A stall selling both wild and farmed orchids in China. Credit: A Hinsley.

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Despite its name, wildlife trade does not always involve wild plants, animals or fungi. In fact, many “wildlife” products are now cultivated or procured from farms rather than wild lands, including bears and ginseng for medicine, porcupines and salmon for food, and orchids and cacti as ornamental plants. This means that wildlife consumers now have a broader choice of products to buy, that may also be cheaper, legal and easier to access than truly wild alternatives. There have been many studies of these consumer decisions that ask some variation of the question ‘Do you prefer wild or farmed products?’, with many simply concluding that consumers always prefer wild. These findings have been used to suggest that farming is not effective in reducing illegal wildlife trade, and these conclusions have been used to inform conservation policy and action.

We suggest that this approach oversimplifies wildlife markets, and that such either/or questions cannot truly tell us what consumers actually buy. They assume that a single attribute of the product source is all that consumers care about, that preferences are the same for all consumers and never change, and that these preferences translate directly to real-life behaviour. This is clearly not the case, and more robust methods are needed that consider the full range of products available, what or who might influence the actual purchasing decisions a consumer makes, and the diversity of people who may buy wildlife.

We recommend that researchers embrace complex markets rather than try to simplify them, and that they clearly state the limitations of studies that try to make the connection between stated preferences and actual behaviour.  Even with better methods, definitively concluding whether farming has ‘succeeded’ or not using only consumer studies is inappropriate without triangulating these findings using other sources of data. Therefore, researchers should be honest about the limitations of their studies, as well as possible pro- or anti-farming biases that may have influenced their conclusions. Clear communication of the strengths and limitations of studies is especially important where their findings are used to produce recommendations for large-scale conservation interventions and policy changes.