Bushmeat stew: complexities of a shadowy trade

Emma Blackmore's picture
Insight by 
Emma Blackmore
01 February 2010

It’s hard for some to imagine sitting down to a meal of baboon, green monkey and warthog meat. But recently, a Liberian woman was sentenced to three years’ probation for smuggling that combination of bushmeat into the US.

The illegal trade in bushmeat goes on in various parts of the world. People in developed countries tend to see it as a major threat to conservation of species — particularly primates — in the developing world. And there is agreement that trading in bushmeat is directly linked to the extinction of wild animals, particularly in Asia and West Africa.

But this is only part of a highly complex picture.

The trade isn’t confined to the South, for instance. It’s happening in Scotland. As the Strathclyde Police note: ‘One unexpected consequence of the recession is that the needs for cheap meat and money-making are combining to bring DIY wildlife crime gangs to Scotland to poach Roe, Red, Fallow and Sika deer. There is already a lively black market for cuts of meat from these animals.’

The recession is certainly having an effect on the African trade, which is booming in parts of the continent. But it’s a bizarrely mixed picture. Both poverty and development seem to be driving the boom. In times of economic growth and times of economic decline, it seems animals lose out.
And that means over a thousand hunted and traded species — from elephant and great apes to porcupines, rats and, of course, deer. In fact, the term bushmeat now simply means the meat of terrestrial wild animals, killed for subsistence or commercial purposes, in the Americas, Asia and Africa. So the concept covers everything from simple subsistence hunting to the backroom marketing of increasingly rare or iconic species.

Mystery market
The illegality of the trade means we lack accurate date on the volumes of trade and patterns of production and consumption. We don’t know how much bushmeat is used for subsistence purposes and how much is traded.

For subsistence hunters in the South, bushmeat offers a cheap source of meat, but for many urban consumers, who play a role in driving the trade, bushmeat is usually a luxury. And for the traders who supply them, bushmeat can be a lot more lucrative than, say, farming.

Rough estimates do exist of the size of the market. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) estimates that the current bushmeat harvest in Central Africa amounts to more than a million tonnes a year—the equivalent of almost 4 million head of cattle.

Research also emphasises the role of bushmeat in rural diets — in Central Africa, it makes up as much as 80 per cent of the protein intake. And there are hints regarding the urban consumption of bushmeat. A 2004 survey in Kenya revealed that 40 per cent of meat sold as beef or goat in certain Nairobi butcheries was either wholly or partially bushmeat.

Similarly we have anecdotal evidence to suggest that the bushmeat trade has been growing and the overall size of the trade has been underestimated, as Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, shows.

Warring drivers
Arguably, one of the key drivers of the trade is development in the South. With improved infrastructure and commercial logging, areas that were previously at low risk from the trade have been rapidly exposed and new links have been forged between wildlife habitats and urban consumers.

But poverty is obviously a major driver, as bushmeat can be a nutritional safety net. The Born Free Foundation has argued that ‘rising food prices, another rash of crop failures and the wide-ranging impacts of the global recession, will lead to a rise in the ‘bushmeat’ trade in Kenya’.
The importance of bushmeat as a protein source in the South, particularly West and Central Africa, creates tensions arise between environmental and social factors.

A chance for change
Elsewhere on this blog we’ve seen how the slump has given us with the opportunity to understand new drivers and provide new solutions in a range of areas. Bushmeat is one.
Given the tangled nature of this trade, a blanket ban may penalise subsistence hunters. A recent report suggests that such a move could have dire consequences for the poor despite the pressure by conservationists to implement it.

CIFOR have suggested the implementation of national policy that distinguishes by species – the bushmeat trade would be banned for endangered species, such as the great apes. Experts now agree, for example, that the illegal bushmeat trade has surpassed habitat loss as the primary threat to ape populations.

This would not mean the trade would be banned for ‘common’ game – such as duikers and rodents.

Such a move would also go some way towards distinguishing between urban consumers who sees bushmeat as a luxury and rural subsistence hunters. The report argues that making the bushmeat trade legal for non-endangered species would improve the sustainability of the trade and benefit the poor. But effective monitoring of any new policy implementation would be key, to ensure that there are no undesired effects on species that are not endangered - they might bear the brunt of partial legalisation and its potential reduction in supply of other species.

And, as the report notes, it is important to make a clear distinction between commercial entrepreneurs, who engage in what they know to be an illicit activity, and the rural poor, for whom bushmeat represents both animal protein and a cash-earning commodity.

Legalising the bushmeat trade could allow us to understand more about it, provide national governments with the tools to better regulate it, and would allow us to publicly recognise its importance as a form of sustainable livelihood for many of the world’s poor.

The need for policy tools that distinguish between species and subsistence hunters and traders is essential to effective conservation. However, the capacity of national governments to effectively implement new policies concerning the bushmeat trade represents a significant barrier - as does the ability to monitor the impacts of new policy implementation and tailor policy accordingly. In particular, keeping a close eye on the impact on species who are not endangered will be vital to ensure animal numbers are maintained at sustainable levels. The economic crisis will only serve to further embed the importance of bushmeat in rural diets and emphasise the need for effective policy creation, implementation and monitoring that balances the needs of the environment and people.