BOGOR, Indonesia — Tens of millions of Africans rely on bushmeat and wild fish for up to 80 percent of their protein, and recent calls to end the trade in the food because of links to Ebola virus outbreaks could never be enforced, said Robert Nasi, Deputy Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
He said that people living in Africa’s Congo Basin annually eat about 5 million tons of bushmeat — from caterpillars to elephants.
“That’s about the equivalent of the cattle production of Brazil or the European Union. Bushmeat is the cheapest protein available beside caterpillars.”
Nasi — who has been studying the bushmeat trade for 10 years — said producing the same amount of meat by cattle ranching would require converting up to 25 million hectares of forest into farmland — roughly the size of Great Britain. Bushmeat hunting is largely illegal in many countries in Africa, but weak law enforcement undermines any efforts to actually stop the trade. In Cameroon alone, there are believed to be 460,000 hunters. Nasi said that with growing populations and improved roads and other transport links, the world should expect to see more outbreaks of Ebola and other diseases.
An edited transcript of the video interview with Dr. Nasi continues below.
Q: What is the link between Ebola and bushmeat?
A: One of the Ebola vectors is bats. It’s very likely that non-human primates – gorillas, chimpanzees — are infected via bat droppings or fruits that are half-eaten by the bats and then the chimpanzees and gorillas eat.
Ebola kills these animals. Ebola kills more gorillas and chimpanzees than it probably kills people every year. And what is happening is that people find dead animals in the forest, and they take this animal and they use them for bushmeat or, in the case of a gorilla sometimes, for cultural or magical practices. And by butchering an animal that has been infected, because Ebola is transmitted by contact, they get infected themselves. But there is also possibly a link with domestic animals, because in fact it seems that pigs and dogs are also infected with Ebola without showing signs of the sickness. In the current case, the one we have now in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal, the patient zero, the first infected patient, is a 2-year-old kid. It’s very unlikely that this 2-year-old kid was out in the forest, butchering bushmeat. So it’s more likely that it’s either by contamination of bat droppings, or rodent droppings, or contaminated fruit or something else.
Q: What is bushmeat?
A: If we set aside invertebrates where we talk about caterpillars, it is anything from a 200-gram squirrel to an elephant. It’s animals killed for food. This is different from what you see in the news about the wildlife trade. It’s not about rhinoceros horns, it’s not about ivory. It’s about people killing animals to eat them. It’s hunting for food, which is an activity that has been carried out by humankind for a long, long, long time.
Q: How many people eat bushmeat?
A: We are talking potentially tens of millions of people. If you go to a village, definitely a rural village in Cameroon or Gabon or Democratic Republic of Congo, people there — because they have no real alternative — all eat bushmeat. If you go to town, it is sort of a different custom. In many places, bushmeat is the cheapest protein available beside caterpillars.
In rural parts of the Congo Basin or in Latin America, 30 to 80 percent of the protein intake of the population comes from these wild animals or fish. So you cannot tell the people to stop eating bushmeat unless you provide them an alternative. An alternative would be domestic livestock — cattle. The problem is that if you take the amount of bushmeat that is eaten in the Congo Basin, which is about 5 million tons per year — that is the equivalent of the cattle production of Brazil or the European Union. This means that if you want to produce this amount of cattle in the region, in the Congo Basin, you have to deforest 20 [million] to 25 million hectares of forest.
Q: Is the bushmeat trade sustainable?
A: From all the data we have, even for the most resilient species, the ones that reproduce very fast — rodents, rats, mice — it seems that in many places the populations are decreasing. So there is an overall population decrease because of over-harvesting in many places.
The crisis for me is not only the fact that some very important animals or very precious animals are killed. The fact that even the small ones, the rodents, they are killed and they are not replaced enough. So we are going to have a serious problem in terms of food security. We have data that shows there is a very high correlation between the availability of bushmeat in people’s diets and the stunting of children in the Congo Basin. In the forest area where people have enough bushmeat, the occurrence of stunting is almost nil, 10 percent. In the forest margin where people are more numerous and they have hunted most of the bushmeat to extinction, the occurrence of stunting is 60 percent. And it doesn’t change with the domestic livestock. This meat, this game, is very nutrient-rich. So it’s a very important but small contribution to the diet.
Q: Is the bushmeat trade legal?
A: Ninety-five percent of the bushmeat is harvested illegally … because the laws are properly designed. So as a result, you cannot say that there is a ban on bushmeat everywhere. But everywhere the whole sector is criminalised.
Still, if you look at the data we have from Cameroon, we estimate something like there are 460,000 hunters in Cameroon. So that means that you have 460,000 criminals. You cannot work like that. You have to adapt policies and decisions so that they can implement them. Some people are criminals — the ones that are killing elephants in the protected area. And other people who are killing rodents and eating their harvest are a different case. Having a ban on hunting is not going to work. There is no alternative. So, unless we provide a good alternative to the people for protein, they will continue over-hunting or over-fishing.
Q: Should the world expect more Ebola outbreaks?
A: We should probably expect an increasing number of outbreaks of this type of disease. Today it’s Ebola, but tomorrow it could be Marburg virus, which is the second member of the family of the Filovirus, similar to Ebola, or Lassa virus. We should expect more outbreaks because of larger populations, easier transportation, and also because we are better at detection. Ebola did not appear in 1975, which is when the first people were found dead from it in the Congo and Sudan. It has been with us for a long, long time. Simply people were dying before and nobody knew that it was Ebola.
I don’t think that there is a big risk of a pandemic. The problem in this last case is that people, the doctor in Guinea, did not diagnose early enough that these were Ebola cases. And because there is a constant trade between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, because these are the same ethnic groups, then the thing moved very fast. But if you take the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an outbreak of Ebola in that country now. First, it’s in a remote area. To go there you have to walk for 600 kilometers, and there’s no road, they are not going to go out. So I don’t see a big risk for Ebola virus as it is now to become a global pandemic. If you tell me tomorrow that the virus has mutated and becomes transmittable by air then that is a frightening prospect, but that hasn’t happened so far.
Q: What role can research of the bushmeat trade help in containing Ebola?
A: It is important to understand the whole chain between the animal killed or dead in the wood to the carcass or bits sold in the market in town. Because if you want to make an intervention in the value chain, you need to know who is doing the transportation, who is the wholesaler, who is the retailer, and then who is the buyer.
Unless you understand that, it’s very difficult to act on the value chain. Because the whole value chain of bushmeat is criminalized, nobody is standing up and saying, Well it’s me, I’m just hunting the meat. So we need to have this research on this informal sector, which is pretty complicated. To understand how it works and where you can act on it, sort of. You can act by giving better information to the hunters so they would be less likely to hunt, or you can act by deterring the people in town to buy bushmeat, so it becomes more expensive for them to do that.