Stopping Bushmeat Is Good for Conservation—and Bad for Hunger

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I wrote a piece recently for the paper magazine—sadly behind the paymoat—on the viral ecologist Nathan Wolfe. Wolfe’s Global Viral Forecasting group has set up research teams in hotspots around the world—places like central Africa, China and Southeast Asia—where animal diseases are likely to cross over to human beings. That spillover has seeded most of new infectious diseases plaguing humanity—including swine flu and HIV—and it tends to happen when human beings and wild animals come into close contact, when blood or other bodily fluids can pass easily from one species to another.

And how does that close contact occur? Bushmeat hunting and slaughtering—the practice, long common in parts of the world, of killing wild animals for food. (Bushmeat hunting in central Africa is essentially the same as hunting deer or game elsewhere, except that the primates and other wild animals found in the rainforest and jungle are more likely to carry new and potentially dangerous diseases.) Bushmeat consumption—which is on the rise in increasingly wealthy African cities—is also a major threat to wildlife conservation, with endangered animals like gorillas and chimpanzees targeted for the market. Stop the bushmeat trade, it seems to follow, and you can strike a blow for conservation and for global health.

Except, as Wolfe told me when I accompanied him to a poor village in Cameroon, it’s not that simple:

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It’s not so simple just to shut the ad hoc business down, though. Villagers in Cameroon and elsewhere in Central Africa aren’t scouring the forest for prey because they want to, as anyone who’s shadowed a hunter on an hours-long trek knows. Bush meat is virtually the only source of protein available in the countryside, and as African cities have swelled, there’s additional demand at the market from urbanites who crave a taste of dik-dik or monkey. (It’s common to see Cameroonians selling freshly killed bush meat along the roadsides.) “If we could snap our fingers and eliminate all contact with wild game, that would be great, but it’s an impossibility,” says Wolfe. “This is an issue of rural poverty.” That puts Wolfe and his colleagues in a tough spot. They know that bush-meat hunting is a danger to the entire planet. But desperately poor people need to eat.

Now a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences backs up Wolfe’s concerns. Researchers from Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley looked at the nutritional role of bushmeat consumption, and found that it had a positive impact on children’s diets—raising uncomfortable questions about the tradeoffs between human health and wildlife conservation.

Said study co-author Lia Fernald of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health:

It is clearly not environmentally sustainable for children to eat endangered animals, but in the context of remote, rural Madagascar, households don’t always have a choice. In places where a diverse range of nutritious food is unavailable, children rely upon animal-source foods – milk, eggs and meat – for critical nutrients like fats, protein, zinc and iron. What we need for these children are interventions that can provide high-quality food sources that are not endangered.

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The study—led by Harvard’s Christopher Golden—looked at the diet of 77 children under the age of 12 in rural northwestern Madagascar, one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in the world. Their models indicated that removing access to bushmeat would lead to a 29% increase in the number of children suffering from anemia, and a tripling of anemia cases among children in the poorest of the poor households. Since childhood anemia often leads to future disease—and globally, nearly 2 billion people suffer from iron deficiency—protecting wildlife in this case would seem to seriously impact the health of an entire generation.

That doesn’t mean Golden and his colleagues are advocating bushmeat trade and consumption, as he says:

In my heart, I believe that conservation is a powerful and positive process that, were it not in place, it’s very likely that these animals would be unsustainably harvested. Ultimately, in this region, we’re dealing with the confluences of cultural preference, policy restrictions and food necessity – it’s a very difficult area to traverse.

So can we have wildlife conservation and fight hunger? Yes, but not without smart policy. When I visited rural Cameroon with Wolfe, I was struck by how few domestic animals I saw in and around the villages. Few chickens or goats, no cattle or pigs—which meant that a monkey or a dik-dik really was just about the only viable source of protein. In his study, Golden found that people in Madagascar wanted to eat chicken or pork, but couldn’t afford it. The smart way to save wild animals might involve improving domestic animal production on the ground in Africa and other places where bushmeat remains a necessity. Sacrifice a cow, save a monkey—and since fighting the bushmeat trade can reduce the risk of new diseases jumping to human beings, we all could benefit.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME