Understanding why consumers in China switch between wild, farmed, and synthetic bear bile products

27 May 2022

Conservation Biology

Hinsley, A., Wan, A. K. Y., Garshelis, D., Hoffmann, M., Hu, S., Lee, T. M., Meginnis, K., Moyle, B., Qiu, Y., Ruan, X., & Milner-Gulland, E. J. (2022). Understanding why consumers in China switch between wild, farmed, and synthetic bear bile products. Conservation Biology, 36, e13895. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13895

View Journal Article / Working Paper

An important rationale for legally farmed and synthetic wildlife products is that they reduce illegal, wild-sourced trade by supplying markets with sustainable alternatives. For this to work, more established illegal-product consumers must switch to legal alternatives than new legal-product consumers switch to illegal wild products. Despite the widespread debate on the magnitude and direction of switching, studies among actual consumers are lacking. We used an anonymous online survey of 1421 traditional Chinese medicine consumers in China to investigate switching among legal farmed, synthetic, and illegal wild bear bile. We examined the past consumption behavior, applied a discrete choice experiment framed within worsening hypothetical disease scenarios, and used latent class models to investigate groups with shared preferences. Bear bile consumers (86% respondents) were wealthier, more likely to have family who consumed bile, and less knowledgeable about bile treatments than nonconsumers. Consumer preferences were heterogenous, but most consumer preferences switched between bile types as disease worsened. We identified five distinct latent classes within our sample: law-abiding consumers (34% respondents), who prefer legal products and were unlikely to switch; two all-natural consumer groups (53%), who dislike synthetics but may switch between farmed and wild; and two nonconsumer groups (12%), who prefer not to buy bile. People with past experience of bile consumption had different preferences than those without. Willingness to switch to wild products was related to believing they were legal, although the likelihood of switching was mediated by preferences for cheaper products sold in legal, familiar places. We found that consumers of wild bile may switch to legal alternatives, given the availability of a range of products, whereas legal-product consumers may switch to illegal products if the barriers to doing so are small. Understanding preferences that promote or impede switching should be a key consideration when attempting to predict consumer behavior in complex wildlife markets.