Understanding consumer behavior to reduce wildlife demand

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Overexploitation and consumption of wildlife - through trade or as food - are major drivers of biodiversity loss. At the same time, human interactions with wildlife can increase the risk of emerging zoonotic diseases—those that originate in animals. Curbing illegal, unsustainable and high-disease-risk wildlife consumer demand is an urgent and difficult task. Regulatory actions, such as bans on wildlife trade, that shut down and restrict access to high-risk wildlife markets have been popular, but history has shown that making certain goods illegal can sometimes drive existing demand underground to black markets.

Today, conservationists are increasingly adopting an approach that complements regulatory measures, using consumer data and behavioral science findings to inform new types of campaigns. If we want to successfully change attitudes and end wildlife demand, we need solid research that shows why people purchase wildlife products.

Demand reduction campaigns

Demand reduction campaigns that focus on diminishing the purchase of specific wildlife products work best when they target consumers and develop messaging based on research of consumer motivations. This allows campaigns to target consumers more effectively and develop appropriate messaging. Recent campaigns have advanced significantly in identifying reasons for wildlife purchasing, particularly those that use consumer surveys to help target specific groups of interest.

Case Study: tackling the trade in elephant ivory

WWF has been at the forefront of global campaigns to influence governments and the public to stop wildlife crime, in particular to halt the illegal trade in elephant ivory. In 2016, WWF launched a major consumer campaign to persuade Chinese citizens to stop buying elephant ivory, as the government was preparing to phase out the country’s legal domestic ivory market. WWF and partners were able to drive international action that contributed to the game-changing China ban on elephant ivory in 2017. And ever since the ban was instituted, we continue to work to eliminate remaining consumer demand for elephant ivory.

Working with the market research firm GlobeScan, WWF conducts annual surveys of consumers to better understand attitudes and desire for elephant ivory. We then work to change social norms around ivory in an effort to make it socially unacceptable to buy and display it, and thereby reduce demand. The most recent consumer survey from 2020 found that demand for elephant ivory in China is continuing to decline since the country-wide ban on domestic ivory trade was instituted and is now less than half of pre-ban levels.

This research has been instrumental in helping WWF identify consumer motivations and create effective strategies that address underlying motivations and promote behavior change.

COVID-19 and wildlife demand

Demand reduction campaigning has been successfully used for years in the public health arena, helping reduce smoking rates and increase hand washing, for instance. And so, as the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, we applied the same approach to address the actions of wildlife consumers that pose a higher risk of zoonotic disease spillover.

In the 2021 paper, Socio-demographic correlates of wildlife consumption during COVID-19, WWF and GlobeScan researchers determined that consumers with greater awareness of the impacts of COVID-19 were less likely to buy wildlife products. The authors used survey data from 2020 among the general public in 5 countries and territories in Asia (Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam) about self-reported behaviors and attitudes towards open wildlife markets and COVID-19. The researchers assessed which attributes correlated most strongly with purchasing wildlife. They found that people with greater awareness of COVID-19 were less likely to buy wildlife products. The researchers predict that campaigns that make the link between wildlife and future emerging pandemics could halve future wildlife purchase rates across several countries and demographics.

Looking ahead

By identifying consumers and their motivations, whether those be in relation to the purchasing of ivory products or acquiring wild species for luxury consumption as food or for purported health benefits, we can utilize the best research that science can deliver to have the best chance of creating successful campaigns that drive effective behavior change and reduce wildlife demand and its devastating consequences.

WWF recommendations for decision-makers

  • WWF continues to push for a holistic approach to develop actions that prevent future global pandemics.
  • We encourage the US government and other nations to shut down high-risk wildlife trade and expand efforts to reduce consumer demand for illegal and high-risk wildlife and wildlife products.
  • WWF is advising Congress and US government to increase funding to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to increase capacity to combat illegal wildlife trade and zoonotic risks in the US and support efforts to tackle high-risk markets and wildlife trafficking internationally.