Five ways consumers fuel the illegal wildlife trade

What motivates someone to pose for photos with a critically endangered slow loris, eat “luxury” shark fin soup or believe that the scales of a pangolin – no more effective than your ground up toe nail – could cure their arthritis?

According to an Oxford and Stirling University study, it mostly boils down to five overarching motivations: “experiential”, “social”, “functional”, “financial”, and “spiritual”.

Although the authors are wary of pigeonholing consumers who may be driven by “multiple motivations”, they hope that if conservationists can better understand what drives people to buy, consume or exploit wild species, it can help them design solutions to stop them.

Most conservation efforts currently focus on restricting supply through trade bans, improved customs checks and anti-poaching measures. But according to the study, there are “considerable knowledge gaps in understanding the diversity of consumer motivations” when it comes to the complex and diverse illegal wildlife trade.


Pleasure, novelty or just curiosity motivates some wildlife consumers, say the authors. This could include using wildlife products as part of a leisure activity; pleasing the senses with things that look, smell or feel nice such as the feel or texture of animal fur.

Hobbyist orchid collectors in China, who value their beauty and colour over whether they’ve been illegally supplied from the wild, could be grouped in this category. But there are solutions. The authors propose artificially breeding legal orchids to make them more attractive – or more colourful – to consumers, thereby reducing the incentive to buy wild ones.


For others, social relationships – or the desire to form or strengthen them – are found to be a powerful motivator. For the authors, this could include “conspicuous consumption to impress peers”, where a product’s expense signals the social class of the possessor – something known as the “snob effect” in economics.

Rich businessmen in Vietnam who buy expensive, illegal rhino horn to enhance their status among colleagues and clients are a prime example of this, says the study.

A potential solution, it points out, could be an increase in campaigns such as the ongoing Chi Campaign, to persuade businessmen that “success comes from within”, that they do not need to rely on external products to impress others.


Everyday purposes such as consuming wildlife for food or medicine, using wild-collected materials for building, using animals for labour or using wood such as acacia for fuel are another motivation.

The authors highlight this with the example of dried seahorses which are falsely used to treat a variety of ailments in China and Taiwan, including sexual dysfunction, difficult childbirth and arthritis.

If the traditional-medicine community were properly engaged with, the authors believe a voluntary code of conduct could be established that focuses on sustainable trade, such as refusing to import small or pregnant seahorses.


Financial gain such as buying a wildlife product to profit from it, either immediately or as an investment for the future, is another huge motivational factor. Examples include vendors in Turkey and other tourist destinations that use slow lorises as props in photo opportunities.

To combat this, the authors suggest legal enforcement and sanctioning people caught peddling endangered wildlife. This happened after the pop star Rihanna tweeted a selfie with a slow loris while on holiday in Thailand; local police raided a group of wildlife touts and made two arrests.


Lastly, spiritual needs, or the need to bring protection, luck, or fortune in business and life can unnecessarily prop up wildlife trade. This can include using wildlife products to enhance spiritual wellbeing, religious practices, performing rituals or traditions.

The Lansan tree resin, used to make incense for religious services in the Caribbean island of St Lucia is an example of this. Overexploitation for resin means the tree is disappearing from the few Caribbean islands that make up its native range but authorities could work with harvesters to develop sustainable harvesting techniques, propose the authors.

Take Action

While there are a multitude of factors that contribute to the continuation of illegal wildlife trafficking, if consumers don’t buy into these products or animals then trade will ultimately cease. Wildlife must no longer be seen as a commodity, but a fundamental part of an ecosystem on which we too ultimately depend on.  

If you see wildlife or wildlife products being advertised online, report it. If you know anyone who purchases these products report them and, most importantly, talk to them. Education is the first step to tackling this. Help reconnect them with nature and help them understand our dependence on it. Be patient and point them to peer-led reports which can help them understand what they’re actually buying into. Spread the word.

See how you can be part of the solution by clicking here.

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