Can wild meat be hunted sustainably in tropical forests?

Teasing out complex conservation and livelihood challenges in the bushmeat sector
Bush meat at the weekly market of Yangambi, DRC. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Hunting wild animals for food is an ancient human activity, which continues to this day in many parts of the world. It provides an important source of protein, key minerals, and livelihood for people living in and near forests, especially in lower-income countries and regions.

Around 150 million households across the Global South harvest bushmeat, and research suggests that “their reliance on it is highest amongst the poorest households – and inversely related to reliance on domestic animals,” said Julia E. Fa, a senior research associate at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and a professor of biodiversity and human development at Manchester Metropolitan University, during a session on win-win wildlife management at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF)’s Nairobi conference on 12 October 2023.

But many of these wild animals, and the ways of life they support, are under threat. “Unfortunately, what we are facing now is a disconnect between the capacity of the resource – the animals in the forests and savannas – and the demand,” said Robert Nasi, CIFOR-ICRAF’s chief operating officer. For instance, 5 million tons of wild meat are consumed annually in the Congo Basin, driven by the combination of increasing rural populations and demand from urban areas, and that’s pushing many species to scarcity or extinction.

Yet the challenge has no easy solution – many of the people eating wild meat are already protein-deficient, so encouraging them to eat less meat could have serious public health consequences, while replacing hunting with domesticated livestock could prompt large-scale deforestation to make space for farms. “We have a real problem in terms of conservation and sustainable use,” Nasi said, “and this is the reason why CIFOR-ICRAF and many partners are trying to answer the question: can we sustainably use wild meat in the context of tropical forests?”

One important factor is to differentiate between hunting for local use and for export to urban areas, said Fa. Her research in the Congo Basin showed that “there is a huge demand for wild meat from cities, and this demand is driving commercial hunting in forests 100s of miles away. The result is that traditional forest-dwelling peoples, such as the Baka, are losing the wild resources that their culture, traditions and livelihoods are based on.”

Joseph Kivisi, a data systems developer at CIFOR-ICRAF Nairobi, introduced a new tool to help scientists and policymakers to engage with the challenge. The open-access online Wildmeat Database contains data on hunting offtakes (ie the  number of each species of animals that are hunted), bushmeat consumption, and markets. Regional analyses using the database have reinforced evidence that hunting is most significant in rural communities where alternative meat sources are scarce or expensive, but that it is the increase in urban consumption that has pushed the volume of trade beyond sustainable levels. “Our findings corroborated what most observers suggested was happening – but, importantly, we now have the scientific evidence to show policy and decision makers,” said Kivisi.

The FORETS project, which aims to protect biodiversity while improving living conditions in local populations in the Yangambi landscape, offers a useful example of efforts to halt the bushmeat trade from the ground up, whilst ensuring local communities that are traditionally reliant on bushmeat are not left high and dry. As a video shared during the session showed, the project works to involve communities in conservation efforts whilst increasing their access to alternatives to wild meat and enhancing food security.

Sagesse Nziavake, a researcher for CIFOR-ICRAF in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Yangambi Landscape, told the audience about the organization’s participatory project there to restore the landscape’s wildlife whilst empowering local communities. “Wildlife management plans have been developed in collaboration with stakeholders, thereby reducing hunting through viable and income-generating alternatives,” she said. Hunters are involved in wildlife monitoring using trap cameras and hunting logs, providing real-time data, whilst educational initiatives – including children’s clubs and awareness programs through theatre and media – inform communities about the importance of preserving the ecosystem and encourage them to act.

Lastly, Nasi shared insights from a multidisciplinary international research project – the Sustainable Wildlife Management programme, run by a consortium of CIFOR-ICRAF, CIRAD and WCS and led by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) – which highlights the importance of developing a deep understanding of what’s happening in each ecosystem, community, and country. “If you don’t know something, you cannot manage it,” he said. “If you don’t manage it, you’re unlikely to use it sustainably. If you don’t use it sustainably, you lose it. If you lose it, everybody loses. And I believe that we can do better.”

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