The consumption of wildmeat in urban areas should be reduced in Central Africa to prevent the depletion of forest animal populations and to minimize the chances of transmitting zoonotic diseases, according to scientists.
This was among the conclusions of participants at a symposium on sustainable wildmeat management during the 31st International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB 2023), held on 23-27 July 2023 in Kigali, Rwanda.
Wildmeat provides millions of rural and forest people around the world with essential protein, fats, and micronutrients (including iron), as well as a key source of income.
Yet growing human populations, technological advances in hunting techniques, increasing access to once-remote habitats, and the emergence of a commercial wildmeat trade – often to supply urban centres – have culminated in harvest rates that are causing significant declines in wildlife populations.
As much as 11 million tons of wildmeat is harvested each year in rainforests alone. This presents a major biodiversity threat for hundreds of animal species. As animals progress along wildmeat value chains, there is also an increased risk of zoonotic disease transmission through contact with hunters, traders, butchers, cooks, and consumers.
The symposium, co-organized by the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme and the Trade, Development and Environment Hub, featured speakers from the SWM Programme and the WILDMEAT project, which aims to provide a global evidence base and research toolkit for wildmeat researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.
“We are talking about an order of magnitude of about 2.5 million tons of meat that people in the Congo Basin are eating every year,” said Robert Nasi, chief operating officer of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), a WILDMEAT project and SWM Programme partner. “But there is a problem: As of today, we don’t have an alternative.”
While rural and forest inhabitants have no alternative to wildmeat, urban dwellers do. Mattia Bessone, a postdoctoral researcher at CIFOR-ICRAF, examined the behaviour of 60,000 people in seven countries in the region. He recommended a dramatic reduction of wildmeat consumption in cities, where alternatives to wildmeat are available; the development of food systems in towns; and less commercial hunting in rural areas.
It is crucial to engage rural communities when developing sustainable hunting management plans, according to Davy Fonteyn, a postdoctoral researcher at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD).
Focusing on Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he monitors wildlife for hunting management plans and presented a toolbox app known as LOGIC (a French acronym), which supports standardized reporting and assists management decision-making.
François Sandrin, a technical adviser at WCS, stressed the role of ‘serious games’ in conservation to develop problem-solving and decision-making skills through adult social learning and in a fun way.
Simple hunting games have been introduced in the Congo region and Madagascar, where community users experiment with management options and imagine how to implement them in real life.
“The SWM Programme’s experiences with games have shown that they are excellent tools for engaging with communities and other local partners because they enable stakeholders to exchange information that is usually hidden,” Sandrin said.
Germain Aime Mavah, the SWM Programme’s coordinator in Congo, examined sustainable hunting in lowland forest of the Kabo hunting zone. Surveying 160 hunters in three villages over four months, his study found that 50 tons of wildmeat was harvested from 4,295 individual animals, mostly antelopes, monkeys, and fruit bats.
Bat hunting also needs to be a focus for the risk of zoonotic diseases, so a social marketing approach has been employed to communicate this message to people, he added. Land rights for Indigenous Peoples in the forest would also help exclude external hunters who are putting pressure on wildlife populations, Mavah said.
Juliet Wright, a technical advisor on wildmeat trade and consumption at WCS, gave a presentation on urban supply and demand as key drivers of overexploitation. Focusing on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she said wildmeat is not essential for food security in three Congolese cities (Kinshasa, Brazzaville, and Pointe Noire), yet it is consumed by 85 percent of those populations with varying frequency – mainly for cultural reasons and as a status symbol.
Through its ‘forest to the fork’ intervention approach, WCS aims to modify consumer behaviour by aligning national and international policies, as well as targeting multiple sectors, not just conservation.
Cedric Thibaut Kamogne Tagne, a researcher at CIFOR-ICRAF, spoke about the risk of disease transmission in the wildmeat food chain in Cameroon. Surveying 2,396 people in four areas, the project found around 50 percent of respondents preserved dead wildlife randomly found in the forest, before selling the meat. Some used animal blood for medicinal or other purposes, raising the risk of exposure to diseases, such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses, through handling or consumption.
Divin Malekani, a WCS researcher who has studied animal-borne diseases, discussed the role of online marketplaces in the trade of wildmeat in West and Central Africa. He presented a study that found 71 Facebook accounts in seven countries – including Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria – that sold wildmeat online, including some species of pangolin and viper that are on the IUCN list of endangered species.
Eric Nana, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, presented research focusing on the middle of the wildmeat supply chain in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, such as intermediaries, large-scale retailers, market vendors, and meat cleaners. He found that three scenarios could make them drop out of the illegal trade: reduced demand, increased law enforcement, and alternative income activities.
“If we want to have some hope of success in reducing demand, we should find a way to cut the supply chain before the meat reaches the town,” Nasi said in a Q&A session.
The final presentation was given by Liliana Vanegas, the urban bushmeat programme coordinator at WCS, who spoke about reducing wildmeat consumption through behavioural change in Central Africa and Madagascar. This involves promoting traditional cuisine recipes without wildmeat through social media and cookbooks, as well as highlighting the advantages and trendiness of such meals.
“Behavioural change will take time. It’s not in one year that we will reduce wildmeat consumption in Kinshasa, because it’s a huge city with huge demand for wildmeat,” Vanegas said.
The SWM Programme is an international initiative, funded by the European Union, with co-funding from the French Facility for Global Environment and the French Development Agency. It is being implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
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