No, for the uninitiated, the title doesn’t refer to some kind of sexual euphemism. From the Bushmeat Task Force:
In Africa, forest is often referred to as ‘the bush’, thus wildlife and the meat derived from it is referred to as ‘bushmeat’. This term applies to all wildlife species, including threatened and endangered, used for meat including: elephant; gorilla; chimpanzee and other primates; forest antelope (duikers); crocodile; porcupine; bush pig; cane rat; pangolin; monitor lizard; guinea fowl; etc.
Some of this can be hunted legally–much of it is not. Though I won’t be concentrating on the bushmeat crisis per se (the focus of the Bushmeat Task Force), they note several ways it is obtained:
BCTF is most concerned with bushmeat that is illegally, commercially and/or unsustainably derived from wildlife, including that characterized by illegal methods of hunting (wire snares, unregistered guns); illegal species (endangered, threatened, or protected); taken from unauthorized areas; and unsustainable offtake for commercial trade or non-commercial uses.
While their concern lies largely in the treat to wildlife caused by this kind of illegal hunting (a valid concern, especially where non-human primates and other endangered species are concerned), the focus of this post will be the danger this type of food source poses to humans.
I’ve already discussed in part 1 and part 2 of the series some ways that microbes can jump from animal to human, and some factors which affect the emergence of these types of diseases. Though I didn’t specifically mention bushmeat consumption, this is another factor in Africa with the potential to have a huge impact on introduction of new diseases into the human population.
Bushmeat is often a part of the diet of rural African communities. In some areas of Central Africa, bushmeat comprises up to 80% of all animal-based protein. In this area, duikers (forest antelope; pictured above is a red-flanked duiker) are the most common type of bushmeat, but if they begin to dwindle, hunters may shift to other animals–including primates.
Killing and eating primates is known to have introduced disease into human populations in Africa in recent years. For example, an Ebola outbreak in 1996 in Gabon began when patients became ill after butchering and eating a dead chimpanzee that they had found. Additionally, evidence of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infection has been reported for at least 26 different species of African primates, many of which are regularly hunted and sold as bushmeat. Though there have been rumors that SIV spread to humans via sexual contact between the two species, it’s much more likely that the movement occurred due to butchering and/or consumption of infected primates. Indeed, to go back to Ebola, another case of that virus resulted in 1994 on Africa’s Ivory Coast after a researcher had performed an autopsy of a dead chimpanzee, and likely cut herself by accident during the procedure. Other animals can introduce disease as well–for example, monkeypox from a variety of rodent reservoirs which may be eaten, trichenella from wild boar, etc. Almost any animal species can be a source of a novel disease, and this zoonotic transfer due to bushmeat consumption is probably more common than we realize.
Unfortunately, trade in bushmeat is not expected to decrease anytime soon. Logging and mining operations have opened up new areas of forest to commercial hunting, increasing the risk that humans in Africa will be exposed to new diseases via the bushmeat they consume. Obviously, one also simply can’t expect impoverished people in this continent to stop consuming the meat that makes up much of their diet–bushmeat is unlikely to be replaced unless cheaper substitutes are available, which don’t appear to be on the horizon. What can be done is to educate people on how to more safely butcher and consume this type of meat, and as a long-term goal, to improve the public health infrastructures of countries in the region in order to better identify and manage outbreaks that occur (whether they’re due to bushmeat consumption or other causes). This won’t be easy–even our own public health infrastructure is lacking, and educational campaigns must be carried out in manners which understand and respect cultural differences.
Finally, in addition to being a source of protein, hunting bushmeat is a fairly lucrative occupation in these impoverished areas. This results in the distribution of more than a million tons of bushmeat each year in the Congo basin alone. A bushmeat hunter can earn $300-1000 a year (more than the average income of the region), and the total value of the bushmeat trade in Africa is estimated at ~$50 million (US dollars) annually accurding to this site, while this publication by the OIE puts the figure for all international bushmeat trade at $1 billion US. Bushmeat hunting can also be compounded by war, which I’ll discuss further tomorrow. This is a huge problem, and unfortunately, one likely to only grow in the immediate future.
For more information: