Protected area managers in many countries across Africa say that bushmeat hunting is the biggest threat they face.Bushmeat hunting is a complex issue that is closely linked to development and is influenced by a diverse range of factors that vary from place to place.Zoonotic diseases have become an issue of global concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the bushmeat trade seen as a possible source of new infections.Despite its perceived threat to African wildlife, there’s not as much research being funded to look into the bushmeat trade as there is for higher-profile threats such as ivory and rhino horn poaching. Poaching for tusks, horns or other body parts is a well-recognized threat to Africa’s wildlife, but the impact of hunting for bushmeat may pose a greater threat. Conservationists in Southern Africa are exploring new ways to contain this. “Bushmeat is a significant problem in Zambia. For us, it’s by far the biggest threat to our wildlife populations,” Luwi Nguluka, awareness programs manager for Wildlife Crime Prevention (WCP), told Mongabay. The Zambian NGO has been working with the country’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) to campaign against the supply and demand in the illegal bushmeat trade. Illegal bushmeat processing in Zambia: a photo from the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife’s (DNPW) “This Is Not a Game” campaign. Image courtesy of This Is Not a Game. Nguluka says urban bushmeat consumption in Zambia is rising as populations grow and wealth increases. At the same time, Zambia’s wildlife populations are declining, making bushmeat harder to come by and so driving up the price. With increased price comes prestige, adding yet another driver to demand for the illegal meat in Lusaka, the capital. It’s a pattern other researchers are noting elsewhere. Peter Lindsey, conservation initiatives director for the Wildlife Conservation Network, has conducted extensive research into bushmeat hunting. When he surveyed managers of protected areas, NGO staff, and tourism industry representatives about the impact of hunting for bushmeat across 11 African countries, respondents ranked it as the severest threat to wildlife in protected areas, alongside hunting for body parts such as rhino horn. Despite this, bushmeat hunting does not garner the column inches devoted to more well-known conservation issues such as the ivory trade, rhino horn or deforestation. “We are only now beginning to appreciate that this crisis may extend to much of the African continent,” said Julia van Velden, a doctoral candidate at Brisbane’s Griffith University studying the bushmeat issue in Malawi. While the park managers and others surveyed identified hunting for bushmeat as a key threat to wildlife, there is not enough research to precisely define its impact. One worrying indicator is the many instances of otherwise healthy ecosystems where populations of large-bodied mammals are well below their expected numbers. One such example is Zambia, where populations of large mammals in national parks are 74% below their maximum carrying capacity, which researchers believe is largely a result of illegal hunting. In West and Central Africa, where hunting and trading of many kinds of wildlife is legal or semi-legal, researchers try to extrapolate how much hunting occurs by visiting bushmeat markets, though the informal nature of the trade and the inaccessibility of some areas makes this a challenge. Estimates for the Congo Basin range from 1 million to 4 million tons of bushmeat consumed every year, with both these figures considered an underestimate by their authors. But even with some understanding of consumption, the complexity of studying forest ecosystems makes it hard to say with certainty exactly what impact bushmeat hunting is having. The challenge becomes greater in countries where bushmeat is strictly illegal. Hunters and consumers are often understandably reluctant to divulge their activities, making it challenging for researchers to understand who is hunting what and why. The social and economic dynamics of the bushmeat trade vary from place to place, so findings in one region are not necessarily applicable elsewhere. In many African countries there is currently little or no research into the bushmeat trade, and the high cost of the research required is often beyond the means of already thinly stretched park authorities. “Without local studies, it is impossible to manage this issue, as you simply cannot say the same drivers of these activities apply,” van Velden said.