By Busani Bafana
BULAWAYO, May 18 2023 (IPS)
Meat from wild animals is relished across Africa and widely traded, but scientists are warning that eating bush meat is a potential health risk, especially in the wake of pandemics like COVID-19.
A study at the border settlements of Kenya and Tanzania has found that while people have been aware of the risks associated with eating bushmeat, especially after the COVID-19 outbreak, they don’t worry about hunting and eating wild animals that could transmit diseases.
On the contrary, the demand for bushmeat has increased, the 2023 study by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and TRAFFIC and other partners found.
No Beef With Bushmeat
Bushmeat is a collective term for meat derived from wild mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds that live in the jungle, savannah, or wetlands. Bushmeat comes from a variety of wild animals, including monkeys, pangolins, snakes, porcupines, antelopes, elephants, and giraffes.
The study — the first ever to look at disease risk perceptions of wild meat activities in rural communities in East Africa — was conducted in December 2021, and 299 people were interviewed in communities on the Kenya-Tanzania border.
Key findings of the study revealed that levels of education played a critical role in understanding zoonotic disease transmission; a majority of the people interviewed who had higher levels of education were more aware of the risks of disease transmission.
Nearly 80 percent of the respondents had learned about COVID-19 from mass media sources, but this did not impact their levels of wild meat consumption. Some even reported increased consumption. Hoofed animals, such as antelopes, gazelles and deer, were found to be the most consumed species, followed by birds, rodents and shrews.
Scientist and lead study author at ILRI, Ekta Patel, commented that it was important to commence the study in Kenya given the limited information on both rural and urban demand for wild meat and the potential risks associated with zoonotic diseases. The Kenya-Tanzania border is a known hotspot for wild meat consumption.
Zoonotic diseases are those that originate in animals — be they tamed or wild — that then mutate and ‘spill over’ into human populations. Two-thirds of infectious diseases, from HIV/AIDS, which are believed to have originated in chimpanzee populations in early 20th century Central Africa, to COVID-19, believed to have originated from an as-yet undetermined animal in 2019, come from animals.
Confirming that there is no COVID health risk of consuming wild meat, Patel said that given the COVID-19 pandemic, which is thought to originate from wildlife, the study was investigating if the general public was aware of health risks associated with frequent interactions with wildlife.
Patel said some of these risks of eating bush meat include coming into contact with zoonotic pathogens, which can make the handler unwell. Other concerns are linked to not cooking meats well, resulting in foodborne illnesses.
“The big worry is in zoonotic disease risks associated with wild meat activities such as hunting, skinning and consuming,” Patel told IPS.
Africa is facing a growing risk of outbreaks caused by zoonotic pathogens, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The global health body reported a 63% increase in zoonotic outbreaks in the region from 2012-2022 compared to 2001-2011.
Control or Ban?
Scientists estimate that 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases originated from animals, and 60 percent of the existing infectious disease are zoonotic. For example, Ebola outbreaks in the Congo basin have been traced back to hunters exposed to ape carcasses. She called for governments to implement policies to control zoonotic disease transmission risks through community engagements to change behaviour.
The study, while representative of the small sample, offered valuable insights about bushmeat consumption trends happening across Africa, where bushmeat is many times on the menu, says Martin Andimile, co-author of the study and Research Manager at the global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
Pointing to the need to improve hygiene and standards of informal markets while at the same time providing communities with alternative protein sources, Andimile believes bushmeat consumption should be paused, citing the difficulty of regulating this source of meat.
“I think people in Africa have other options to get meat besides wild meat although some advocate that they get meat from the wild because of cultural reasons and that it is a delicacy, government systems cannot control the legal exploitation of wildlife,” Andimile told IPS. “I think bushmeat consumption should be stopped until there is a proper way of regulating it.”
Andimile said while some regulation could be enforced where the population of species are healthy enough for commercial culling to give communities bushmeat, growing human populations will impact the offtake of species from the wild.
“Bushmeat consumption is impacting species as some households consume bushmeat on a daily basis, and it is broadly obtained illegally (and is) cheaper than domestic meat,” Andimile told IPS.
Maybe regulation could keep bushmeat on the menu for communities instead of banning it, independent experts argue.
“Wild meat harvesting and consumption should not be banned as this goes against the role of sustainable use in area-based conservation as made clear by recent CBD COP15 decisions,” Francis Vorhies, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi), says. He called for an enabling environment for sustainable and inclusive wild meat harvesting, which means better regulations and voluntary standards such as developing a FairWild-like standard for harvesting wild animals.
Another expert, Rogers Lubilo, also a member of the IUCN SULi, concurs that bushmeat consumption should not be banned because it is a major source of protein. He argued that local communities who live side-by-side with wildlife would like to access bushmeat like they used to before, but the current policies across many sites incriminate bushmeat when acquired from illegal sources.
“There is a need to invest in opportunities that will encourage access to legal bushmeat,” Lubilo said. “The trade is big and lucrative, and if harnessed properly with good policies and the ability to monitor, would be part of the broadened wildlife economy.”
Eating Species to Extinction
There is some evidence that the consumption of bushmeat is impacting the species’ population, raising fears that without corrective action, people will eat wildlife to extinction.
The IUCN has warned that bushmeat consumption and trade have driven many species closer to extinction, calling for its regulation. Hunting and trapping are listed as a threat to 4,658 terrestrial species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including 1,194 species in Africa.
At least 5 million tons of bushmeat are trafficked every year in Central Africa. Africa is expected to lose 50 percent of its bird and mammal species by the turn of the century, says Eric Nana, a member of the IUCN SULi.
Nana notes that bushmeat trafficking from Africa into European countries like France, Switzerland, Belgium and the UK remains a largely understudied channel. He said estimates show that more than 1,000 tons are trafficked yearly.
“Much of the reptile-based bushmeat trade in Africa is technically illegal, poorly regulated, and little understood,” Patrick Aust, also a member of IUCN SULi, said, adding that reptiles form an important part of the bushmeat trade in Africa and further research is urgently needed to better understand conservation impacts and socioeconomic importance.
IPS UN Bureau Report