Julie Mollins, Forest News | May 11, 2021
Increasing demand for food and traditional medicines, multiplying local wars and conflicts, an expanding legal and illegal market trade have exacerbated the wildlife crisis in recent years, damaging ecosystems and driving many species to the verge of extinction.
Defined by scientists as the “widespread unsustainable exploitation of wildlife,” the situation is of particular concern in the rural tropics, where biodiversity is also under threat as natural habitats shrink and populations grow. Human-wildlife interactions have led to pathogen exchange and triggered such recent zoonotic infectious disease outbreaks as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola and COVID-19.
Subsistence hunter-gatherer societies have been active in the tropics for more than 40,000 years, but over the past century as hunting methods have become more efficient, so has the capacity to capture larger numbers of animals and other wildlife.
A multi-billion dollar industry, the illegal wildlife trade for meat and medicines poses a major threat to forest ecosystems, despite the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), due to difficulties with enforcement, say scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in a recent research paper published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources.
“Wildlife harvesting has reached unsustainable levels, partly because of conservation initiatives historically developed to address elitist interests, rather than the interests of forest-dependent rural people, said Robert Nasi, director general of CIFOR and managing director of World Agroforestry (ICRAF), one of the authors of the study.
The key to addressing the challenges is to develop a multi-disciplinary strategy, which embraces political, socioeconomic factors and scientific knowhow while bringing government, non-government, national and international organizations to the table to discuss the path forward.
“Change will only occur after public education campaigns and conservation institutions are strengthened, but we need to do more than that,” Nasi said. “We also need to develop sustainable agriculture initiatives to meet food security needs and ensure that laws on wildlife management are improved and enforced.”
As part of their survey, the scientists investigated the harvesting of wildlife products for food and medicine in tropical Africa, the Americas and in Asia. They explored the complex drivers of wildlife harvesting for bushmeat and traditional medicine, the consequences for biodiversity, the environment and human populations.
Over-harvesting of wild meat can threaten food security if in-demand species are hunted at too high a rate. The impact is enormous, since at least 300 million of the poorest people in the world are dependent on forests for their livelihoods and 90 percent of the world’s poorest people depend largely on forests for their livelihoods. In a comparison of two main moist-tropical regions — the Amazon and Congo basins — scientists learned that more than 5 million tons of wild meat feed millions of local people in neotropical and Afrotropical forests each year.
“It’s likely that many forest mammals will become extinct soon and that protein malnutrition will increase if nutritional security in these regions aren’t urgently addressed,” Nasi said. “Unless there is a drastic change to make wildlife exploitation — including for non-essential ‘luxury’ products — more sustainable, the tropics will certainly lose most of its iconic species and many others in the coming years.”
A range of hunting-related activities harmful to the natural balance of ecosystems also exacerbate food insecurity, the paper states.
“The loss of some animal species through overhunting can limit the potential for forests to regenerate,” Nasi said. “It’s caused lasting changes in tree populations, spatial distribution of trees, growth and dynamics, resulting in a decline in local tree diversity over time. For example, large fruit bats and birds distribute seeds in their droppings over long distances and should be protected from hunting in tropical East Asia.”
The large flying fox in Borneo once played a key role in pollination in several Malaysian states but because of unsustainable hunting practices, no longer does, raising concerns about the future of plant species and growth. The flying fox species itself is also at risk and could present a public health danger as it has the potential to spread viruses due to closer and more frequent contact with humans as its habitat is degraded.