Wildlife Consumption in Northern Laos
Unsustainable practices are leading indicators of negative conservation outcomes resulting from biodiversity loss. When demand is higher than the available “supply” of animals, there is nothing left to conserve. For example, “unsustainable” hunting practices result in the extinction of high demand species. This biodiversity loss has cascading effects on ecosystems that lead to larger-scale conservation issues.
Given the significant impacts that biodiversity loss has on ecosystems and ecosystem services, it is important to understand which species are most vulnerable. In Southeast Asia, many forms of wildlife trade exist, putting the region at risk for significant biodiversity loss. Some examples include consuming bear bile and rhino horns for medicinal purposes, although there is no clinical evidence that they have medicinal qualities. Despite these wildlife trade concerns, there has not been sufficient research or policy analysis conducted in this region.
One specific area in Southeast Asia that requires additional research is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos PDR). Given its proximity to Thailand, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Cambodia, Laos has become an easily available supply source for wildlife trading, particularly given its high degree of biodiversity. In order to close this gap, a qualitative research study was conducted to determine current and emerging wildlife consumption trends.
Laos consists of six main ethnic groups, four of which were surveyed for this study (Lao Loum, Lue, Hmong, and Khmu). The most dominant group in the region is the Lao Loum group. The study site consisted of villages surrounding Luang Prabang, which is a town in northern Laos. Semi-structured interviews with open-ended questions generated the data for this study. A total of 101 anonymous interviews were conducted from 18 different villages.
Based on the interviews, it was determined that as many as 18 different animal products were consumed with Sun Bear bile/gallbladder being the most heavily consumed (26%). Sun Bears were labeled as “vulnerable” in 2016 and 2017, which suggests that there may be a conservation concern associated with the demand for this species. Serows, who are considered “vulnerable” as of 2020, were consumed for multiple products (bile, bone, fat) resulting in a consumption rate of 9%. It’s worth noting that back in 2008, they were listed as “not threatened”, which indicates that the demand for Serows has been higher than the available supply.
There are two consumed species whose conservation status is more dire. The Rhino, who was listed as critically endangered in 2008, and the Tiger, who was listed as endangered in 2015. Both of these animals had consumption rates of 1%, which does not account for the demand outside of the villages surveyed. Given their conservation status, any amount of consumption could result in extinction. There were several other animals and animal products consumed with relatively low rates and mixed conservation status. One other animal that is noteworthy is the Wild Buffalo, which was listed as “vulnerable” in 2016 and consumed for their bile (3%) and their urine (1%).
The results of this study indicate that conservation is a significant concern in the Northern Laos region, particularly in the Luang Prabang village, which is one of the main towns there. The driving cause for such demand is the belief that these animal products provide medicinal value. In fact, giving these products as gifts is a social and cultural norm across Laos. As solutions to this problem are discussed, focus should be placed on social motivations and the challenges they will present. As such, Theories of Change that consider consumer profiles and personas are needed in order to help design behavior change campaigns that leverage marketing techniques focusing on suitable alternatives.