Usually, when we think of African wildlife, we imagine vast plains crawling with wildebeest, lions, cheetahs, zebras and antelope. Waters that teem with crocodiles, alligators, hippos and exotic fish. Rich forests which swarm with plant life and bizarre insects that we could never have imagined. But aside from all of this, there is something else. Something far less romantic, which has been raging for a long time across this continent. To some, it is a necessity, vital to the very survival of some communities. Whilst to others, it is a reservoir for disease and causes the desecration of biodiversity. The bushmeat trade.
Bushmeat, quite simply, is meat obtained from non-domestic animals and therefore, from the bush. In Central Africa, around 1 million tonnes of bushmeat is harvested annually, equating to approximately 200-300 million animals. For many people, bushmeat is a sure source of food security and a vital source of income. However, bushmeat is unsustainably and illegally sourced from animals that often include a number of threatened and endangered species. Consequently, the bushmeat trade is recognised as a huge threat to not only the biodiversity of Africa itself, but the biodiversity of the planet.
So, what part does the law play in this, if any? Well, in many African countries, the ownership of wildlife either belongs to the state, or individual land owners. When belonging to the state, hunting is only allowed through licensing systems and quotas. Licenses are usually granted to allow hunting, though in some countries hunting for subsistence is also allowed. In addition, closed seasons are enforced, when no hunting is allowed and there is also the presence of a number of wildlife parks, where hunting is entirely prohibited. In those countries where areas of land belong to land-owners, these owners can enforce their own protections, as under the law, the wildlife on the land belongs to them.
Despite these laws, the most common methods used to obtain bushmeat, like the trade itself, are illegal. Snares are one of the most prevalent methods and are favoured due to their ability to catch a large range of animals. In addition, snares are cheap and are easy to attain and make, so due to their disposability and availability, many are set and then left unchecked, in the wild. In an unchecked snare, a captured animal can remain for days. The carcass then rots and the meat is no longer usable. Therefore, the use of snares can cause mass wasting of animals, with many dying and their meat not being harvested. Importantly, there is a huge ethical issue surrounding the use of snares. Snares cause slow and painful deaths, and in some cases, non-fatal wounding. In Central Africa, 1/3 of animals escape these snares with severe wounds. In one case, a male lion chewed off his own paw in an attempt to escape a snare. Luckily, there are organisations that remove snares, or locate them, close them and then leave them in place, in the hope of catching the poachers. There are also animal welfare and vet teams that patrol, searching for wounded animals in order to treat them. Despite this, due to the simplicity of setting such traps, anti-poachers and welfare teams are fighting a constant and losing battle.
However, it is not just snares that pose a problem. In some cases, dogs can be used to flush animals, which are then shot by hunters. Fire is another technique employed to flush animals from forests and plains, destroying land and habitats as it burns. Poison is a rather surprising technique used by some poachers. In Zambia, poachers poisoned an entire lake and collected those animals which drank from it, posing a risk to themselves by eating poisoned meat.
The effect of bushmeat on biodiversity is widespread. The trade can impact the individual populations of species, general wildlife populations and cause edge effects. Due to the scale of the trade, bushmeat has brought many already endangered species to the brink of extinction. Vultures, hunted for medical uses, giant pangolins, hunted for their meat and medical uses of their scales, and the great apes, whose main population threat is the bushmeat trade, are just some examples. Animals such as duikers are also very popular and hunted to 11-13 times their sustainability level. Other species that are at particular threat include hippos, forest elephants, chimpanzee, bongos, leopards and owl-faced monkeys, but there are many more.
Edge effects encompass those general effects, such as reduced wildlife populations in protected areas and reduced wildlife at park boundaries. The general effects on wildlife as a whole is massive. Hunters target larger animals, as they provide more meat and more money, but when stocks decline, hunters must travel further to find them. This causes a huge decline across the continent and when these species cannot be found, smaller animals have to be relied upon. Such activities cause ‘Empty Forest’ syndrome, which, as you can probably guess, refers to the huge decrease in animals present in habitats. In Africa, the bushmeat trade is more of a threat to biodiversity than habitat loss and has great impacts on ecosystem services. For example, loss of seed dispersers such as forest elephants, leads to a decline in plant species and degrades the ecosystem.
However, bushmeat is not just a threat to animals. The trade itself is a huge risk to those that eat the meat. Bushmeat is a known source of many diseases and viruses, including ebola and SIV, of which animals such as fruit bats and apes can be carriers. The ebola outbreak of 2014-2015 can be traced to one toddlers contact with an infected fruit bat. When the meat is eaten, the infections, as we know, spread rapidly and can kill thousands.
So, what’s driving the trade? One of the main reasons is the amount of money that bushmeat provides. In Tanzania, a mean of 2078 tonnes of bushmeat is confiscated annually and is worth more than $50 million. Compared to legal hunting, the bushmeat trade provides much greater economic returns. On a continent where population growth is massive and food security is poor, bushmeat is the most viable way to survive. There is also demand for bushmeat outside of African borders, with African populations in Europe and America demanding the meat. For example, it has been estimated that 5 tonnes of bushmeat flow into Paris every week. Factors exacerbating the problem include the loss of hunting traditions and taboos. Species such as giraffes, elephants, lions and apes would not have been hunted 5o years ago, due to the respect that people had for the animals. However, as demand increased, these taboos were lost and such animals began to be targeted. The absence of livestock and the prevalence of livestock disease also makes people turn to bushmeat. Often, livestock are just used as assets to be sold or as sources of milk, whilst the farmers hunt bushmeat to eat themselves.
Disparities in the laws of different countries make the problems worse, with poachers crossing borders to countries where punishments are looser, should they be caught. However, in most countries, the punishment for poaching does not reflect the worth of the animals killed, with small fines, community service sentences and warnings being issued, which does not do enough to deter hunters. Furthermore, the killing of wildlife is classed as lower priority than livestock offences. In Tanzania, stealing a goat, which is worth maybe $150, can lead to two years in jail. Kill an antelope worth $16000, you get a slap on the wrist.
However, there are solutions. Increased land use planning, creating more protection zones for wildlife and controlling human movement through parks is an example. However, this is costly and can have ecological impacts , separating individuals of a species. Conservation and Development Projects also exist, which provide alternative and sustainable options such as honey and craft production, with products selling at market and generating income. In Zambia, the Community Markets for Conservation and Development Projects offer rewards to farmers who farm in conservation and biodiversity minded ways. Providing alternative protein supplies is also an area to be explored. Farming of fish, molluscs and crustaceans would provide people with more sustainable sources of protein and reduce pressures on wildlife stocks. Greater anti-poaching patrols are also needed, but this is a dangerous job and large patrols are needed to cover such huge areas effectively.
This is just a brief (or as brief as I could make it) summary of the issues surrounding the bushmeat trade. More research is needed into its exact impacts and how the trade can be tackled. A wide selection of research provides governments and NGOs with the information needed to tackle such a problem, otherwise, it becomes easy to ignore. Currently, bushmeat is a huge threat which continues to gain momentum. What we know is that the trade is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and that the drivers of this trade are both complex and varied.
If bushmeat is not tackled or managed effectively, we could soon lose some of the planets greatest and most iconic species, which we have fought so hard to protect.
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