Bushmeat and Epidemics
pour National Geographic
Ebola, Covid-19, SARS, and monkeypox: zoonotic diseases occur when pathogens pass from wild animals to humans, and can develop into epidemics, or a pandemic. Millions of people around the world consume bushmeat which is an important source of food for many rural communities. It is often perceived to be healthier, and strong cultural beliefs reinforce the practice. Bushmeat draws high prices and is sold by hunters, but most is not consumed where the animals are hunted. After the first sale, the meat moves to nearby towns where it triples in value, and there is also international trade on a daily basis, mostly to African expatriate communities in Europe, plus a huge market in Asia.
The trafficking of bushmeat to cities to meet non-essential demand poses a major threat to many animal species. As urban populations grow, consumer demand for bushmeat increases, exerting ever greater pressure on wildlife. One of the largest zones for the trade is the Congo Basin. Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo are two capital cities separated only by the Congo River.
Combined, they form the third largest urban agglomeration in Africa, with a total population of 15 million, and by 2050, Kinshasa is forecast to be the fourth-largest city in the world. According to a study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, it is estimated that over 33 thousand metric tons of bushmeat is traded in Kinshasa every year, making it the hub of this worldwide trade. While alternative animal protein like beef and chicken is available in these cities, bushmeat has social and cultural significance, and is therefore consumed as a luxury. As bushmeat introduces novel pathogens to densely populated cities, there is a significant risk of zoonotic disease, as seen with the case of fruit bats featured in this report. Epidemiologists observing camps of fruit bats have found that up to one-third are positive for Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers. The situation is simply not sustainable, and the land is being stripped of wildlife. Alternatives must be found, e.g. sustainable fishing, the farming of weevil larvae, and the new and revolutionary science of cell-based laboratory-grown meat, which may be approved for production in the United States and China.
Large portions of this photo essay were shot in cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (Sustainable Wildlife Management Program).