Eating wild animals: Commonplace, cultural, complicated

No matter where you live, it’s likely that if you try hard enough (and are willing to pay the price), you can get your hands on some monkey meat.

Bushmeat markets are most prominent in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, but globalization has spread the (often illegal) sale of wild animal meat across borders and into major cities on every continent.

Due to high extraction rates, the hunting of bushmeat has been termed unsustainable in most of the places around the world where it is practiced. This overharvesting of animals is becoming a growing issue not just for conservationists, but also for the people who rely on forests for their food. In Central Africa, the supply of wild meat is expected to drop 81 percent by 2050 due to overhunting.

However, the consumption of bushmeat — and the trade that makes it possible — takes place amid complex economic, geographic, political and cultural realities that make it incredibly difficult to regulate and reduce it to a sustainable level. Here are a few of the complicating factors.

1. There is no widely agreed-upon definition of “bushmeat.”

What people consider to be bushmeat varies from person to person. Broadly speaking, bushmeat includes wild animals killed for food (sometimes legally, mostly illegally) and can be everything from caterpillars to elephants. Some of these larger-bodied species, such as primates, are slow to reproduce and therefore more easily affected by the bushmeat trade; smaller, quick-breeding species like rodents are often more resilient.

2. Consumption of bushmeat is cultural …

Wild meat, whether illegally or legally caught, can be an important, diverse and rare source of protein for the rural poor. Simultaneously, in urban areas it’s often considered a luxury good.

However, the people eating bushmeat are not just the poorest of the poor or the richest of the rich. While some people do consume bushmeat because they have no other choice, or for social status reasons, many people do so because they prefer it over other types of meat. In many areas of the world, the consumption of bushmeat has become a social norm which makes it very difficult to tackle. For example, one study has estimated that there are 460,000 bushmeat hunters in Cameroon alone; these are generally individuals who are unaffiliated with the organized wildlife crime units that poach elephants and rhinos on a massive scale.

3. … but it’s also economic.

In Africa, tens of millions of people eat bushmeat every year across Africa alone; across the Congo Basin, 4.5 million metric tons of bushmeat are extracted per year, six times higher than is sustainable.

The economic value of the bushmeat trade and reliance of communities on bushmeat is enormous. In both Central Africa and parts of Latin America, between 30 percent and 80 percent of protein intake in rural households comes from wild meat; many people also depend on selling the meat they catch as a source of income. In Liberia, bushmeat has such a high economic value that in 2008 the trade of bushmeat in Liberia was comparable to pre-war timber revenues for the entire country.

4. Roads give people more access to bushmeat.

Roads are one of the most important factors in increased hunting pressure as it relates to the bushmeat trade. In the Congo Basin, for example, roads allow hunters to enter previously inaccessible habitats and are therefore linked with reduced abundances of everything from forest elephants to gorillas to duikers.

Because roads facilitate bushmeat hunting, there have been extensive debates about the trade-offs in increasing road access (especially to remote areas) and the impact of those roads on trade, livelihoods and the environment.

5. Despite popular belief, bushmeat consumption and public health are linked.

There is increasing evidence of the danger to humans caused by handling and cooking certain kinds of wild animals. Approximately 60 percent of human diseases have been transmitted from animals to humans. Of these diseases, 72 percent originate from wildlife and include HIV/AIDS, monkey pox, rabies, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and West Nile virus. The factors contributing to this disease transmission between humans and wildlife are complex and include, among other things, ecosystem degradation (putting animals and humans in closer contact) and the consumption of bushmeat.

Most recently, the Ebola virus has been linked to the close contact of Patient Zero to fruit bats. Though the consumption of bat and other bushmeat has been deemed unlikely as contributing to the most recent Ebola outbreak, public outreach campaigns in Liberia nevertheless ask people to avoid bushmeat consumption for this reason.

However, this can be a tough sell. In much of the world, rural communities don’t trust the link between bushmeat consumption and public health. Often, they think it is something made up by outsiders to discourage people from eating bushmeat, so even though there is scientific evidence of this link, it is often hard to use this information to decrease the bushmeat consumption.

Further reading

What can we do?

Conservation International (CI) works to decrease the extraction of animals for the bushmeat trade in several ways.

First, CI has worked to directly decrease the number of animals killed for bushmeat by partnering with government agencies, NGOs, the private sector and local communities in Asia and Africa to address the factors allowing illegal trade of threatened species. For example, several years ago CI led the first-ever wide-scale survey of apes and elephants in Equatorial Guinea — a country where bushmeat hunting is pervasive — to assess the status of the species. In a USAID-funded effort to improve media coverage and awareness of illegal wildlife and natural resource trafficking in Madagascar, CI has trained journalists in ethics, professional standards and investigative journalism techniques. Several of these journalists have since conducted an investigation about bushmeat consumption of indri in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor. CI has also led public awareness campaigns about the illegal wildlife trade in venues such as airports in China.

In order to indirectly decrease the consumption of bushmeat, CI has led a variety of food security and alternative livelihoods initiatives, including Vital Signs, a program that collects near real-time data about the ecosystems on which farming depends to help inform agricultural decisions and monitor their outcomes.

Reducing bushmeat consumption is a complex challenge requiring an equally complex solution — but if we want to keep these species around, for our benefit as well as their own, it’s our only choice.

Kim Reuter is the natural capital accounting director in CI’s Africa field division. Based in Nairobi, Reuter has studied the urban bushmeat trade in Madagascar; she also runs the Pet Lemur Survey, which collects data from the public to shed light on how many people illegally own lemurs as pets in Madagascar.

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