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Q&A: Bushmeat Trade Threatens Wildlife and People

Bushmeat seen on the side of the road in Ghana. (Wikimedia Commons: Wikiseal)
Bushmeat seen on the side of the road in Ghana. (Wikimedia Commons: Wikiseal)

From rats to monkeys, all kinds of wild animals in Africa are poached for their meat.

The rural poor in Africa have long consumed bushmeat for subsistence. But recent years have brought an increase in the amount of bushmeat sold to markets in urban areas, much of it from larger, slow breeding species such as monkeys. Some bushmeat is even sent across borders.

The bushmeat trade threatens vulnerable animals, but it also poses a threat to people— wildlife can spread viruses to humans, including HIV and Ebola.

When it comes to the international trade, the global treaty that sets wildlife trade policy—called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—has tried to help combat the problem. It’s passed measures urging countries to pay attention to the bushmeat issue, and the topic was even discussed briefly at the triennial conference taking place in Johannesburg right now.

But because most of the bushmeat trade is domestic, there’s only so much that CITES can do, says Elizabeth Bennett, vice president of species conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “[The bushmeat trade is] moving away from being a CITES issue and going back to being a domestic issue, which is really largely where it belongs,” she says.

I caught up with Bennett in Johannesburg to talk more about the bushmeat trade. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What are the biggest problems with the bushmeat trade, both domestic and international?

The international trade tends to include species that are not of huge conservation concern, such as some of the smaller duikers, porcupines, and other rodents. So we’re not so worried about that. The big concern about the international bushmeat trade tends to be disease issues, because you have species that can be carrying all kinds of viruses, from Ebola onwards, that are bypassing normal, national hygiene controls because they’re being smuggled.

For the national trade, a whole range of species can be traded. The ones we worry about most are the slow breeding species that tend to occur in more intact forests. One of the issues there is that as logging and new roads drive into forest areas, it starts to threaten the much bigger, slower breeding species that are much more vulnerable to being hunted for the bushmeat trade.

What are some examples of animals hunted for the trade?

An example would be great apes, and that’s happening across Central Africa. Orangutans and some of the other apes and gibbons in Asia are potentially involved, but those tend to be correlated with the pet trade as well as the bushmeat trade. What will happen with primates is that someone will shoot the parent, eat the meat or locally sell the meat, then take the young ones as pets and sell them into the pet trade. That’s a huge concern. (Read more: Monkey Hunting Could Drive These Species Extinct.)

What can be done to help solve the problem?

The key thing we need to do is really try and curtail that longer distance trade to urban markets. You also want to try to make sure that the rural trade for people who depend on it is focused on the fast breeding species, which tend to be ones that produce most of the meat anyway. Then that protects some of the great apes and large ungulates that are so vulnerable.