Katy Drake

Our planet is flirting dangerously with the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. Humans the culprits; habitat destruction and direct exploitation of species the crimes. As the decline of terrestrial land mammals continues to accelerate, bushmeat hunting, in particular, has gained new attention.

An international study, led by Professor William Ripple of Oregon State University and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, provides an analysis of 301 species – including 126 primates, 65 ungulates (hooved animals), and 26 bats – signifying that they could be on their way out if unsustainable hunting practices for meat and medicine are not regulated.

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Pangolin

Image Credit: One Green Planet

Most of the threatened species occur in developing countries. The primary reason for hunting these mammals is meat consumption, followed by medicinal use. Bushmeat has long been a source of sustenance for many rural populations. However, the line between necessity and luxury is being blurred as population growth explodes and the demand for bushmeat is pushed higher still by urban populations and more prosperous countries, particularly Asia.

Demand alone cannot explain the entirety. The success of large scale commercial hunting has followed on the heels of greater hunter efficiency. Technology has driven a move from bows to firearms and foot to motorised vehicles, increasing the effectiveness and spatial extent of hunting. Yet, bushmeat hunting is not always selective and several modern methods, including traps and snares, produce substantial bycatch, cause injury to animals and increase carcass loss to scavengers.

Of the 301 species identified in Professor Ripple’s research, large mammals, many of which impact the landscape through seed dispersal and foraging, are disproportionately at risk of extinction from hunting. Large carnivores, which also form part of this group, help control populations of herbivores who otherwise would overconsume grasslands. No other taxonomic group comprises of terrestrial animals in a similar size class. As such, the loss of ‘top-down’ control on ecosystems, provided by large-bodied mammals, cannot be compensated for and would result in permanent ecosystem changes.

The smaller of the 301 mammals are of equal importance, performing specific ecological roles. Pangolin’s have recently joined the list of ‘high-profile’ species threatened with extinction. Their scales are believed to treat many illnesses, including psoriasis and poor circulation. All eight species of pangolin, the most illegally traded mammal in the world, are now threatened with extinction. They are a crucial component in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems providing effective ‘pest control’ and improving soil quality as they burrow for shelter and excavate for food.

However, ecosystem collapse is not the only consequence warned by the scientists of Professor Ripple’s international study. Rural forest communities depend on wild animals such as bonobos and antelope for up to 80% of their protein intake and while urban populations drive much of the new demand, as Nasi indicates in a new paper, ‘Empty forests, empty stomachs? Bushmeat and livelihoods in Congo and Amazon Basins’, bushmeat is not necessarily a luxury for all. It is one of the cheapest sources of protein available and therefore a necessity for much of the urban poor population.

An approximation indicates bushmeat consumption across the Congo basin and Amazon to be on average, 6 million tonnes a year. While some species are able to resist the pressures, only 2 percent of hunted mammal populations are stable or increasing. As the unsustainable practice pushes mammals closer to extinction, hunting returns continue to decrease, jeopardising the food security of the millions who rely on bushmeat as their main source of protein.

Awareness is certainly the first, crucial stepping stone to the solution but is by no means enough on its own. Increased legal protection of wild animals and efficient enforcement will be critical and has already had a proven effect on wildlife populations. The researchers also recommend empowering local communities to benefit from the protection of that wildlife, increasing education opportunities, improved family planning and providing food alternatives, such as plant-based proteins.

There are clear pressures today that threaten wildlife worldwide. Habitat destruction is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous. However, the enormous impact of bushmeat hunting on ecosystems and livelihoods cannot be overlooked. Is it really a victory to conserve a pristine habitat if it is hunted to the point of being ‘empty’?

 

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