The Other Food Crisis


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Conservationists have long been concerned that the hunting of terrestrial wildlife for food – including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians – poses a threat to the survival of many tropical forest species and ecosystems. A new study suggests that we should be equally concerned that the so-called “bushmeat crisis” is also food security crisis for many forest-dwelling and forest-dependent communities.

“Conservation and Use of Wildlife-Based Resources: The Bushmeat Crisis”, a technical paper published by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and CIFOR, summarizes the state of knowledge on this controversial topic. According to Nasi et al, the bushmeat trade constitutes a significant, if largely hidden, component of the economies of tropical forest countries, with value estimates ranging from US$42-205 million per year for countries in West and Central Africa. There is “voluminous and varied” empirical evidence that current rates of bushmeat extraction are unsustainable, and are leading to wildlife depletion in many areas. Large mammal species are particularly vulnerable, and many have already become locally extinct.

The “empty forest syndrome” is not just of interest to conservationists. Bushmeat constitutes an important source of protein and fats in rural diets – up to 80 percent in Central Africa – as well as an important seasonal safety net. And in many countries, there is no clear substitute available if wild meat sources were to be depleted, or off-take reduced to sustainable levels.

But the impact of bushmeat on rural livelihoods is not just via direct consumption. Research suggests that the poorest households are more dependent than the rich on bushmeat sales to local and urban markets. Thus, the conventional wisdom that commercial trade can be banned without harming the subsistence needs of the poor is misguided.

The report suggests that sustainable management of bushmeat resources requires different approaches for different species and circumstances. For example, species with low intrinsic population growth rates and high dependence on undisturbed habitat – such as gorillas – are particularly vulnerable to overhunting. By contrast, fast reproducing generalist species that thrive in agricultural mosaics – such as duikers or rodents – may be very resilient to hunting pressure. Blanket bans on hunting and trade that don’t discriminate between these extremes are bound to fail.

The authors argue that the solution to the bushmeat crisis is a more secure rights regime: if local people are guaranteed the benefits of sustainable land use and hunting practices, they will be willing to invest in sound management and negotiate selective hunting regimes. Sustainable management of bushmeat resources requires bringing the sector out into the open, removing the stigma of illegality, and including wild meat consumption in national statistics and planning.

Reframing the bushmeat problem from one of international animal welfare to one of sustainable livelihoods – and part of the global food crisis – might be a good place to start.

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Further reading

Nasi, R.; Brown, D.; Wilkie, D.; Bennett, E.; Tutin, C.; van Tol, G.; Christophersen, T. 2007. Conservation and Use of Wildlife-Based Resources: The Bushmeat Crisis. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal, and Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor. Technical Series no. 33, 50 pages.