Making wild meat safer and more sustainable

Symposium explores challenges and lessons learned from research in Africa and South America
An armadillo-and-pepper stew boils on an open fire in Rupununi, Guyana. Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

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While wildmeat consumption can be a risk to the environment and human safety, it is also a key resource for many Indigenous groups and local communities, and can continue to be so if managed well.

That was a key takeaway from researchers and practitioners’ presentations at the event, ‘Towards sustainable, equitable and safe wildmeat use in tropical and sub-tropical countries: opportunities, lessons learnt, obstacles and risks‘, hosted by the University of Lisbon on 14 February as part of the European Conference on Tropical Ecology. The session brought scientists together from various parts of Africa and South America to discuss the environmental, legal, cultural, and safety implications of wild meat harvesting.

Directly using wild species, including for meat consumption, is a major threat to wildlife, according to a 2023 IPBES report. While many communities have long histories of harvesting wild meat, growing demand in line with population growth and human encroachment into nature make the current rate of hunting unsustainable for many species.

These impacts can be felt in the Congo Basin, according to Jonas Nyumu, a consultant researcher on wildlife at CIFOR-ICRAF. He has researched ways to provide alternative livelihoods to hunting within communities around Yangambi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“We are working with hunters and bushmeat sellers to provide them with alternative livelihoods to reduce the hunting pressure”, said Nyumu. “When a hunter is hunting every day, the pressure on mammals is increasing, so we have to reduce the frequency of when [the hunters] need to get into the forest to hunt.”

While the situation is different in Gabon, changes in wildlife can already be seen, according to Lilian Mangama, a researcher at the Research Institute of Tropical Ecology (IRET) who studies how hunting for subsistence affects local wildlife. His research has shown that while such hunting has had little effect in rural areas, it has more heavily impacted wildlife around urban areas.

Many countries have legal frameworks in place to restrict the over-hunting of wildlife. In some cases, this has been controversial due to the imposition of conservation areas that have displaced some Indigenous groups from their lands. On the other hand, legal enforcement has been crucial to limiting the wildlife trade and the threat it poses to species, such as when elephant poaching deaths were reduced after the laws were tightened in Zimbabwe.

Some countries, including Zambia, maintain a legal wild meat system to honour cultural use and create an alternative to the illegal wild meat trade. Chanda Mwale, the Executive Director of the Wildlife Producers Association of Zambia, outlined the contours of the legal side of this industry, while also noting that demand for legal wild meat far outpaces supply in Zambia.

“In order to have more legal game meat, we need to conserve the habitat that the animals will utilize,” she said. “There’s a direct link between better managed landscapes and [healthier populations of] wildlife, and they also make us more resilient to things like climate change.”

In other places, like Guyana, regulations for wild meat harvesting are fairly recent. Franciany Braga-Pereira, a PhD researcher at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora who has researched the wildmeat trade in the country, showed that it is facilitated in places that have good access to motorized transportation means, such as vehicles or outboard motor boats, to access hunting grounds, as well as good preservation methods such as freezers to conserve the meat.

A man sells wildmeat in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Oswin David, country coordinator of the Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme in Guyana, explained that both national regulations and customary law based on traditional knowledge govern the use of wildlife in the country.

This traditional knowledge, based on the relationship between Indigenous people and wildlife use, helps build care for wildlife, according to Juanita Gomez, a consultant for CIFOR-ICRAF. She stressed that agency and care in communities are key to wildlife stewardship, as seen in the Wapichan communities of Guyana. 

These groups “have strong beliefs about animal spirits, spiritual landscapes, and sacred places,” said Gomez. “So these traditional and cultural practices are completely influencing the way in which people interact with wildlife resources in Guyana, developing a sense of care towards the territory in connection with wildlife resources.”

An example of how communities are actively involved in conservation and sustainable use is illustrated by the conservation of yellow-spotted turtles and sustainable use initiatives among the Rupununi people of Guyana, in which communities monitor turtle nests and relocate eggs that will otherwise be flooded.

Yellow-spotted river turtles are a traditional wildmeat source that is being protected locally through the SWM Programme in Yupukari Village, Guyana. Photo by Luke McKenna

Meanwhile, Sagesse Nziavake, a researcher with CIFOR-ICRAF, delved into the relationship between traditional knowledge and hunting norms, through her research on how this information is passed between generations in the Yangambi region of the DRC.

Wild meat can be an important source of nutrients. Julia Fa, a senior research associate at CIFOR-ICRAF and professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, studied the diets of the Baka people in Cameroon, who were once nomadic and are now sedentarized, and saw that their new diets had replaced wild meat with processed food.

“What we find is that as there is this change from wild foods – particularly wild meat – to cultivated foods, people are not consuming as much protein as they should do,” said Fa. “A very large proportion of households are way below the recommended amount of protein.”

For many, however, wild meat is associated with zoonotic diseases, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to this, several countries have instated laws that restricted or banned the wild meat trade, but could possibly lead to unintended negative side effects, like pushing the trade underground where regulation is much more difficult.

According to Lola Nihotte, an international legal consultant at FAO, such laws can be misguided, since disease transmission often happens at the stage when wildlife is harvested, rather than when it is consumed.

“The restrictions – specifically the prohibitions – have a limited impact because they are difficult to implement. Often governments lack the capacity to enforce the bans,” said Nihotte. “It doesn’t really tackle the right risk, because studies have shown that actually the highest risk of transmission from animal to human is when preparing and handling the wild animal, rather than ingesting the wild meat.”


This symposium was organized by Nathalie van Vliet (CIFOR-ICRAF), Lauren Coad (CIFOR-ICRAF), and Donald Iponga (IRET), with support from the EU-SWM Programme, the UKRI GCRF TRADE Hub, The University of Oxford and USAID.

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