In this post Jana McPherson discusses a Perspective article that she recently handled as Associate Editor — Wild assumptions? Questioning simplistic narratives about consumer preferences for wildlife products by Amy Hinsley & Michael ‘t Sas‐Rolfes — out today!

The authors’ have also written a plain language summary ‘Embracing the complexity of wildlife trade to improve consumer research, and inform effective policy interventions‘.

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

Wildlife trade is inherently at the nexus of people and nature. Under the most positive circumstances, sustainable use of wildlife resources contributes to people’s livelihoods, culture and traditions, providing sustenance, attire, income, health remedies and/or companionship. In the worst scenarios, human greed cannot resist making profit off over-exploited species at the brink of extinction, or, as illustrated by the world’s current circumstances, the facilitating role wildlife trade can play in zoonoses (i.e. the transfer of disease from animals to humans) leads to massive negative socio-economic impacts. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic has given wildlife trade a bad reputation, and may for some have strengthened connotations of the term with words like primitive, unregulated, unhygienic, and unsustainable. It is important to remember, however, that even in the most sophisticated and regulated of societies, important food sources, such as fisheries, continue to rely heavily on wild-harvested products, i.e. wildlife trade. Moreover, in these societies wild-harvested products are increasingly coveted as more sustainable than their farmed counter-parts, e.g. in the case of salmon or blueberries. This is illustrative, perhaps, of the fact that people’s attitudes towards and preferences for wild versus farmed products are complex and heavily context-dependent.

In a timely piece, Amy Hinsley and Michael t’Sas-Rolfes from the University of Oxford highlight exactly that: consumer choices regarding wildlife products are influenced by a myriad of factors, ranging from legality, price, and quality to trust in supply chains, social legitimacy and awareness of welfare or conservation concerns. Moreover, wild products are not always easily distinguishable from farmed products. This is the case where reliable information on product origin is unavailable, but can also arise when the origin of products is hard to classify, e.g. when animals are bred in captivity but farms regularly supplement breeding stock with wild-caught individuals.

As the authors point out, understanding consumer preferences and how they translate into purchasing behaviour is immensely important in informing effective interventions where wildlife trade puts species (or, for that matter, people and society at large) at risk. Interventions could take the form of outright bans, other laws and regulations, promotion of alternative products (alternate species, farmed versus wild, or synthetic products), labelling and certification, or campaigns to reduce consumer demand. Identifying the most effective intervention is critical to ensure interventions achieve their desired outcome rather than worsening the situation. All-too-often, outright bans drive trading underground into the domain of unscrupulous criminals, and consumer awareness campaigns that highlight species endangered status may increase demand among those who covet rare products.

Unfortunately, a solid grasp of what motivates consumer behaviour can be hard to achieve. Existing studies have often treated preferences for wild versus farmed products as a dichotomous choice, ignoring the many other factors that might influence consumer behaviour in real-life situations. Even the best-designed choice experiments are limited to providing information on how consumers rank or weigh preferences related to various factors in the specific context(s) explored in the experimental scenario. How this translates into actual consumer choices can only be revealed by direct observation or records of market transactions which note a variety of product attributes for analysis. Hinsely and t’Sas-Rolfes provide an insightful overview of the different study methodologies available, and what limitations each imposes on interpretation of the findings. The authors encourage the research community to clearly communicate these limitations and any biases associated with consumer preference studies to guard against over-simplified interpretations that might lead to misguided policies and interventions.

Their perspective piece provides a frank and critical look at one particular field of research, but in a sense provides universally applicable advice. Carefully considering how study design affects what insight can be gained, explicitly acknowledging limitations, and being open about biases induced either by methodology, funding affiliations or personal perspective are standards that should prevail across all fields of science.