the bushmeat crisis
The bushmeat crisis refers to the rapid depletion of wildlife in many parts of the world due to over-exploitation by humans. Commercial hunting pressure is now an even greater threat to the survival of tropical wildlife than deforestation. Throughout tropical Africa, Asia and the Neotropics, bushmeat provides many impoverished people with vital meat protein, while its escalating trade threatens the survival of dozens of species, including iconic primates such as the chimpanzee.
Although wildlife is hunted unsustainably throughout the world' s tropics, the crisis resulting from the growth of commercial trade is greatest in west and central Africa where species such as leopard, golden cat and elephant are already locally extinct, and 34 mammal species (mostly primates) are threatened with extinction in the wild.
Rural subsistence and urban business
The protein from wild animals is the major factor preventing protein malnutrition for many people in the Congo Basin. Traditional hunter-gatherers still rely on hunting for their meat protein, but are now joined by agro-pastoralists, settled villagers and urban populations as the availability of purchased wild meat grows. Bushmeat is in high demand in poor rural areas because it is cheaper than domestic meat, while in wealthier urban areas where prices are higher the demand is fuelled by a simple taste preference.
The primary objective of many hunters is still to provide food for their family, but the profits they can reap from a supply with no financial cost are so large that any other livelihood is easily out-competed. Larger commercial hunters are increasingly abundant, dealing larger quantities of meat often to lucrative urban markets. For example, in 26 villages that were surveyed, hunters were killing approximately 200 animals per hunter per year, including 22 species of primate. When the limit of sustainability is to support one person per square kilometre, it is unsurprising that already in 2002 hunters were taking more than 6 times the sustainable limit from central African forests. At this rate, the bushmeat supply will fall by 81% within 50 years. Already in Ghana the total biomass of wild mammal populations fell by 76% between 1965 and 1998.
The cumulative impact of local subsistence hunters, small-scale traders and professional hunters with modern technology such as semi-automatic weapons adds up to 5 million metric tons of bushmeat traded annually in the Congo Basin, a volume equal to 10 million head of cattle. A few thousand commercial hunters in west and central Africa kill more than 2 billion dollars worth of wildlife in a year, including up to 8000 great apes. If this continues unabated, wild apes in Africa will be gone within 50 years.
Although the bushmeat trade has a strong local base in rural and urban central and west Africa, its rapid recent growth is answerable in large part to international pressures.
The logging industry has played a large part in the growth of the bushmeat trade. As logging companies move in to an area they build roads which offer easy transport between previously inaccessible areas full of wildlife not previously hunted and urban markets. Logging companies often pay their workers minimal wages, thereby encouraging them to hunt and supplement their income and diet with meat from the forest. Bushmeat catch per person near logging roads is 3 ' 6 times higher than in communities far from the roads.
The same is true of the oil industry. A recent oil exploration in the Democratic Republic of Congo has resulted in the number of animals found at one checkpoint more than trebling in just two months, with 350 animals recorded, including 54 protected species, two gorillas and one chimpanzee.
The developed world therefore bears a huge amount of responsibility for the increase in hunting pressure on tropical wildlife. Our demand for resources on, under and adjacent to the ground has fuelled both supply and demand for bushmeat throughout tropical Africa and beyond.
Species at risk
Over 1000 species are hunted for food in tropical forests, from caterpillars to elephants. It is the birds and mammals which are most threatened, with overhunting a major threat for a third of all mammals and birds threatened with extinction.
Hunting for bushmeat predominantly affects herbivores, but since the practice is essentially opportunistic, omnivores and carnivores also suffer. Omnivores are also affected when large numbers of their prey are killed. Ultimately overhunting affects the entire forest ecosystem ' the absence or change of herbivores alters forest composition and architecture as well as ecosystem processes such as succession and regrowth. It results in what is becoming known as ' empty forest syndrome' .
Herbivores such as rodents and deer-like species are hunted more than the iconic apes and carnivores, but are also more likely to survive an increase in hunting pressure due to their rapid reproductive rates and quick growth. The slow growth rate, low population density and low reproductive rate of primates and carnivores mean that their populations are much more heavily impacted by hunting; frequently they cannot recover and the local population then dies out.
Although the bushmeat trade in west and central Africa receives the most attention and possibly could result in the most species extinctions, it is a major problem throughout all the tropics. In Vietnam 12 species of mammal have gone extinct from hunting pressure since 1975, while extinctions are predicted in even the most remote areas of Latin America within the next 10 ' 20 years.
The bushmeat issue is a complex one to solve as it crosses many disciplines and areas. It concerns wildlife extinction and human protein malnutrition; it is an integral part of some peoples' culture, while in other areas it has followed a fundamentally western model of exploitation; it is caught, sold and eaten in Africa and other tropical countries, while international pressures and impacts have facilitated its growth and even provided some of the market.
A multi-faceted campaign to halt the impending extinctions brought about by the bushmeat trade will have to include the following key elements:
- Education of all people involved from hunter to trader to judiciary
- Capacity building of wildlife law enforcement and prosecution
- Sanctuaries and wildlife centres to house confiscated animals and provide education and awareness-raising services
- Alternative protein sources
- Alternative livelihoods
HSI works to protect chimpanzees from the bushmeat trade. Read more.