With West Africa’s Ebola epidemic in the headlines, the consumption of bushmeat is in the crosshairs. This could be an opportunity, argues Julius Gatune, for a clever policy switch that would promote livelihoods, provide the protein for diets, and reduce the consumption of possibly riskier forms of bushmeat.
With the recent and unprecedented spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, some authorities have called for people to stop eating local wildlife, popularly called bushmeat. Never mind that enforcing an advisory or ban would be next to impossible; the people, with limited alternatives for protein, have in the past resisted such government directives. But other affordable, and less risky, sustainable protein sources exist and policymakers can use economic incentives to shift behaviour in that direction.
Farming animals is challenging in many parts of West Africa. This is partly because the area is prone to infestation by the tsetse fly, making it difficult to keep domestic livestock. Domestic cattle-rearing, therefore, is largely confined to the Sahel belt just south of the Sahara desert and bushmeat is a prized source of animal protein for many West Africans.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think of bushmeat is the poor man’s steak. To the extent that bushmeat is the main source of protein in rural areas, yes, but in the urban areas, no. In cities, bushmeat can be very much the rich man’s meat, a delicacy. Take grasscutter (also known as the greater cane rat): pre-Ebola, one kilogramme retailed for $15 at some eateries, compared with $4 for beef. Such are the dynamics of bushmeat, contributing to the surge in demand, increasing the risk of forest fires for hunting, and pushing some species towards extinction – even before the Ebola connection became mainstream.
With Ebola, another risk has come to the fore: the risk of zoonotic transmission. Fruit bats, a delicacy in some parts, are known to carry the virus without the bats showing symptoms. Therefore, the virus can jump to humans through direct fluid contact in the process of preparing the meat for cooking. The first Ebola patient in this current outbreak is believed to have been a two-year-old boy in Guéckédou, Guinea, who may have contracted it from a fruit bat. Thus, even after this outbreak is beaten back, the risk of the Ebola virus or other diseases jumping from animals to humans will remain.
Two emerging solutions show promise in helping to minimise the possible risks from consuming bushmeat. One innovation is the commercial farming of small wildlife. Since small animals require few resources in terms of time, feed, and space, the poor can easily participate in rearing them.
This is happening with encouraging results in grasscutter breeding. A highly desired meat across the region, with over 80 million animals hunted annually, the potential for grasscutter farming to reduce poverty is strong. For example, a stock family of five grasscutters (one male and four females) can generate enough revenue to educate two children in much of West Africa. Some of the more successful farmers can make up to $1,400 annually, underscoring bushmeat’s poverty-reducing potential in addition to providing protein for diets.
A great deal of work remains to be done to provide financing, build infrastructure, and disseminate the skills necessary for grasscutter farming. Benin’s buoyant industry, however, shows the way forward for the rest of the sub-region, and Ghana has begun copying this with encouraging results.
Another emerging solution is the farming and consumption of insects. Insects not only can have higher nutritional qualities than animal protein, but they can also be produced more sustainably and with a much smaller ecological footprint than animal protein.
Prospects for promoting insect eating are good, as insects are already consumed as a delicacy in many communities in West Africa. Getting the middle class to acquire the taste will create new markets that will be served mostly by the poor, thereby boosting their incomes while also increasing protein intake. Even if it takes longer than expected for the non-eaters to acquire the taste, surplus insect protein can be used for animal feed.
Here too, training, financing, and adopting best practice technology for commercial farming will be critical for growth. Thailand, which has a thriving insect farming industry, can provide useful lessons.
In all this, education and regulation will be a prerequisite. With proper regulation and support, wildlife and insect farming can be an important contributor to the quest for protein in the region and motivate a shift from the potentially more risky forms of bushmeat.