Seeking solutions in the wildlife farming debate

How can wildlife farming yield positive, sustainable livelihood benefits and conservation outcomes?
In addition to reducing pressures on wild resources, wildlife farming has the potential to enhance rural livelihoods and increase food access.

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Wildlife farming is potentially an attractive “solution” to reduce the illegal use of protected wild plants and animals.

Controlled farming and cultivation have the potential to supply markets sustainably — whether in the form of teak plantations for wood furniture, cane-rat farms for local consumption, tiger farms for traditional medicine, game ranches for food and sport hunting, or plant cultivation for pharmaceutical markets.

In addition to reducing pressures on wild resources, wildlife farming has the potential to enhance rural livelihoods and increase food access.

Indeed, recent articles have called for mainstreaming interventions such as wildlife farming and ranching to help reduce rampant illegal trade — including a lucrative trade of protected timber species and shocking levels of elephant and rhino poaching.

Despite considerable promise, research suggests that we need to further evaluate wildlife farming efforts. At least two key questions remain unanswered:

  1. Under what conditions do wildlife farming interventions yield conservation outcomes?
  2. What evidence is there that wildlife farming interventions yield positive, sustainable livelihood benefits?

Scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are exploring these questions — enquiring whether “alternative livelihood” projects, such as wildlife farming, and related conservation outcomes are effective.

Our research has highlighted emerging evidence that wildlife farming does not necessarily yield reliable conservation outcomes, and that there is a need to better review existing efforts.

To this end, we have highlighted 17 types of biophysical, market and regulatory conditions under which wildlife farming would likely benefit conservation — proposed as an initial list that is sure to evolve.

As an initial test, we applied these conditions to the commercial farming of an ornamental plant, to better understand how wildlife farming efforts can play out in practice.

Our checklist, described in a recent review in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s SULiNews, considers a range of conditions for evaluating wildlife farming/cultivation efforts, and provides justifications and possible analytic tools for evaluating each one.


For example, one of the checklist conditions suggests the quality of farmed specimens should be comparable or better than wild-collected specimens, to ensure a successful substitution in the marketplace. Potential analytic tools include measurement of individual characteristics to compare wild and farmed products and consumer interviews to assess perceived differences in quality.

We applied the conditions checklist to conduct one of the first quantitative assessments comparing trade dynamics of wild collected vs. farmed wildlife.

Our study focused on Rhynchostylis gigantea, a protected ornamental orchid from Southeast Asia.

The species is extensively propagated for commercial sale, but also subject to intensive wild harvest. We measured hundreds of farmed (legal) and wild (illegal) plants at Jatujak Market in Bangkok, Thailand.

We found that many of the checklist conditions were met for R. gigantea, suggesting that conservation outcomes would be a likely outcome of wildlife farming.

There are barriers to both researching and regulating illegal wildlife trade

Jacob Phelps

For example, farmed plants were of superior quality on the basis of most physical variables we measured (size, condition, flowers), suggesting that consumers seeking the largest, healthiest plants in bloom would have chosen farmed/cultivated plants.

Moreover, for any given set of physical characteristics, the origin of the plants (wild vs. farmed) did not affect price, so purchasing farmed plants would generally not have represented a more expensive alternative.

However, consumer and trader interviews highlighted perceived differences between wild and cultivated plants, including differences in plant robustness, “authenticity” and fragrance.  For at least some traders and buyers, wild and farmed plants were not substitutable goods, similar to findings on several other wildlife products (see “A stated preference investigation into the Chinese demand for farmed vs. wild bear bile” and “Consumers’ taste for rarity drives sturgeons to extinction”).


We also identified other prospective barriers to conservation outcomes of farming, including low financial incentives for R. gigantea farming, technical and financial barriers to farming among wild harvesters, and a lack of enforcement against trade in wild plants.

In this way, our list of conditions provides a starting point for proactively identifying the potential of wildlife farming efforts for conservation, and might be applied to other species.

For example, legalized trade of sustainably harvested horn from farmed rhinoceros (see “Legal trade of Africa’s rhino horns”) may meet many of the conditions on the checklist. However, a brief review of factors highlighted on the list also identifies potential shortcomings, and the need for cross-value chain research to anticipate the likely conservation impacts of farming.

Trade could be vulnerable to ‘laundering’ of wild specimens through new legal trade channels, as customers and enforcement officers would likely struggle to distinguish between legal and illegal specimens.  The production capacity of farmed specimens might also be limited relative to current and future demands.

Early evaluation of these types of issues is important to designing mitigation efforts. In our study, prospective mitigation measures included increased enforcement against wild-collected plants at major marketplaces, and consumer education to highlight the differences between wild and cultivated plants. Notably, our use of the checklist highlighted that farming is unlikely to succeed as a stand-alone conservation strategy.


There are barriers to both researching and regulating illegal wildlife trade. It might be impractical, for example, to measure the differences between wild and cultivated wildlife products in the field.

Similarly, there are limitations to interviewing traders and consumers of illegal wildlife products (although see direct study of illegal wildlife use by “A stated preference investigation into the Chinese demand for farmed vs. wild bear bile”, and “A framework for assessing supply side wildlife conservation).

There are also proxies — including rough measures such as expert opinions — that can be used to complete the checklist, and identify potential shortcomings of wildlife farming interventions prior to implementation. Even where not used as a formal or quantitative tool, the list can help structure thinking about proposed interventions.

Notably, our approach highlights the importance of considering biophysical, market and regulatory factors that influence farming and conservation outcomes, and of accounting for actors and interactions across the trade value chain.

It highlights the value of a broad approach that draws on eclectic data sources and diverse methods, and accepts different levels of rigor, to compile a composite picture of trade dynamics. Applied and tested in other contexts, the checklist will likely expand and evolve to help us better understand the conditions under which wildlife farming may yield conservation outcomes.

For further information on the topics discussed in this paper, or for a PDF copy of the full article, please contact Jacob Phelps at

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Topic(s) :   Wildlife