had a uniform effect on the survey responses for all species concerned, but the impact of legal wildlife farming was more nuanced.  Where parts from mammals (in this case, bears and tigers) were concerned, wildlife farming increased the acceptability of their consumption and reduced the stigma surrounding their use.

Furthermore, wildlife farming and wildlife trade bans can also impact the consumption of non-target species. For example, in a hypothetical scenario where snake consumption was banned, this correlated with increased acceptability of the consumption of bear products and social approval of the use of tiger bones. On the other side of this spectrum, legal bear farming was associated with the increased acceptability of tiger bone and skin. The reason for use (medicinal or non-medicinal/consumptive) also affected perceptions of the use of non-target species. This demonstrates just how complex the effects of wildlife farming and trade bans can be for all wildlife, even those species not directly under discussion.

The conclusion

The author acknowledges that there are limitations to this research, including the lack of qualitative data that could have provided some insight into the respondents’ motivations. In addition, the stigma attached to the use of wildlife products is only one of several factors that influence the acceptability of consumption.

However, the study offers important insights into how the legalisation of wildlife trade and wildlife farms affects consumers and, ultimately, the demand for wildlife products. The data indicate that for bans to be effective, they need to be tailored to the species, the product, and the type of use. Where mammal-based medicinal products are concerned, a ban that explicitly targets medicinal use is needed to reduce demand, rather than just a species-level consumption ban. Notably, the study concludes by suggesting that “bans on wildlife consumption and decreased wildlife farming of mammals can have conservation benefits”.

Studies such as this are of profound importance in the realm of African wildlife conservation, as conservationists and policymakers debate the legal trade in rhino horn (both from wild and farmed animals) and the farming of lions for their bones. Understanding the real demand for animal parts once the illegal stigma is removed is vital to determining whether there is any truth to the popular theory that farmed wildlife will keep wild populations safe.

The full report can be accessed here: “Effects of legalisation and wildlife farming on conservation”, Rizzolo, J., (2021), Global Ecology and Conservation

For further discussion in an African context, see Will legal international rhino horn trade save wild rhino populations?

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