Bushmeat is the meat of wild animals killed for subsistence or income, especially in Africa. It is a major source of protein for many people but threatens the survival of hundreds of animal species and puts the public at risk for zoonoses (animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans).
African forests are called the bush, so any forest animal killed for food is bushmeat, from the French viande de brousse. Bushmeat can be legal hunting or the illegal taking of nationally or internationally protected endangered species. Bushmeat also can refer to wild animals killed for food in jungle, savannah, woods, fields, or bodies of water anywhere in the world. Thus, the term might be applied to ocean fisheries or venison eaten by hunters or sold in European restaurants. Nevertheless, the term is often used exclusively for wild game from West and Central Africa or for meat from animals killed illegally.
Bushmeat is a traditional food for rural populations in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, where hunting remains a way of life. It supplies up to 80% of dietary protein and all animal protein for many rural people, especially in Central and West Africa, keeping entire populations from malnutrition or starvation. However, population growth, habitat destruction, poaching for nonfoods such as ivory and traditional medicinals, warfare, and climate change have made even local subsistence harvesting of many species unsustainable. Since the 1990s, networks of logging roads have reached into the remotest areas of Africa and transformed bushmeat harvesting into a profitable commercial enterprise. As of 2018, hunting in tropical Africa was estimated to be at more than six times sustainable levels.
Illegal commercial overhunting of protected and unprotected species is a serious problem in tropical and subtropical forests and African savannahs. Both domestic and international rural and urban bushmeat markets are growing rapidly. Livestock can be hard to raise in many parts of Africa, and imported meat is prohibitively expensive, so bushmeat is often the only source of protein—and certainly the freshest. In rural areas, it is usually less expensive than alternatives. In remote areas with no access to commercial food supply chains, cities have grown up near bushmeat sources. Ironically, increasing urban prosperity has increased the demand for illegal bushmeat. In urban areas, lean wild game is preferred by many people, and bushmeat has become more valuable than livestock, selling for two to six times the price of chicken or beef. Other economic factors can foster bushmeat; for example, illegal fishing by international trawlers has left Ghana's fishing industry near collapse, forcing increased reliance on bushmeat. In addition to expanding human settlements that place people in proximity to wildlife without other economic opportunities, warfare and illegal logging and mining bring large numbers of people into wildlife areas. Soldiers and illegal miners in deep forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) harvest bushmeat as their only source of protein. These factors threaten the survival of local and indigenous communities that rely on bushmeat for subsistence, as well as for maintaining their cultures and traditions.
With bushmeat commercialization, long-standing taboos on its uses, the killing of certain species, and traditional hunting methods and seasons are being abandoned. Illegal hunting typically employs long lines of snares that kill or maim nongame species and leave large carnivores without prey. Hunters use assault weapons and machine guns, shotguns, muzzle-loaders, machetes, traps, dogs, and poison. Adult primates are killed for bushmeat, and younger offspring are captured for the illegal wildlife trafficking.
Some bushmeat animals are thriving, including grasscutters (greater cane rats, which are farm pests), hares, duiker, civets, warthogs, and squirrels. However, the first global assessment of the bushmeat trade in 2016 reported that 301 species of endangered land mammals—about 25%—were at risk of extinction from hunting, which would destroy the food security of hundreds of millions of people. At least three species—the kouprey, a water-buffalo-sized Southeast Asian mammal; the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo from Papua; and a squirrel-size hutia from Cuba—have probably already been eaten to extinction. A 2017 report found that bushmeat hunting was affecting over 500 African species. At-risk species include:
Among the many other animals hunted for bushmeat are:
Bushmeat is harvested throughout the tropics, but especially in Central and West Africa, with the majority sold in urban markets. An estimated five million tons of dressed bushmeat are harvested annually in the Congo Basin alone, providing the primary source of protein for 34 million people, who consume an estimated 579 million forest mammals every year. About 5% of the gorillas in northeast Congo are killed for bushmeat annually. Grauer's (eastern lowland) gorillas weigh up to 400 lb. (181 kg) and travel in groups, making them easy to hunt: As of 2017, about 80% had been shot by miners, with only 3,800 remaining—all in the DRC. Much African bushmeat comes from illegal hunting in protected areas, such that some national parks are at less than 20% of their wildlife carrying capacity.
Bushmeat harvesting is increasing in East and Southern Africa and elsewhere; it is the primary protein source for 5–8 million Latin Americans. An estimated 15 million animals are taken each year in the Brazilian Amazon, for an estimated 89,000 metric tons of meat worth about $200 million. Bushmeat from Mongolia's temperate steppes and woodlands feeds the growing Chinese demand for meat. However, most Asian trade is in live animals rather than the dressed meat that predominates in Africa.
Although only about 1% of bushmeat leaves its country of origin, thousands of pounds of primate parts, antelope, and other bushmeat are smuggled into Europe and the United States every year. It has been estimated that each year 260 tons of bushmeat is smuggled in baggage through the Paris airport alone. Although some of this is exotic meat for expensive specialty restaurants, much goes to West African immigrant populations celebrating traditional holidays.
Because humans are so closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas, transmission of bacteria and viruses can occur readily in the course of hunting, butchering, and handling bushmeat. Malaria is believed to have originally come from gorillas. HIV originated in chimpanzees in the Congo Basin. A recent as of 2018 anthrax-like pathogen in chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and goats across West and Central Africa may have already caused human outbreaks. Other possible emerging or re-emerging pathogens from bushmeat include tuberculosis, trichinella (parasitic roundworms), and unknown microorganisms.
Disease risk to the general public from bushmeat is probably similar to that of other meat, for example, foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, campylobacter, or giardia. Sick animals can enter unregulated bushmeat markets, and even regulated bushmeat abattoirs may take few safety precautions; however, the same concerns apply to farmed game. Bushmeat is traditionally cut in small pieces and boiled for several hours, which is sufficient to kill even anthrax spores and inactivate monkey pox virus. Most bushmeat in urban markets is smoked, dried, or salted and is considered low risk. However, there may be a high risk of cross-contamination with uncooked or lightly cooked foods. There are also potential risks from illegal toxins and poisons used to bait game and from pesticides from bushmeat hunted near croplands.
In 2001, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that unsustainable hunting was threatening species and human food security in many parts of the world. In 2014, bushmeat was named one of the top ten emerging issues for species conservation; yet its seriousness remains underappreciated as of 2018, and there has been little coordinated effort to address the problem.
Experts disagree about the future of the bushmeat trade. Some argue it could become sustainable by enforcing strict regulations and reducing consumer demand. Others argue that limited regulated hunting would increase uncontrolled overhunting and lead to major extinctions.
As of 2017, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was promoting chicken as alternative protein for Central and West Africa, with the introduction of better breeds and vaccines. A similar program succeeded in India in the 1980s, in combination with restrictive laws that made hunting not worth the risk of arrest. In the past, governments and nonprofits attempted to promote wildlife ranching of bushmeat species, but the animals required too much food and time to reach market size and proved difficult to breed in captivity, with the result that many farmers restocked from the wild.
Bushmeat presents an extremely complex and rapidly worsening crisis that is difficult to address in the face of population growth, unemployment, poverty, food insecurity, violence, and climate change. Although most African countries regulate hunting, they lack the financial resources to patrol vast protected areas, much less unprotected areas with large wildlife populations. Laws against illegal hunting are inadequate and applied inconsistently. Fines, when applied, are usually small.
Potential solutions include:
Reducing the risk of disease transmission from bushmeat will require ending hunger, poverty, and warfare, as well as trade in great-ape meat. All bushmeat must be thoroughly cooked. During Ebola outbreaks, people are told to avoid contact with bats, primates, and antelope that are believed to transmit the virus and to use protective gear if contact is unavoidable. It may be possible to vaccinate both humans and great apes against Ebola by vaccinating apes that are habituated to humans and, where possible, dropping vaccine-laden bait. Scientists are also working to develop a self-disseminating vaccine that spreads between individual animals.
Ultimately, preventing risks to both wildlife and humans from bushmeat will require:
See also Ebola virus disease ; Zoonoses .
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Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group, Wildlife Conservation Society, 750 9th St. NW, Ste. 525, Washington, DC, 20001, (202) 347-0672, http://www.abcg.org .
Biosynergy Institute/Bushmeat Project, PO Box 3430, Palos Verdes, CA, 90274, (310) 377-0317, Fax: (310) 377-0315, email@example.com, http://www.bushmeat.net .
Bushmeat—Free Eastern Africa Network (BEAN) Coordination, WCS Uganda Office, Kabalagala, Kampala, PO Box 7487, Kampala, Uganda, +256 777 723 378, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.bushmeatnetwork.org .
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, Rome, 00153, Italy, 3906 57051, email@example.com, http://www.fao.org .
Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 W. 20th St., 11th Fl., New York, NY, 10011, (212) 727-2700, firstname.lastname@example.org, https://www.nrdc.org .
Tengwood Organization, c/o Comp Tax Treuhand Postfach Hertistrasse 26, Wallisellen, Switzerland, 8304, https://www.tengwood.org/en .
TRAFFIC, David Attenborough Bldg., Pembroke St., Cambridge, CB2 3QZ, United Kingdom, +44 (0)1223 277427, email@example.com, http://www.traffic.org .
World Wildlife Fund, 1250 24th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20037-1193, (202) 293-4800, https://www.worldwildlife.org .
Margaret Alic, PhD