By Julian Moll-Rocek
Barbed-wire snares, spent shotgun shells, the lingering smell of gunpowder, and strips of curing meat: glimpses from a bushmeat hunt. Bushmeat hunting is the illegal hunting of wildlife for food and income. A newly released study in mongabay.com's journal Tropical Conservation Science reports regular bushmeat consumption by a large proportion of Tanzania’s tribal populations. Co-authors Silvia Ceppi and Martin Nielson were hunting for their own answers: who was eating bushmeat and why?
Unregulated hunting, as well as land conversion, has led to dwindling wildlife populations and is posing a serious threat to biodiversity in this East African nation. However, bushmeat also plays an important role as a protein and income source for locals. According to Ceppi and Nielson, “illegal hunting may be the only way for local communities to benefit from adjacent wildlife reserves.”
To get at the driving forces behind bushmeat consumption, Ceppi and Nielson took a broad look across three hundred households of ten tribes living in biodiverse ecosystems throughout Tanzania. Ceppi interviewed men, women and teenagers in each tribe, traveling to remote areas across the country between 2007 and 2009. Having a hunter in the household greatly increased the frequency of bushmeat consumption, suggesting that in these tribal areas the sale of bushmeat is limited. Ease of access to wildlife was key: hunting levels dropped off in highly protected areas, as well as with increasing distance to the reserves.
Several previous studies on bushmeat consumption in Tanzania suggest that ownership of domesticated animals reduces the pressure on nearby wildlife. Contrary to these findings, Ceppi and Nielson found patterns of livestock holding and bushmeat consumption aligned more with cultural patterns: tribes rearing cattle and sheep consumed less, whilst those holding pigs and poultry tended to eat bushmeat more regularly. While cattle-herding Maasai were uninterested in bushmeat, nearly all respondents of farming groups such as the Wanguu regularly included bushmeat in their diets. Some tribes even have special cultural meanings attached to eating bushmeat; the Wataturu, for example, consider elephant trunks to increase male virility.
As always, however, the devil is in the details. The broadly defined concept of bushmeat is a colonial-era construct, originating with a set of restrictions on wildlife hunting enacted by the German colonial administration in the early 1900s.
“These laws were tightened by the British government in 1918, when a visible reduction of wildlife populations became a concern,” Ceppi said. Bushmeat laws were created to preserve colonial interests and resources in the face of pressure from indigenous populations.
Furthermore, the usefulness of the term “bushmeat” is questionable, as hunting of abundant wild species such as hare (Lepus capensis) and cane rat (Thryonomys swindernianus) is equated with the hunting of IUCN-listed vulnerable species such as elephant (Loxodonta africana) and hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). This old-fashioned, broad-strokes approach obscures important components of the biodiversity in question.
Ceppi and Nielson emphasized two key takeaways from their study. The prevailing assumption that bushmeat hunting could be ameliorated through provision of domesticated animals and alternate protein sources is not the simple solution policy makers have hoped for. Secondly, bushmeat regulation needs to carefully consider cultural variation, taking into account a holistic view of local people’s habits on biodiversity impacts.
- Ceppi, S. L. and Nielsen, M. R. 2014. A comparative study on bushmeat consumption patterns in ten tribes in Tanzania Tropical Conservation Science Vol.7 (2): 272-287.