Wildlife Conservation Society’s stance on meat clarified

Women selling monkey meat in a market in Kisangani, Congo. Several tonnes of illegal 'bushmeat' are being smuggled into Europe each week. Photograph: Schalk Van Zuydam/AP

Susan Lieberman says the society’s concern is preventing the next wildlife disease spillover and subsequent human-to-human pandemic spread across the planet

By TG - 19. June 2020

‘Promoting backyard poultry production by women can provide much-needed high-quality meat and eggs. This approach makes far more sense than centralised, industrial-scale animal farming,’ says Susan Lieberman.

John Vidal’s story (‘Ban on bushmeat’ after Covid-19 but what if alternative is factory farming?, 26 May - see below) suggests that calls by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other conservation organisations to halt the risky commercial trade of wildlife for human consumption somehow prefer a transition to intensive livestock production. That is wrong.

Our concern is preventing the next wildlife disease spillover and subsequent human-to-human pandemic spread across the planet. Such spillover is much more likely to occur in urban markets that sell live or fresh wildlife sourced hundreds or thousands of miles away from where indigenous peoples and local communities need to feed their families.

HenFor two decades, WCS has helped over 200 indigenous groups exercise their rights to manage their natural resources and protect their food sovereignty. Concern for the health of indigenous peoples and local communities and their families motivated us to establish wildlife disease surveillance and public health awareness systems to detect disease outbreaks and enable governments to respond. In many rural towns, wildlife remains important to people’s diets.

Other alternatives to intensive livestock production are available. For example, promoting backyard poultry production by women can provide much-needed high-quality meat and eggs.

This approach makes far more sense than centralised, industrial-scale animal farming, which wreaks ecological havoc and does not contribute to rural household income, and is not something that I would ever promote.


Susan Lieberman is Vice president, international policy, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY


What does more environmental damage: eating meat from the wild or a factory farm?

Governments and WHO face pressure to ban commercial trade in wild animals, but experts say this would criminalise the way of life of millions of people

By John Vidal - 26. May 2020

The border between native forest and land that has been cleared for agriculture in Salta, Argentina. Which does more damage - eating wild meat, or eating factory farmed meat? Photograph: Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images

Antelope is best, monkey is chewy, bats needs a sauce, forest porcupine is mild, and pangolin – one of the most trafficked animals in the world – tastes great roasted but smells awful. That, at least, was what the Gabonese workers told us.

We were in a Belgian-owned logging camp in Gabon. The day had been spent watching giant trees being felled for the Chinese market but by evening everyone’s thoughts had turned to food.

Most rural Africans and Asians say “bush” or wild meat is healthier, tastier and often cheaper than the bland meat of most farmed animals like chickens or pigs. The joke among the African loggers in the camp that night was that Asians would eat anything alive in the forest but the squeamish Europeans would eat nothing.

‘Mixed with prejudice’: calls for ban on ‘wet’ markets misguided, experts argue

Today, as a result of Covid-19 and its suspected origins in a Chinese “wet” market, governments and the World Health Organization are coming under growing pressure from conservationists, vegans, and animal protection, zoo, and welfare groups to not just stop the hunting of all wild animals for food but to end the commercial trade in live animals with a global ban. Now is the time to link human health with biodiversity loss and animal suffering and to close all markets selling live or dead wild animals, they say.


What is a wet market?

At the crack of dawn every day, “wet markets” in China and across Asia come to life, with stall owners touting their wares, such as fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices in an open-air setting. The sights and sounds of the wet market form part of the rich tapestry of community life, where local people buy affordable food, or just go for a stroll and meet their neighbours for a chat. 

While supermarkets selling chilled or frozen meats are increasingly popular in Asia, older shoppers generally prefer buying freshly slaughtered meat for daily consumption, believing it produces flavour in dishes and soup that is superior to frozen meat.

“Wet markets”, where water is sloshed on produce to keep it cool and fresh, may be considered unsanitary by western standards. But most do not trade in exotic or wild animals and should not be confused with “wildlife markets” – now the focus of vociferous calls for global bans.

The Wuhan South China seafood market, suspected to be a primary source for spreading Covid-19 in late 2019, had a wild animal section where live and slaughtered species were for sale, including snakes, beavers, badgers, civet cats, foxes, peacocks and porcupines among other animals.

Verna Yu

A spokeswoman for WWF UK says: “We have called for the closure of illegal and unregulated wildlife markets, primarily in urban areas. What we are concerned about is the illegal consumption of highly threatened wildlife, often seen as a delicacy.”

There is no doubt that wild meat hunting and consumption is heavily impacting the world’s wildlife, giving rise to what is called “the empty forest”, where few large mammals remain. A 2016 Royal Society paper shows that the bushmeat trade is growing fast, with devastating results. “As wildlife populations outside protected areas decline, poaching pressure is increasing in many parks and reserves,” say the authors. “As a consequence many forests, savannahs, grasslands and deserts in the developing world are now becoming ‘empty landscapes’ devoid of harvest-sensitive wild mammals.”

What has changed over 50 years, say scientists, is the scale of the commercial wild meat trade. In the past, local subsistence hunters killed animals in small numbers. Today a high-volume industry supplies fast-expanding Asian and African cities. No longer run by local hunters, it is helped by modern firearms and cellphones, and utilises a vast network of new roads driven deep into forest concessions by the international logging industry. Hunters can strip a forest or wetland in a few nights and access home and export markets for their meat. And as the forests are emptied of their animals, the price of wild meat soars and it becomes a luxury commodity for urban elites.

Dead pangolins seized by authorities in Belawan, North Sumatra. More than 5,500 species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles are bought and sold on the worldwide animal market. Photograph: Gatha Ginting/AFP via Getty Images

Sue Lieberman, vice-president of international policy at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, says that growing populations in Africa and Asia must switch to eating farmed animals. “People do need other sources of food [than bushmeat]. I am not saying that people should not eat wild animals [but] there is not enough to go round any more. Commercialisation is the problem. The first priority must be to stop the commercial markets. They can’t go on. Practices that originated hundreds of years ago have to stop. The amount it would cost to provide chicken and farmed fish to everyone [in Africa] is negligible compared to what this pandemic is costing.”

But critics of a ban say that the legal wildlife meat trade employs hundreds of thousands of people, provides protein for between 30 million and 70 million people in Africa alone and kills few threatened, or rare animals.

What about the environmental impacts of farming? According to a major 2011 study led by Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor), a switch to cattle to provide protein in place of wild animals would have huge impact.

Hunters, says Nasi, take about 4.5m tonnes of bushmeat a year from forests in the Congo basin and possibly 1.299m tonnes in the Amazon. “We would need to transform large areas of tropical forests or savannas into pasture to replace [this amount of] bushmeat by cattle. For comparison, Brazilian beef production is considered responsible for about 50m hectares [124m acres – twice the size of the UK] of deforestation. If bushmeat consumption in the Congo basin was to be replaced by locally produced beef, an area as large as 25 m hectares might have to be converted to pastures.”

Factory farming has devastating effects on wildlife, says Philip Lymbery, director of UK-based Compassion in World Farming. “It is a main driver of wildlife decline and the destruction of the world’s remaining wild lands,” he says. “It’s about keeping animals caged in sheds, which sounds efficient but you have to devote vast areas of land to grow their feed. It drives encroachment into wild lands and the destruction of habitats.

“It would cause unimaginable suffering to the animals, and even more environmental devastation. It would also create the perfect breeding ground for the next pandemic. Factory farming and pandemics are strongly linked. The main driver of future pandemics will be factory farming.”

Bushmeat on sale at the weekly market in Yangambi, DRC. The animals that are hunted include warthogs, monkeys and Gambia rats. Forests in the area still have plenty of animals although numbers have declined over the past decade. Photograph: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Many epidemiologists, ecologists, human rights and indigenous peoples’ groups say a knee-jerk global reaction to ban the wild meat trade could be unscientific, counter-productive and culturally offensive.

The western conservation “industry” wants an end to the eating of wild animals because it wants vast new areas of land to be “protected” in the name of increasing biodiversity, says Fiore Longo, advocacy officer of Survival International.

“But this model of ‘fortress conservation’ is dangerous,” she says. “Conservationists have seized the crisis as a chance to criminalise the ways of life of a large part of the world’s population. It reinforces the false divide between people and wildlife, and potentially vastly increases the size of protected areas whatever the human cost may be.

“What happens if we outlaw the trade and consumption of wildlife where there are no other sources of protein available? Do we let more people starve? Is a dependence on industrial food production with all its enormous environmental, health and financial impacts somehow ‘better’ than the sustainable consumption of wild animals?”

In Guyana, bushmeat is sold freely in a variety of places including restaurants, bars, private homes or on the roadside. People hunt and trade wild meat for food, income or just as a hobby. The most commonly traded species include capybara and iguana. Photograph: Manuel Lopez/CIFOR

“It is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says John Fa, coordinator of the Bushmeat Research Initiative at Cifor. “Wild meat plays an important role in the nutrition of large populations of humans, accounting for up to 50% of the protein intake of people in central Africa. You can’t just say to people: ‘You can’t do it any more.’”

Wildlife hunting bans mostly fail, says Stephanie Brittain, who spent five years in Cameroon researching bushmeat consumption and now works with Oxford University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science. After the 2013–16 Ebola outbreak in west Africa, she says, bans were brought in by several countries but could not be policed. The result was a marked increase in hunting for wild meat. “There [is] no conclusive evidence that banning the wildlife trade will prevent the emergence of zoonotic diseases in the future,” she says. “The legal trade for species that can be safely harvested can facilitate improved hygiene and animal welfare, while complete bans can drive trade underground, resulting in illegal markets with lower hygiene regulation and increased risk of disease transmission.”

As for the idea that disease is more likely to accompany wild meat, experts point out that illnesses like Mers and Sars, BSE, swine and bird flu, E coli, MRSA and salmonella, originated in intensive poultry, pig and livestock farms where the overuse of antibiotics and unhygienic conditions can spread disease quickly. Many are common. According to the OIE, the World Organisation for Animal Health, there are currently more than 25 outbreaks of H5 and H7 avian flu having to be controlled in more than 20 countries, including the US, Germany, India and Saudi Arabia. Any one, if unattended by vets, could develop into an epidemic.

“Intensive farming is an area that must also be looked at”, says Eric Fevre, chair of veterinary infectious diseases at Liverpool University. “As we select for better milk cows, better beef cows or better egg-laying chickens, we create populations of animals that often live in intensive conditions, but where the genetics are very similar. This creates risks for [the] emergence of diseases, because if these genetically uniform large populations are susceptible, things can spread very quickly.”

In Congo, part-time hunters boost their income with bushmeat. A WWF billboard listing protected species at the entrance of a bushmeat market in Mbandaka, DRC. Photograph: Thomas Nicolon/Reuters

Delia Grace, programme leader for food safety and zoonoses at the International Livestock Research Institute, said: “Wet markets are basically fresh food markets. In the UK we like farmers’ markets with fresh cornfed chickens, farm-sourced meats and nice looking sausages. That’s basically a wet market, though in a different cultural context. They are essential to bring fresh food to urban populations, and provide for the food security of millions of people.

“They do need to be regulated and controlled. They should not be blanket banned, as that is not sensitive to the needs of their clients who depend on them.”

Conservationists are struggling to diminish consumption of wild animals through behaviour campaigns, legislation and law enforcement – especially in urban Africa, says Congo analyst Theodore Trefon, a researcher at the Belgian Royal Museum for central Africa.

“Many consumers [there] believe that eating bushmeat is quite simply normal, respectful of tradition, healthy, desirable and commonsensical,” he says. “This is a well-known challenge to wildlife conservationists but one that is relatively new to public health experts confronted by known and yet-to-come zoonotic diseases.”


‘Mixed with prejudice’: calls for ban on ‘wet’ markets misguided, experts argue
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Five tonnes of illegal 'bushmeat' being smuggled into Europe each week

Not much change since 10 years ago.

Primates and crocodiles from central and west Africa among animals found in luggage by customs officials

By Press Association - Fri 18 Jun 2010

Several tonnes of illegal "bushmeat" from animals ranging from primates to crocodiles are being smuggled in luggage each week through one of Europe's busiest airports, researchers said today.

Animal experts worked with customs officials at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport to identify meat from species being carried into Europe from central and west Africa.

Over a period of 17 days, 134 passengers from 29 flights were searched and almost half were found to be carrying fish or meat from livestock or wild animals.

The researchers found 11 different "bushmeat" or meat from wild animal species including Nile crocodiles, red river hog, primates, porcupines and pangolins.

The probe found two-fifths (39%) of the wild species smuggled in were subject to trade regulations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Livestock including entire sheep and calves wrapped in plastic and placed in holdalls were also uncovered during the research.

The experts from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), the National Veterinary School and the Natural History Museum of Toulouse estimate some five tonnes of bushmeat pass through the airport in personal luggage each week.

Smuggling meat in luggage such as holdalls poses a major risk to human health and could spread disease, while the bushmeat trade also poses a threat to wildlife, they warned.

Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, from ZSL and the RVC, said: "Our results estimate that around 270 tonnes of potentially contaminated illegal bushmeat is passing unchecked through a single European airport per year, posing a huge potential risk to potential public health."

And the study, which is published today in the journal Conservation Letters, said the nature of the imports suggested there was a growing luxury market for the meat and it was being brought in for trade and not simply personal consumption.

Co-author Dr Marcus Rowcliffe, from ZSL, said: "Our results show that this is a lucrative, organised trade feeding into a luxury market; a 4kg monkey will cost around €100 (£84) in France, compared with just €5 (£4) in Cameroon.

"Importing bushmeat is relatively easy, as customs officials are given no financial incentives to uncover illegal meat imports, compared with the bonuses they're awarded for drug and counterfeit seizures.

"Also, penalties are very low for people caught carrying illegal meat."

A muntjac, or barking deer, sits in a cage at a Chinese market in 2003. The animal tastes like tough beef, said one family in Guangzhou.   © Reuters