BOGOR, Indonesia (5 April, 2012)_Wild animals such as bonobos and large antelopes are being unsustainably hunted to meet overwhelming domestic demand for bushmeat. This is having serious impacts on both species diversity and rural forest communities who depend on wild sources of meat for up to 80% of the protein in their diets.
Scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are encouraging Africa’s city dwellers to stop the consumption of protected species and consume sustainable sources of meat, whether from domestic animals or from resilient species that are hunted in a sustainable way.
“For people in the countryside, bushmeat is a crucial part of their diets, and we cannot simply tell them not to eat it – they will always continue to,” said Robert Nasi, Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and co-author of the recent study The role of wildlife for food security in Central Africa: a threat to biodiversity?
“Nonetheless, in cities it is somewhat easier to find other sources of protein than in a village in the middle of the forest, so it is here that we have an opportunity to reduce unnecessary demand by shifting their meat consumption to other sources and thus preserving Africa’s biodiversity.”
Though the word “bushmeat” may be synonymous with ecological exploitation and species extinction, in Africa it could mean a potentially sustainable source of food: unlike cattle, which require large tracts of forest to be cleared, small, fast reproducing animals can be harvested without significant impacts on the ecology of the forests. Bushmeat is de facto one of the most readily available sources of nutrition and protein in regions of Africa that are struggling with maintaining a secure food supply.
For a minority of people living in Africa’s growing number of large cities in Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Cameroon, bushmeat is considered a luxury product, due to the exotic nature of the meat compared to farmed animals. New migrants from the countryside often highly value bushmeat over farmed meat due to its cultural familiarity, having eaten it throughout their childhoods.
But for the majority of the urban poor however, as Nasi points out in another new paper, Empty forests, empty stomachs? Bushmeat and livelihoods in Congo and Amazon Basins, in cities which are neither isolated rural areas nor major capitals, bushmeat is not a luxury but rather a necessity for urban poor as it is one of the most cheaply acquired sources of protein.
But due to population growth, deforestation, civil conflicts, weak governance and inadequate law enforcement, hunting for bushmeat is increasing dramatically and many species of wildlife are struggling to bounce back.
Researchers know that the volumes of meat caught are high: Nasi et al. estimate bushmeat consumption across the Congo basin and the Amazon is in the range of 6 million tonnes a year. However, estimating the true size of total bushmeat catches is extremely challenging, as the ultimate source of the meat is difficult to determine. It is also difficult to know the true size of what is caught, as the volume of meat reaches markets will inevitably be smaller than the initial harvest.
To develop a new suite of tools for estimating bushmeat harvests, Nasi and colleagues examined the meat on sale in urban markets in the African city of Kisangani and documented which animals were on sale, which were abundant or threatened species, and the pricing for each type of meat.
They found that partially protected species represented 50 per cent of the total bushmeat sold in Kisangani in 2002, but had increased to 66 per cent in 2009. Market data thus can be valuable for policy makers and academics for “raising the alarm” when rapid changes in wild population numbers are documented.
But understanding the importance of bushmeat to local cultures, both in terms of livelihood as well as nutrition, is essential, said Nathalie Van Vliet, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Copenhagen.
“Appreciating the kinds of meat that regional people value and why, is crucial for developing effective policies and strategies.”
In the case of rural communities, where reliable sources of protein may be hard to come by, simply prescribing an abandonment of bushmeat will not work.
“We should not criminalise the whole system – it’s like with any other essential resources, the trade will just go underground and continue with even less options for control,” Nasi said.
But what can be done, through policies and careful public education programmes, is to discourage the hunting and consumption of animals that reproduce slowly and do not recover quickly from culls, such as fruit bats.
But other species, such as rats, are abundant, and due to high reproduction rates recover quickly from hunting impacts. They are also highly valued by local communities.
“In some markets, the most expensive form of meat is in fact rat,” Van Vliet said.
“People do in fact like the taste of the meat, showing that neither rarity nor size is the only indicator of price, and that some species that are resilient to the impacts of hunting are preferred, thus creating options for management.”
Despite there being only a few policies that effectively manage the levels of bushmeat hunting sustainably, at the governmental level, there has been come recognition of the need to monitor and regulate the trade in bushmeat.
Since COP11 in 2000, three central African countries have drafted national bushmeat action plans: Cameroon, Gabon, and both the Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo. But these drafts are still very much incomplete and ineffective. Nasi is working with the Convention on Biological Diversity’s liaison group on bushmeat, which recognizes that existing policies and legal frameworks are unpractical or unfeasible.
But in his experience, Nasi and colleagues say that working with governments in Africa has not been sufficient. Conversely, they have found that partnering with logging companies – who themselves can become big drivers of hunting through the creation of roads that penetrate forests, combined with remote camps populated with hungry workers – has often resulted in a high degree of success in achieving sustainable hunting.
“In the future we think developing private-public partnerships to manage hunting of resilient species while protecting vulnerable ones would be an effective element of the solution.”