This is the devastating reality of the illegal bushmeat trade

Bushmeat—defined as meat that is illegally sourced from wild animals—is a problem that drastically affects wildlife populations around the world. The problem shows no signs of abating: illegal wildlife trade summits often fail to address the issue, focusing instead on more publicly-supported issues such as elephant and rhino conservation.

There is no doubt that all animals deserve protection, but why should certain kinds be prioritised over the rest? Bushmeat affects multiple species: it is a global crisis, and in Africa the problem has grown to the extent that more than a quarter of the animals hunted for bushmeat are now threatened with extinction.

Among those aiming to raise awareness of the illegal bushmeat trade is Dr Pieter Kat, an internationally renowned conservationist who currently works with UK wildlife charity LionAid. Love Nature spoke to him to learn more about the destructive effects of bushmeat in Africa.

What is the extent of the bushmeat problem in Africa?

There are two main types of bushmeat in Africa. There’s the guy who sets out with a couple of snares to feed his family: people in rural areas are often living in enormous amounts of poverty, and bushmeat is practically the only source of protein they an afford.

Then there is the commercial bushmeat trade. This is something that has taken off across Africa, and is a more organised, profitable and damaging trade. For example, during the Serengeti migration, millions of wildebeest, zebras and other animals travel vast distances across the continent. At one point during the migration, the animals leave protected areas on their way to Kenya and stray on to community land.

This leads to a feast for commercial poachers. Hundreds of thousands of animals are trapped every single year. Those animals are then slaughtered and moved to the cities, and fed to people all over the place.

As you can imagine, some very big trucks are involved to move all those animals. They are sold for meat openly in roadside markets, and in central meat markets in places like Nairobi. This meat is not always obviously advertised as wildlife meat—it is simply labelled as ‘meat’.

Is it a problem that only affects certain animals?

It affects the entire food chain. The big problem with all this bushmeat trading is that it destroys all the prey base that predators rely on. It means that the predators start relying on domestic animals—cows, sheep and goats—to feed on.

The whole human-wildlife-livestock conflict is driven to a large extent by bushmeat trading. If you destroy all the wild prey animals, then the predators that are still alive have to start depending on going out and raiding cattle instead.

When did commercial poaching become such a big problem?

This has been going on for a long time, but it has never previously reached the commercial level that it is currently at. People have always set their snares and profited from hunting during animal migrations, but I think more recently there has been a realisation that wildlife meat is worth a lot of money and it has escalated to the proportions that we have now: hundreds of thousands of animals being killed in Tanzania alone.

How devastating is the bushmeat trade in comparison to other forms of poaching?

Because everybody is so interested in ivory and rhino horn poaching, they often end up neglecting the massive destruction of wildlife that is caused by the bushmeat trade. The value of the illegal bushmeat industry is astounding – some figures have shown that it can be worth $400 million per year, and that’s just taking into account a few African countries.

If you add up all the countries where bushmeat is a problem, it is likely to be worth a hell of a lot more than all the other forms of poaching put together. It’s a massive problem, and one that is pervasive all over the world.

Are people at risk from eating the meat of illegally caught wildlife?

Consumption of bushmeat can pose significant risk to health. Photo source:
Consumption of bushmeat can pose significant risk to health. Photo source:

Absolutely. Whereas domestic meat is tested and condemned based on the presence of diseases such as tuberculosis or parasites, wildlife meat is snuck into markets untested. This causes a lot of problems. There have been cases where people have contracted anthrax from eating bushmeat. That’s just one example. So there are human health consequences, big ones, alongside the obvious conservation concerns.

In some places, especially in Western Africa in countries like Cameroon and Nigeria, there is a common perception that wildlife meat is better for you and makes you stronger than the meat from domestic animals. In these places there is a prime market for bushmeat, and the medical consequences can be particularly severe.

Why haven’t conservation groups been able to catch the poachers responsible?

A lot of conservation organisations who claim to tackle bushmeat poaching pride themselves on simply removing snares. They will organise trips with rangers and volunteers to go out into the bush and cut all the snares, remove them, pile them up and take pictures to show how well they are doing in terms of their anti-poaching activities.

My opinion has always been that this is the wrong approach. The snares should be cut so that they are not effective anymore, but rather than simply removing them, it is better to wait for the poacher to return. Poachers will always come back to their snares to see what they have caught.

Removing the snares but failing to follow up by targeting the poachers themselves is pointless. It’s like the story of Sisyphus: you’re pushing a large stone up a mountain, only for it to roll back down again. The next day, there will always be more snares. Unless you catch the guys who are doing this, you will never make any progress.

So what can be done to tackle to the illegal bushmeat trade?

What we’re trying to do is encourage the people working within wildlife departments to go out and see what the scale of the problem is in their countries. Unfortunately this is something that we have no idea of at the moment. It’s hidden in the majority of cases, and sadly accepted in many countries. In some markets, even the police are involved in facilitating the transport of bushmeat.

The more that people reveal the extent and the dangers of the bushmeat trade, the more we will get people to realise that this is a big problem and that action must be taken.

To find out more about the illegal bushmeat trade and how you can help with a variety of conservation issues, visit the LionAid website.