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Bushmeat -- a resource at risk

Commercial trade in wild animals threatens species and deprives poor communities of food

Bushmeat is an important source of protein for rural communities
Photo: TRAFFIC/Simon Milledge

Next time you go to a restaurant in Africa and bushmeat is on the menu, think before you eat. The chances are the animal on your plate is the victim of commercial hunters, whose activities are robbing African communities of important natural resources and the world of irreplaceable biodiversity.

"Along with habitat loss, the commercial bushmeat trade is probably the biggest threat to wildlife in Africa," says Douglas Williamson, an FAO wildlife expert. Bushmeat is the meat of animals who live in forests, from gorillas to rodents.

The devastating impact of the bushmeat trade is global, but Africa’s paradox is that the continent contains both the world’s highest levels of food insecurity and some of its richest and most vulnerable biodiversity. In the continent’s marginal environments, what threatens wildlife also threatens the food security of people. Commercial hunting deprives local populations of crucial food.

Not just gorillas

Emotive images of dead gorillas have highlighted the situation in West Africa, where forests already depleted by logging contain fewer species of larger mammals than do savannah regions. But wildlife across the continent is under threat. "The death of what conservationists call ‘charismatic’ animals attracts publicity," says Mr Williamson. "But increasing demand for bushmeat and declining wildlife populations mean that smaller species are targeted as well."

Natural fauna have important ecological roles in forest ecosystems -- some tree seeds, for example, will not germinate unless they pass through the digestive tract of elephants. Therefore, the extinction of indigenous species can change ecosystems in unpredictable ways.

"Rural communities depend on bushmeat because domestic meat is too expensive," says Mr Williamson. "But the growing commercial market in the cities is driving the trade -- and this urban fashion for bushmeat feeds off rural poverty. Basically a rich man hands out guns and a few pennies to the locals, and then goes back to the city with a fortune in meat."


"In one incident in Mozambique, commercial hunters shot more in one night than the whole village ate in a year. But the commercial hunters don’t care -- they don’t live there."

Other forest products and activities that generate revenue are also threatened by the booming and illegal bushmeat trade. These include animal parts used for medicinal and ritual purposes, photographic safaris and trophy hunting -- the backbone of East and Southern Africa’s multimillion dollar tourism industry.

Survival of the greediest

Statistics on the bushmeat trade are hard to come by because it’s usually illegal, and reports are informal or misleading. But a FAO report written in 1997 cites figures of over 1.2 million metric tonnes of bushmeat (excluding elephants) harvested in just one month in Nigeria. And a 2001 survey of eastern and southern Africa by TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors the wildlife trade, reveals a picture of widespread and unregulated slaughter by commercial hunters.

Increasing demand and declining wildlife have given rise to unsustainable hunting. "Peak hunting periods coincide with the dry season when vegetation is less dense, which makes the hunting easier," explains Mr Williamson. "In one incident in Mozambique, commercial hunters shot more in one night than the whole village ate in a year. But the commercial hunters don’t care -- they don’t live there."

And that, he says, is the root cause of the rise in the bushmeat trade. "Traditional community wildlife management mechanisms have been replaced by state responsibility," he explains. "So nobody feels they own the forest, and wildlife is considered ‘fair game’ to the person who gets there first or can pay the biggest bribe."

Hunting sustainability

Bushmeat is a huge industry, but many developing countries lack capacity to collect taxes or enforce hunting regulations, and bribery of poorly paid local and national officials is a problem. Moreover, wildlife protection has generally consisted of punitive and selective laws aimed at protecting a few charismatic animal species while ignoring the needs of surrounding human populations.

Attitudes have changed in the last two decades, and FAO is helping to promote dialogue among organizations working in environmental conservation, commercial use of forest resources and rural development. FAO co-hosted a bushmeat workshop last September in Cameroon and is working with other United Nations agencies and conservation organizations to implement a major project in West Africa that designates forests as World Heritage sites -- areas of irreplaceable value needing international protection -- and encourages community management of wildlife.

And this, says Mr Williamson, is the key to the bushmeat crisis. "Without community management of forest resources, the threat to wildlife will grow," he says. "If If communities are the main beneficiaries of the resources, they will have an incentive to manage them well."

18 February 2002

Residents of Riroda village in the United Republic of Tanzania have been entirely responsible for their local forest since 1995. Click here to hear Pascarina Omani and her neighbours talk about the changes collective ownership of resources has brought to the community. (QuickTime video, 1.2 mb, 1 min.)

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©FAO, 2002