A recent study by researchers at UC Berkeley shows that bushmeat — game — taken from forests in many locations around the world is an essential part of the diets of the people who live there, and even helps to prevent anemia in children. The study was conducted in the Makira Protected Area of Madagascar, which is a global hot spot for biodiversity, and the findings have created a ripple between conservation efforts and human health initiatives.
The study demonstrates that consuming meat is a requirement for populations without enhanced supplement programs to maintain proper iron levels, and that wildlife sometimes rounds out their diets — especially in locations where access to domesticated meat is less than readily available or is otherwise too expensive for the poor to eat frequently enough. The study focused on bushmeat as it is being eaten as a subsistence food by poor people rather than a luxury cuisine for the rich — which is another issue in and of itself.
The focus group for the investigation was a group of 77 children in the Makira Protected Area of Madagascar, where the local people often utilize the wildlife around them — such as lemurs and bats — as food. The scientists hypothesized that, as bio-available iron mostly comes from meat, consumption rates of wildlife and clinical anemia would be inversely proportional. Not surprisingly, the children who consumed more bushmeat during the study had higher levels of hemoglobin in their blood — an iron rich protein which wards off anemia. The researchers then concluded that if bushmeat were to be removed entirely from the diets of these children and not replaced with another meat source that anemia rates would therefore rise.
While the results of this study may not be groundbreaking, it does show the role that bushmeat plays in the diets of poor populations in jungle or rain forest areas and also the fact that human nutrition needs to be taken into account when forging conservation policy in places where wild animals are not just biological intrigues, but a common type of food.
The lead author of the study, Christopher Golden, stated that, “When thinking of creating protected areas for diversity, policymakers need to take into consideration how that will impact local people, both in livelihoods and from a health perspective. We need to find ways to benefit the local population in our conservation policies, not hurt them.”
Very often, when natural areas become protected by governing bodies, hunting and the removal of wild products becomes regulated or, in many cases, prohibited. This often presents a conflict between conservation efforts and the dietary needs and habits of the people living in the protected region. But the UC Berkeley study also claimed that most of the people in the Makira Protected Area actually prefer to eat domesticated meat rather than bushmeat, “so one possible solution is to support programs that allow the people there to raise chickens or goats.”
While the study recognizes that it is not environmentally sustainable for local people to eat endangered species it also claimed that many of the families doing so are often pressed with few other options to obtain enough meat to satisfy health requirements.
“What we need for these children are interventions that can provide high-quality food sources that are not endangered,” one of the researchers claimed.
In my experience of living in rainforest areas along the Rio Dulce ofand in the Peruvian Amazon, the local people in these regions tended to treat wildlife resources as being somewhat inexhaustible, something that has always been available to them, and something that always will be there for them — regardless of the fact that many of them have witnessed the disappearance or reduction of many species which were once common in their respective areas.
I can attest that many of the bushmeat hunting and fishing practices of the people in the areas that I’ve observed are pretty indiscriminate: an “if it moves it can be eaten” policy generally holds true, with not even song birds being spared. In these areas meals are often made up of a conglomerate of different forest meats, fish, or, if they can afford it, domesticated meat. Like the people surveyed in the UC Berkeley study, their bushmeat hunting was almost solely for subsistence rather than commercial, purposes.
The rain forests of the world provide food, medicine, and, very often, livelihoods for the people who live there. The problem comes when their traditional practices of hunting bushmeat, fishing, and other activities put additional survival pressures on species and ecosystems that are in fast decline because of new, larger threats like development, deforestation, and pollution.
Conservation, or the idea that you shouldn’t kill or trap certain species because they are endangered, seems to be a difficult concept for many rain forest cultures to grasp. They have always hunted the animals in their forests, and the changing times argument does not hold much sway. The suggestions that they should cease in their acquisition of bushmeat or at least to hunt discriminately, or even that their jungle is being depopulated of wildlife because of the practices of humans are often written off as outsiders trying to interfere in their lives yet again.
Even at a late stage in the depopulating of much of the wildlife in the rainforest in eastern Guatemala along the Rio Dulce, the local people would still trap and sell endangered species for pets or kill them for their hides, claws, or other body parts which they can sell. Last year I witnessed a jaguar pup that was caught by a hunter and sold to an unscrupulous buyer for a little under 50 USD. Regrettably, I did not have the opportunity to interview the hunter to find out what he did, or what happened to, the pup’s mother.
Like the Madagascar people that the U of California study observed, the indigenous people of the eastern rain forests of Guatemala are poor, subsistence hunters, fishermen, small time farmers, or manufacturers of rain forest products. They make their living from the jungle — selling, using, or consuming its wildlife, plants, and fish. But doing so at this junction in time seems to be a poor investment for the future of this area, as many of the larger mammals, many of the birds, and some of the fish are disappearing fast or are already gone. While rainforest products are often renewable resources, they are not inexhaustible: all too often, once they are gone, they are gone for good.
As the U of California study implies, to preserve endangered species of this planet’s natural areas you need to ensure that the dietary and economic needs of the people living in or near these ecosystems are met first. If not, a conflict of interests is inevitable, as it is difficult to conserve wildlife when people are eating in. The advantage of eating bushmeat for the local people is that it is free — you go into the forest and just take it. On the subsistance level, this is an extra-commercial venture: poor people taking bushmeat to feed themselves and their families. It is difficult to propose removing this source of nutrition without providing an alternative.
Though the fact of the mater is that eating bushmeat from many of the tropical forests of the world is no longer a long term dietary solution — the animals are going extinct or are moving deeper into the forest. This is something that I’ve been told time and time again as I move through rainforest areas of the planet: “The animals use to be here but now they have gone far away.” Once animals that are were once commonly eaten as bushmeat disappear from an area or otherwise go extinct, they are no longer of any nutritional value to anyone. Other dietary alternatives are needed for both wildlife conservation and human well-being.