Bushmeat is a catchall phrase for the meat of wild animals, but it most often refers to the remains of animals killed in the forests and savannas of Africa.
African people have long hunted bats, monkeys, rats, snakes, and other wild animals for sustenance. Smoked, dried, or cooked, the meat provides a valuable source of protein for people in rural communities where farming domesticated animals is too expensive or impractical. Hunting and selling bushmeat can also serve as an important source of income.
But the scale of hunting is far greater today and has been increasing, facilitated by road building in the forest for logging and mining operations and fueled by growing demand in urban markets, where comparatively well-off customers consider wild-sourced protein a delicacy and a status symbol. A smaller international market for exotic meat thrives in Europe and the United States.
As hunting becomes more widespread, risks to the environment and public health become grave.
Although no one keeps track of how much bushmeat is hunted in total, conservation experts estimate that up to six million tons of bushmeat are taken from the Amazon and the Congo Basin each year. Hunting for bushmeat is considered one of the most immediate threats to African wildlife.
Conservationists are especially concerned about the large-scale commercial hunting of slower-breeding species like apes and monkeys. On Bioko Island, off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, for example, hunting for bushmeat has decimated populations of the island’s seven endemic monkey species, which are all endangered.
Even forest elephants, considered vulnerable to extinction, are targeted for their meat in parts of central Africa. It’s possible that the meat is a primary motivation for the hunters and that the elephant’s tusks, hacked off for the more-publicized ivory trade, are a mere byproduct.
Threat of viral outbreak
Wild animals are reservoirs for pathogens, and people who come in contact with their bodily fluids risk becoming infected with a zoonotic disease—a disease that jumps from animals to humans. People most at risk are hunters, those who prepare bushmeat, and consumers of undercooked bushmeat (cooking meat all the way through kills the pathogens).
Researchers believe, for example, that bonobos, chimpanzees, and other primates spread HIV to people hunting or butchering them. Fruit bats were also the likely source of the Ebola epidemic in western Africa that killed more than 11,000 people between 2014 and 2016.
Combating the bushmeat trade
Education campaigns are raising awareness about health and ecological risks associated with the bushmeat trade. And there are efforts to help those who rely on bushmeat to develop alternative sources of protein and income, such as farming cane rats and beekeeping.
There are laws to stymie the trade, many of which have exemptions for indigenous communities that rely on small-scale hunting of bushmeat for subsistence. Countries have rules surrounding the export and import of wild game, and an international treaty prohibits or limits global commercial trade in vulnerable wildlife.
Although many countries in Africa ban hunting of threatened species and require hunters and bushmeat vendors to purchase permits, researchers and conservationists say that lax enforcement has enabled the bushmeat trade to thrive.