• Open Access

Reducing urban demand for wild animals in Vietnam: examining the potential of wildlife farming as a conservation tool


Rebecca Drury, Fauna & Flora International, 4th Floor Jupiter House, Cambridge, CB1 2JD, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1223 579339; fax: +44 (0)1223 461481. E-mail: rebecca.drury@fauna-flora.org


Vietnam is an established thoroughfare for illegal trade in wildlife and growing urban prosperity is believed to be increasing domestic demand for wild animal products and for wild meat in particular. While the debate about the potential for wildlife farming to reduce incentives to hunt and trade continues, the findings of this study (based on data collected through semistructured interviews with the central Hanoi population) demonstrate that farming is not an effective tool in reducing demand for illegal wildlife products and may in fact stimulate greater demand for wild-caught products. In this context, conservation policy should seek to prevent listed species being farmed for consumption as wild meat; to reduce consumer demand for wild meat through marketing campaigns developed by social marketing experts and based on an in-depth understanding of the drivers of consumer demand garnered using appropriate social science research methods; and to continue strengthening regulation and enforcement actions preventing illegal trade in wild species.


Trade in Southeast Asian wildlife is believed to have grown rapidly over the past 20 years in response to increased demand driven by growing affluence in the region (World Bank 2007; TRAFFIC 2008). Serving this demand, Vietnam has swiftly become an established thoroughfare for illegal wildlife trade (Lin 2005). Nguyen (2008) estimated the total revenue and profit from Vietnam's illegal wildlife trade is US$66.5 million and US$21 million per year, respectively; this revenue is at least eight times greater than monitoring and enforcement expenditure and 12 times the revenue from legal wildlife trade (Nguyen 2008).

Growing economic prosperity is increasing domestic demand for wild animal products within Vietnam (Venkataraman 2007; Drury 2009). This has contributed to a shift in subsistence use of many species to an almost wholly commercial trade serving the growing urban middle classes (SFNC 2003; Donovan 2004; Roberton 2004). Nguyen (2003) estimates up to half the volume of wild animals traded in Vietnam is consumed domestically, 80% as wild meat in restaurants concentrated in urban areas. A recent structured survey of Hanoi residents found 23% reported consuming wild meat, and 18% bear bile, in the last year (Drury 2009). Measuring lifetime consumption, Venkataraman (2007) reports 47% of Hanoi residents having used wildlife products, 82% wild meat specifically.

Regulation has been the predominant response to concerns about overexploitation of wildlife, particularly regarding international trade (Broad et al. 2003). Without demand for wild animals, however, incentives to hunt and trade would be reduced. Conservationists are therefore increasingly targeting consumers to reduce demand for wild species, typically employing awareness raising campaigns, social marketing tools, and supply side approaches such as wildlife farming.

Traditional economic theory, where trade is characterized as perfectly competitive, predicts legal products will lower prices by satisfying consumer demand, whereas prohibition will increase prices for illegally produced goods (Fischer 2004). On this basis, supply-side approaches aim to flood the market with cheap, legal substitutes for wildlife commodities thus lowering prices and reducing incentives to trade (Bulte & Damania 2005).

In reality, illegal wildlife trade is more complex than traditional economic models suggest, characterized by imperfect competition arising from shifting consumer preferences, laundering, and the influence of criminal networks (Bulte & Damania 2005; Damania & Bulte 2007). Raising wild species is considerably more expensive and time-consuming than poaching them, leaving strong incentives for illegal traders to undercut farmers in any legal market (Gratwicke et al. 2008). Laundering illegal goods under the guise of legal trade can also make trading illegal goods easier (Fischer 2004). Moreover, for wildlife farming to be a successful conservation tool, farmed substitutes need to satisfy consumers, requiring both consumer acceptance and relative stability in demand: if preferences for wild-caught products are strong or demand grows, demand for, and illegal trade in, wild-caught animals will persist.

Incorporating imperfect competition into traditional economic models predicts ambiguous and potentially shifting effects on remaining demand for wild products, perhaps explaining the varied outcomes of wildlife farming ventures to date (Damania & Bulte 2007). For example, bear farming stabilized prices of bear bile in China but inflated prices elsewhere (Mills et al. 1995 in Damania & Bulte 2007); laundering alongside legal ranching is attributed to the near-extinction of crocodiles in Thailand, moon bears in China and Vietnam (Meacham 1997), and turtle species in China (Haitao et al. 2007); and despite the sure success of commercial farming in conserving certain crocodilian species, Thorbjarnarson (1999) highlights the role of shifting market forces in leading breeders to focus on species of high commercial value rather than those most threatened.


This research focuses on Hanoi where urban consumers contributing to expanding domestic wildlife markets are concentrated (Nguyen 2008; Drury 2009). It uses semistructured interviews (SSIs), a qualitative method widely used by anthropologists, to explore attitudes toward wild animal products and farmed substitutes in central Hanoi (Ba Dinh, Dong Da, Hia Ba Trung and Hoan Kiem districts). SSIs are conducted using an interview guide derived from unstructured work, but allow room for both interviewer and interviewee to follow leads (Bernard 2006); they are not structured interviews (i.e., questionnaires) in which each interviewee is asked exactly the same. Unlike quantitative methods, this approach focuses more on the underlying processes, values and relationships that can give rise to specific outcomes; it does not pursue large, representative samples but instead focuses on a relatively small set of informants.

SSIs were conducted with two distinct groups: wild meat consumers (n= 39) and members of the central Hanoi public (n= 38). Wild meat consumers were individuals identified through a structured survey administered to a random sample (n= 915) of the central Hanoi population: interviewees comprise respondents who reported wild meat consumption in the last year and were willing to be contacted for further discussion (Drury 2009). Wild meat consumers in central Hanoi are predominantly high-income men of all ages working in high-status positions as businessmen, finance professionals, and government officials (Drury 2009) and the interviewees reflect this (Table 1). Members of the public were approached in recreational areas (i.e., parks, popular meeting places) in central Hanoi in late afternoon/early evening (Table 1).

Table 1.  Characteristics of the members of the central Hanoi public (n= 38) and the wild meat consumers (n= 39) interviewed in semistructured interviews
IntervieweeCharacteristicsInterviewees (%)
Central Hanoi publicWild meat consumers
  1. *Retirees included two government officials; **Retirees included ex-service and ex-skilled workers and a senior government official.

Age (years)<3036.823.1
60+15.8 5.1
Outside Hanoi21.128.2
Missing data 0.010.3
EducationPrimary 5.3 5.1
Junior 7.920.5
Missing data13.2 7.7
OccupationStudents28.9 0.0
Retired 21.1*  20.5**
Skilled 7.915.4
Unskilled 7.9 0.0
Unemployed 2.6 0.0
Housework/childcare 2.6 0.0
Business people 2.615.4
Clerks 0.0 7.7
Army/police/state officers 0.0 5.1

SSIs with wild meat consumers were introduced as investigating the potential of farming to supply wild animal products and hence seeking the views of those who consume them; those with the central Hanoi public were introduced as investigating knowledge and attitudes regarding wild animals. All SSIs were completed in Vietnamese with an interpreter, unless otherwise specified; each typically lasted 40–60 minutes and was recorded and transcribed within a fortnight by the interpreter present. N6 software (QSR International, Melbourne, Australia), a qualitative data research tool used by social scientists, was used to facilitate interview coding and analysis. Interviewees were encouraged to pursue their own narrative within the interview guide (Table 2). Because the topics covered with each interviewee group are closely related, interview content frequently overlapped and all interviews are included in analysis. Analysis aimed to be informant-led and fully grounded in the data (Weiss 1994). Unless otherwise stated, the quotes presented reflect the dominant themes emerging.

Table 2.  Main topics covered in semistructured interviews
Interviewee groupTopic and example questions
Wild meat consumers (n= 38)Context of wild meat consumption
For example, Please describe the last occasion you ate wild meat
General perceptions of wild meat consumers and context of consumption
For example, What types of people tend to eat wild meat?
For example, On what occasions do people choose to eat wild meat?
Values associated with wild animal-derived products
For example, On these occasions, why choose wild meat?
Potential for farmed wild animals to satisfy demand for wild-caught products
For example, What do you think about farming wild animals to provide wild meat and medicine?
For example, Have you ever eaten meat from a farmed wild animal? What was it like?
Central Hanoi public (n= 39)Experience of wild animals
For example, Please describe an occasion when you saw live wild animals first-hand.
For example, Tell me about your trip to the forest, what did you see and do?
Wild animal-related knowledge and awareness
For example, Can you describe or name any rare species native to Vietnam?
For example, Can you describe any threats to wild species in Vietnam?
Concept of conservation
For example, What could be done to better protect wild species?
Wildlife farming/consumptive use
For example, Do you think Vietnam should expand wildlife farming for meat and medicine? Why/Why not?
Attitudes toward wild animals
For example, Do you think animals like tigers and crocodiles should be kept in secure areas such as zoos?


The primary values attached to wild meat by interviewees are rarity and expense: most interviewees consider wild meat rare and precious, and strongly associate it with wealthy, successful, and high-status individuals. These values are more important than the physical characteristics of the meat itself (Figure 1). These findings strongly suggest that it is these symbolic values, rather than, for example, any perceived medicinal properties, that are driving consumer demand for wild meat among central Hanoian consumers.

Figure 1.

Primary values associated with wild meat are rarity and expense.

As a rare and expensive food, many interviewees describe how wild meat is used as a medium to demonstrate wealth and assert differences in status (Figure 2). Serving wild meat also shows respect to distinguished guests, and is used to influence others—to the extent this is referred to by some interviewees as a form of bribery—and to initiate new and facilitate existing business relations through demonstrating success and showing respect (Figure 3).

Figure 2.

Wildmeat is widely used as a medium to communicate prestige.

Figure 3.

Serving wild meat demonstrates competence, shows respect and facilitates business relations.

All interviewees consider the meat derived from wild animals superior to that sourced from captive-bred wild animals. Wild animals are perceived to live in a natural environment and to eat natural foods, making their meat superior, leaner, and more delicious. In contrast, interviewees think farmed animals produce lower-quality, fatty meat because their growth is unnaturally accelerated with artificial feeds and they get little exercise (Figure 4a). Although the majority of interviewees perceive, and hence express, the superiority of wild meat over farmed substitutes in terms of quality resulting from the natural environment, interviewee responses also highlight the role of rarity in contributing to the widespread view that products from wild-caught animals, like those who consume them, are superior (Figure 4b).

Figure 4.

Products from wild-caught animals are widely considered superior to those derived from farmed animals of the same species.

Despite widespread preferences for wild-caught products, interviewees indicate that a considerable consumer group for whom the genuine article is currently unaffordable will nevertheless provide a market for cheaper farmed products. Interviewees also think, however, that those who can afford to will pay a premium to eat wild-caught meat. A few of these interviewees suggest existing consumers may place greater emphasis on rare species, or on those not being farmed, as a result of wider availability of farmed specimens. Indeed, some wild meat consumers already do view the meat from widely farmed species as ordinary, everyday products, i.e., as having low symbolic value (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

Farmed wild meat is not viewed as a direct substitute for wild-caught meat.

Interviewees’ perspectives toward bear bile demonstrate how farming wild animal products can lead to a loss in symbolic value of a previously rare and symbolic product by making it more widely accessible (Figure 6a). Currently, widely farmed in Vietnam, interviewees value bear bile primarily for its medicinal properties, and widely consider it an effective and necessary household medicine. But some interviewees also report rising concern among consumers regarding the quality of farmed bile, mainly because they perceive bile extraction from captive bears too excessive (Figure 6b). Now widely established as a necessary medicine, however, rather than these concerns reducing demand for bear bile, they are instead encouraging some consumers to seek whole bear galls and bile from wild bears (Figure 6c).

Figure 6.

Bear bile farming has led to a reduction in symbolic value of bear bile and served to establish a larger market of consumers, with embedded preferences for bile from wild-caught bears, who view bear bile a necessary and valuable medicine.


Consuming wild products is recognized as demonstrating status because accessing them often requires money, power, and skill (Hall et al. 2008). Correspondingly, strongly valued as a rare and expensive commodity, wild meat is used by central Hanoians as a medium to advertise wealth, assert social status, and gain economic and social advantage from those with power (Drury 2009). Farmed wild animals lack comparable symbolic value and consuming them fails to send the same sought-after signals as accessing, and inviting others to access, rare and precious products. Wildlife farming is therefore unlikely to satisfy demand for wild animal products valued primarily for their rarity.

Wild meat is widely considered to be delicious by central Hanoian interviewees not due to its physical qualities, but rather as a consequence of its relative rarity and cost, and its associations with powerful, wealthy, and successful people (e.g., Gault et al. 2008). Choosing from predefined categories in a structured survey, 50% of urban Chinese wild meat consumers report eating wild meat because it is “delicious” and a further 25% because it is “rare” (Li et al. 2008). These two categories are not mutually exclusive, however, and it is likely that rarity also contributes to the common perception among Chinese consumers that wild meat is delicious.

Placing such significance on rarity can drive disproportionately high exploitation of rare species (Courchamp et al. 2006), and rarity being the most important value associated with wild meat by central Hanoians implies consumers will meet the escalating costs of finding the last wild specimens. The rarest species may be in fact be desirable precisely because their consumption is costly in terms of the environment rather than in spite of this cost (cf. Fiddes 1992). Strengthening regulation and enforcement to stem illegal trade in wild species is therefore necessary to prevent this demand being met.

Corresponding to the findings presented here, restaurateurs in Vietnam also report wild meat being considered more delicious than farmed equivalents because of the perceived comparatively diverse, natural, and chemical-free diet of wild animals (SFNC 2003). In China, which shares many cultural continuities with Vietnam, 37% of urban wild meat consumers surveyed report a similar preference for “real” wild meat (Li et al. 2008). Tong (2007) suggests many Chinese view products from wild animals as untainted.

It is possible that, as in the West, rising concerns regarding increasingly intensive domestic meat production—coupled with a lack of concern/awareness among Hanoians about the presence of preservative chemicals and disease in wild animals (Drury 2009)—are to some extent shaping preferences for wild products in Vietnam. Favoring products perceived to be natural and traditional might also be interpreted as a reaction to urbanization and industrialization in general (Fiddes 1992; Drury 2009).

The healthy image of wild-caught meat in Vietnam mirrors European preferences for free-range and organic meat (Hoffman & Wiklund 2006), and an even newer vogue for “healthy” wild game among some consumers in the West (The Times 2006). The findings also reflect traditional Chinese medicinal philosophy in which wild animals are thought to yield the most medically potent products because they survive harsher conditions; they are therefore perceived to possess more, or stronger, vital energy than farmed specimens (Anderson 1997). Nevertheless, the results clearly identify rarity and expense, rather than any perceived medicinal properties or health benefits of wild meat, as the primary values driving its consumption among Hanoian consumers.

As a conservation tool, wildlife farming aims to satisfy demand for wild products by flooding the market with cheaper farmed substitutes, subsequently reducing incentives to hunt and trade wild animals. Rather than satisfying current demand for wild meat, however, the results suggest that farmed wild meat will be providing an additional, inferior product serving a new, larger, and growing market. In contrast, consumers able to access expensive wild-caught meat dishes are likely to view farmed wild meat as an ordinary product which fails to communicate prestige in the same way as consuming, and inviting others to consume, rare wild meat. As a result, consumer demand for, and incentives to hunt and trade in, wild-caught animals will persist. Indeed, widespread farming may encourage these consumers to place greater emphasis on wildness, and on rare and unfarmed species, in order to communicate prestige.

It is impossible to determine whether consumers can distinguish between wild-caught and farmed meat of the same wild species without conducting a controlled taste test (e.g., Schenck et al. 2006; Gault et al. 2008) or observing consumption first hand. Nevertheless, where embedded preferences for wild-caught products exist, farming wild meat is likely to encourage existing consumers to become more concerned with origin and to seek genuinely wild products either by learning to discern between farmed and wild-caught animals or shifting their focus to species that are not being farmed. Since relatively few species are farmed on a significant scale, it is likely that there has as yet been little call for consumers to develop the skills necessary to distinguish between wild-caught and farmed wild meat. In contrast, consumers of products that have been farmed more widely or are considered easily faked (i.e., tiger bone glue) appear to be developing strategies to obtain genuine products. For example, those sufficiently wealthy and well connected seek whole bear galls and tiger carcasses to make their own genuine products (Drury 2009). A preference for wild specimens of the now widely farmed Pelodiscus sinensis is already reported to have developed among experienced consumers in China (Shi & Parham 2000). Li et al. (2008) also note that the most frequent wild meat consumers are those most concerned about the origin of the wild animals they consume.

Greater availability of inferior but affordable farmed wild meat will appeal to a wider audience for whom wild meat is currently too expensive. The case of bear bile, however, demonstrates how consumers, newly able to access wild animal products in the form of cheaper, farmed substitutes, may later amplify overall demand for wild-caught products, the availability of farmed products having led to their being seen as essential. A resurgence in demand for wild bile in spite, or because, of greater availability of farmed bile mirrors findings of Robinson et al. (2006) in China and Vietnam. This also reflects an effect documented by Meacham (1997) whereby availability of legal goods leads to their more widespread use and, where farmed alternatives are viewed as inferior, eventually arouses demand for genuinely wild goods where none existed before. Due to entrenched preferences for wild-caught meat, it is likely that farming wild animals for meat will also later inflate demand for wild-caught specimens.

In summary, where wild products are valued primarily for their rarity and expense and where wild-caught products, and those who consume them, are considered superior to farmed products from the same species, wildlife farming is unlikely to satisfy demand for wild animals and may in fact stimulate greater demand for wild-caught products. In this context, regulation and enforcement should be strengthened to prevent demand from consumers prepared to pay the rising costs of finding the last individuals of a species being met, and to support the wider message that unsustainable use of wild species will not be tolerated. Conservation policy should also seek to prevent listed species being farmed for their meat and to reduce consumer demand for wild-caught animal products. This should include social marketing campaigns designed by social marketing experts and informed by a thorough understanding of the complex social motivations driving consumer demand for wild animal products achieved using appropriate methods.

Editor : Dr. Diane Russell


I am grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council for providing the financial support for this research, and also to my interpreters Nguyen Danh Chien and Ho Gia Anh Le for their dedicated work. I also thank K. Homewood and S. Randall for their advice and comments.