FOCUS on Wildlife Trafficking & Pandemics: Bushmeat – The Background

The following piece is a backgrounder to Keith Somerville's main article on the role of 'bushmeat' and wildlife poaching in the current pandemic - and why this is increasingly threatening conservation efforts not just in Africa but Asia and Latin America. Even more disconcerting, there is a close link to the long-term emergence of viruses, such as COVID-19.

Local villages and farmers often need to supplement their food and income sources with the illegal hunting of bushmeat. (Photo: PASA - The Pan-African Sanctuary Alliamce)

Before the European occupation of Africa and the building of colonial empires, including in Asia and the Americas, and the banning by the imperial powers of hunting by indigenous communities, pastoralists, farmers and other rural dwellers would hunt for meat and hides with spears, arrows, snares or pitfall traps. This was in addition to the food they could grow or obtain from their own livestock. Over time hunting became marginal for many communities, but remained important for others. This would usually increase when the climate, natural or man-made disasters reduced their ability to feed themselves.  (Please see Keith Somerville’s lead article on wildlife trafficking and the coronavirus pandemic in Global Geneva)

At a stroke, the imposition of hunting regulations by colonial occupiers rendered a form of subsistence for some, and a source of food during hard times for others, illegal. These age-old practices, informally regulated by the hunters themselves or limited by the traditional methods used (spears, arrows, traps but not modern firearms), rarely threatened wildlife populations. By becoming illegal, and in the face of government-sanctioned hunting or the commercial use of wildlife by the colonisers, they became a greater threat. Local hunting was driven underground and had to compete with large-scale hunting using firearms. Such constraints often led to increased illegal hunting or poaching, and with increasingly-used methods such as wire snares, which were indiscriminate and destructive.

This backgrounder is part of a regular Global Insights Magazine FOCUS series on Wildlife & Pandemics as a means of promoting public awareness, including our Youth Writes initiative, worldwide. If you like what we do, then please become a Support Member or Donate.

Traditional hunters suddenly became criminalised.  Poachers could be fined, imprisoned or even shot by game wardens or the colonial police. What had been normal for people for millennia suddenly became abnormal. Enforced by the colonial authorities, any form of effective regulation supported by local communities disappeared.

Little changed with the independence of African states. They generally retained colonial wildlife laws, even though these were not always enforced. Or the enforcement agencies in question, such as wildlife departments, anti-poaching units and the police, turned a blind eye to poaching. In fact, many participated in poaching themselves in concert with criminal gangs, or they took bribes, a custom that continues in various countries. In Pakistan, for example, game rangers in the frontier zones with Afghanistan have dutifully informed visitors about their conservation efforts, but then pointedly asked whether one was interested in shooting (protected) markhor, ibex or leopard.

In West Africa and the Congo Basin, Bushmeat is now the leading threat to great apes and monkeys. They are often mistakenly caught in traps like this one and can die or suffer deformities. (Photo: PASA – Pan-African Sanctuary Alliance)

Bushmeat is widely available across Africa affecting wildlife rich areas throughout East, Central and Southern parts of the continent. The same goes for much of South and East Asia and in some parts of the Americas,  I’ve seen wild animal carcasses or meat from wild-caught animals on sale at the side of the road or in local markets. (See William Dowell article in Global Geneva on the source of pandemics in Asia).

Because poaching is illegal – and unregulated – it has become a huge threat to the conservation of rare species. (See BBC on the September 2020 WWF report on endangered species) It is also highly wasteful as far more animals are killed in snares than actually retrieved for food by hunters’ families or sold on. There is also the toll taken of species that were not initially targets of hunters, notably lions, leopards, wild dogs, cheetah, hyenas and jackals. These are sometimes caught in snares concealed along game trails or become entrapped while eating caught game.

10 facts about bushmeat in Africa, compiled by the Center for International Forestry Research:

  1. Bushmeat accounts for up to 80 per cent of the protein intake of people in Central Africa.
  2. Up to 6 million tonnes of bushmeat are extracted from the Congo Basin each year — nearly the equivalent of the entire annual beef production of Brazil.
  3. To produce this same amount of cattle in the region, as many as 25 million hectares of forest would have to be cleared for pasture — an area about the size of Great Britain.
  4. The term “bushmeat” may evoke images of gorillas and chimpanzees. However, the  bulk of bushmeat harvested in the Congo Basin consists of porcupine, pouched rat, and duikers (small antelopes). Monkeys are hunted in large numbers in some areas, but they represent a small percentage of the biomass of bushmeat.
  5. The majority of mammal species (70 per cent) hunted in the Congo Basin is not listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
  6. The hunting of bushmeat is widely seen as unsustainable. This can lead to the disruption of ecological and evolutionary processes, changes in species composition within ecosystems and a general reduction in biological diversity, creating “empty forests” — so-called because they lack any large animal species. In the Congo Basin, increasing human population and trade from rural to urban areas compounded with the lack of any sizeable domestic meat sector are the main drivers of unsustainable levels of hunting.
  7. A ban on the hunting of vulnerable species — including gorillas, which are known to carry Ebola virus — while permitting the hunting of more resilient species, such as duikers and porcupines – could be more effective than a blanket interdiction, according to CIFOR. Such a ban would be difficult but not impossible to enforce.
  8. Central Africa’s bushmeat value chain, including hunting, transport, sale and consumption, is marked by gender roles and preferences. Men are generally more involved in hunting and transport of bushmeat, while women are more heavily engaged in the sale of bushmeat. Evidence shows that there are even different bushmeat taste preferences between men and women: Women prefer elephant, while men tend to prefer bats and gorilla. Both men and women’s favorite type of bushmeat: Porcupine.
  9. Not only rural people in the Congo Basin eat bushmeat, but urban people. Bushmeat can be a necessity for poorer urban households because it is cheaper; for wealthier households, bushmeat from larger, threatened species can be a luxury product.
  10. Hunting has some strong cultural significance in Central Africa. It is variously associated with rituals, such as circumcision ceremonies in Gabon. Some species are thought to have magical or medicinal properties that increase their value. Conversely, taboos on certain types of bushmeat are widespread in parts of Central Africa.

The scale of hunting is growing. Much of this is facilitated by road building in forest areas of West and Central Africa for logging or mining ventures. There is also increasing demand in urban markets, where comparatively well-off customers consider wild-sourced protein a delicacy and a status symbol. The scale of bushmeat hunting, coupled with poaching for ivory and pangolin scales, has particularly increased in areas where Chinese road construction, mining or other large projects have produced influxes of indigenous and Chinese workers. Not only do they consume bushmeat, but they smuggle wildlife products back to China, as reported by the Namibian Chamber of Environment. International exotic meat markets also operate in East Asia and, to a lesser extent, Europe and the USA. 

The virus factor

Although illegal and thus barely monitored, there is little if any need to abide by health standards, particularly emerging evidence that bush meat plays a signifcant role in the spread or emergence of viruse. such as Ebola and the coronavirus. This can expect to play a growing role in the years if not decades to come unless remedied.

In turn, such approaches threaten conservation. It is, as leading conservationist Peter Lindsay wrote back in 2012: “clear that illegally sourced bushmeat contributes significantly to economies and to food security in many countries. However, due to the unsustainable nature of illegal hunting, those social and economic benefits are unlikely to be sustainable. Furthermore, most forms of illegal hunting for bushmeat represent an extremely wasteful and inefficient form of wildlife use which captures a tiny fraction of the value of the resource it destroys.”

At the time of his study, Lindsay found that in Kitui in Kenya, 80 per cent of households consumed 14.1 kg of bushmeat per month, while in Kweneng in Botswana, 46 per cent ate 18.2 kg per month.  There is no evidence to suggest that levels of consumption have fallen. Instead, they may have grown, especially since the economic downturn brought about by COVID-19.

Contributing editor Professor Keith Somerville Professor Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation at the University of Kent, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.