Introduction to the Bushmeat Trade
Poaching is usually portrayed in the media with images of rhinoceros killed for their horns and elephants murdered for their tusks. While this is certainly happening—and it’s a travesty where and when it occurs—it’s far from the extent of this dangerous industry. Poaching, particularly in Africa, involves a wide variety of animals from mammals to reptiles. Not only that, but the animals are not only hunted for trophies. Many species, including great apes, are trapped and then trafficked for sale. As bad as this all is, it pales in comparison to the insidious practice of illegally hunting these animals for their meat. What is practiced by many native peoples as an essential means of gathering sustenance has turned into a highly lucrative trade that has potentially devastating global ramifications.
What is the Bushmeat Trade?
Bushmeat is broad term which refers, generally, to the meat of wild animals (Hall, 2021). In modern discourse, however, it is commonly used when discussing the trapping and killing of animals in the African savannas for sale. The animals hunted include great apes, elephants, crocodiles, bats, a variety of rodents, and more (FWS, 2021).
While bushmeat trades exists across the globe in places like Latin America and parts of Asia, it is especially worrisome in Africa, where it is considered by many to be the leading threat to local wildlife populations (Mongabay, 2020). This illegal and ecologically taxing form of hunting should be distinguished from the traditional hunting methods of indigenous peoples living in the areas (Goodall). Where traditional hunting provides native people with an essential and sustainable form of protein, the bushmeat trade is centered around catering to markets where the meat is highly valued but not necessary.
Causes of the Bushmeat Trade
The bushmeat trade took off in the 1980s as a direct result of commercial logging (Goodall). As forests were cut down and flattened, roads were carved into the land. This made previously inaccessible regions reachable by poachers. On top of that, hunters also gained a way to transport their kills back for sale, hitching rides with loggers on company cars. This made the process more efficient, increasing the flow of bushmeat into the market. But where was the demand coming from?
In Africa, bushmeat is generally seen as a status symbol by wealthy urbanites (Goodall). On top of purported health benefits, consuming bushmeat is considered a way to stay true to cultural roots, in spite of the growing tide of modernization and urbanization (Mongabay, 2020). There are, of course, those who simply prefer the taste of bushmeat to farmed meat. But the main driver for the increased demand comes from upper class city dwellers who want to prove that they still have connection to their heritage.
On the supply side, hunters are incentivized by the lucrative nature of the industry. In Zambia, it’s been reported that the median income of poachers was $48 dollars a month. The average for nonpoachers? Just $15 (Mongabay, 2020). It’s not difficult to see why hunters continue to participate in this practice, despite its illicit nature.
The Dangers of Bushmeat
Hunting for bushmeat in Africa is likely a bigger deal than you think—and it potentially has global consequences.
The most obvious danger of widescale hunting of this kind is population destruction. One estimate put the amount of bushmeat extracted from the Congo Basin in a year at somewhere between 1 and 4 million tons. And that’s a conservative estimate (Mongabay, 2020). Most of the species that are hunted, such as great apes, are slow to reproduce, and simply can’t repopulate fast enough to outpace the rate at which they’re being killed—driving them closer and closer to extinction.
Population destruction of this kind has led to something called “Empty Forest Syndrome”, wherein “forest remain structurally intact but are largely devoid of wildlife” (FWS, 2021). Loss of biodiversity of this variety also leads to habitat disruption that can cause the degradation and eventual collapse of whole ecosystems. This kind of ecological catastrophe has wide ranging consequences not only native peoples, but also for the world at large, as rainforests are an essential bulwark against the imminent danger of rampant climate change.
In addition, bushmeat has also been directly linked to the spread of dangerous zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS (Goodall). Around 70% of all diseases can be traced back to animal origins, and bushmeat is especially dangerous as it involves previously isolated animals with potentially unknown pathogens (Mongabay, 2020). This is especially pertinent now, since there is strong evidence in favor of the theory that Covid-19 originated in bats. Without proper handling and cooking techniques, bushmeat hunters might unwittingly become ill with a deadly and easily transmissible disease. The deeper we trek into jungles, the more likely it becomes that we encounter the pathogen which will cause the next global pandemic.
What Can We Do?
The answer to this question is multifaceted, as the issue is difficult. As was mentioned earlier, the supply and demand of bushmeat revolves around wealthy urbanites and less-well-off hunters. As such, this can at least partially be seen as a socioeconomic issue.
Officials in Zambia have focused their efforts on educating urban dwelling individuals on the issues, with educational campaigns aimed at bringing conservation to the top of the agenda (Mongabay, 2020). By educating urbanites, they hope to stem some of the demand for bushmeat, making it less sought after and thus less valuable. Other governments in Africa have also made an effort to teach farming techniques to those who rely on bushmeat, to help them get their protein from other, more sustainable, sources.
Environmental advocate Jane Goodall makes arguments in favor of widespread education and ecotourism (Goodall). According to her, there’s great power in having people visit sanctuaries to connect with animals—as long as it’s done responsibly. Individuals are less likely to purchase bushmeat if they’re able to interact with the animals they would otherwise be eating. Education on the devastating ecological effects of illegal hunting is also a strong motivator for individuals to abandon hunting and the purchase of bushmeat products.
Here at SAFE WorldWide, we believe that local communities should be involved in conservation efforts. The work done by our organization includes projects like community gardens, educational workshops that help develop trade skills, and wilderness conservation camps that teach children about the importance of environmentalism. It is our belief that big changes can be made on the ground, and that the improvement of socioeconomic and educational conditions is essential to creating a more sustainable world. If you want to learn more, check out our ongoing campaigns on our website, read more articles about conservation on our blog page, and follow us on social media.
Hall, Jani. “Bushmeat: How Wild Meat Can Be a Threat to Wildlife and Human Health.” Animals, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/bushmeat-explained?loggedin=true.
Bushmeat. Official Web page of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service. (n.d.). Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.fws.gov/international/wildlife-without-borders/global-program/bushmeat.html
“Bushmeat Hunting: The Greatest Threat to Africa’s Wildlife?” Mongabay Environmental News, 5 Nov. 2020, https://news.mongabay.com/2020/10/bushmeat-hunting-the-greatest-threat-to-africas-wildlife/.
Goodall, Jane. “The Illegal Commercial Bushmeat Trade in Central and West Africa.” United Nations, United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/illegal-commercial-bushmeat-trade-central-and-west-africa.
“The Ugly Business Behind the Bushmeat Trade.” Jane Goodall, 28 May 2019, https://janegoodall.ca/our-stories/bushmeat-trade/.