- A recent U.N. report has found that many migratory mammals are in grave danger of being hunted for meat for domestic consumption, which in many cases poses a greater risk to population numbers than international trade.
- There is also strong evidence that wild meat taking and consumption is linked to zoonotic diseases.
- The authors say that while wild meat consumption cannot be eliminated because it is an indispensable source of nutrition and income for rural communities, they call for improved national regulations and international cooperation to safeguard threatened species.
Every October, at least 10 million straw-colored fruit bats (Eidolon helvum) arrive in Kasanka National Park in Zambia from the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Besides its spectacular 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) migration, the species has the dubious honor of being Africa’s most hunted bat. Hundreds of thousands are taken every year for human consumption. And it’s not alone in its plight.
According to a recent U.N. report, many migratory mammals are in grave danger from harvesting for wild meat consumption. And of those species that are taken for their meat, the vast majority are consumed at a subsistence level or traded within national borders, rather than internationally. Capture and consumption of migratory mammals also significantly increases the risk of zoonotic disease transmission to humans, the findings say.
Researchers examined the impacts of wild meat taking, trade and consumption on 105 wild mammal species protected under the U.N. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), including ungulates, primates, carnivores, elephants and bats.
Their findings show that 70% of mammal species protected under the CMS are used for wild meat consumption, which is the key motivation behind both legal and illegal hunting. Other motivations included cultural practices, medicinal use, trophy hunting and human-wildlife conflict.
Experts say the findings have far-reaching implications for national and international efforts to protect threatened species.
“This report indicates for the first time a clear and urgent need to focus on domestic use of protected migratory species of wild animals, across their range,” Amy Fraenkel, CMS executive secretary, said in a statement. “We need to ensure that domestic laws and enforcement efforts are able to tackle this major threat to CMS species.”
Migratory mammals in decline
The seasonal migration patterns of many migratory species make them particularly susceptible targets for hunters, due to the predictable arrival of species in a particular area.
Primates and ungulates are at particular risk, especially during times of conflict or famine and during land-use change, the report says, citing drastic declines and extinctions of several migratory mammals, such as the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), once prized for its meat and hide in North Africa, but now extinct in the wild.
Illegal hunting for meat was identified as the primary threat to three gorilla subspecies: western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli) and Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri).
According to the report, ambiguous, outdated and often poorly enforced national legislation is partly to blame for unsustainable harvesting. Other factors include the ever-increasing demand from expanding urban populations for exotic “luxury meats.” For example, straw-colored fruit bats and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are freely available in urban markets in parts of Africa. Urban demand also fuels unsustainable hunting, diminishing available yields for wildlife-dependent rural communities, the report says.
Risk of zoonoses
The report also presents strong evidence that wild meat taking and consumption are linked to zoonotic diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans.
Speaking at a press conference accompanying the report’s release, Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist and ambassador for CMS, said the conditions under which animals are kept and slaughtered in markets heighten risks.
“They’re kept in horrible cages where they’re stressed and suffering from trauma, and so their immune systems are suppressed. You almost couldn’t design a better way of encouraging pathogens, viruses, bacteria, parasites to jump species,” he said.
A total of 60 zoonotic viral pathogens were hosted by the 105 migratory species studied, according to the research, which cites wild meat taking and consumption as the direct and causative agents for the spillover into humans of the monkeypox virus, SARS, Sudan Ebola virus and Zaire Ebola virus.
As infrastructure, human settlements and agriculture encroach deeper into natural ecosystems, people and wildlife are forced into closer contact, which opens up new habitats and animals to hunters and further heightens the risk of spreading pathogens.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that the overexploitation of nature comes at a heavy cost,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said in a statement. “We urgently need to depart from business-as-usual. In so doing, we can save many species from the brink of extinction and protect ourselves from future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.”
Reversing the decline of migratory mammals will not only require community-level education and fortified governmental protection efforts, it will also take international cooperation to develop a more sustainable global food system. The report comes ahead of the U.N. Food Systems Summit, to be held this week, which will address food systems and how to feed the world sustainably.
Fraenkel said at the press conference that many impoverished rural communities rely on locally abundant wildlife for nutrition and income. Therefore, the impact of wild meat harvesting on migratory species does not imply a blanket ban on all wild meat per se. Where it is appropriate and sustainable, taking of other more abundant or resilient species might still be a viable option. The bottom line is that “any use of wild animals should be legal, sustainable and consider the health risks for both humans and wild animals,” Fraenkel said.
Robert Nasi, director-general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said giving people an affordable alternative to wild meat is likely to be key to maintaining hunting at sustainable levels. “The thing that we cannot do is what is happening in most of the legislation, which is to forbid people without giving them any other alternatives … That is not working,” he said.
Other strategies could include offering help to maintain higher-quality market conditions in exchange for restrictions on the types of species that can be sold. Through such means, Nasi said, the risk of pandemics, with their huge cost to society, could be reduced for a minimal investment in improving the livelihoods of rural communities.
Redmond said he hopes that policymakers will take note of the report’s findings and step up actions to protect migratory species.
“Let’s not wait until the species are extinct,” he said. “Let’s find the alternatives now so those species can continue to play their role in the ecosystem on which we all depend.”
Banner image: A Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), one of three gorilla subspecies threatened by illegal hunting for meat. Image by Mike Davison via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
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