The sale and consumption of bushmeat is a very regular sight across many rural areas and some urban parts of Nigeria, as many people consider the hunting of animals for game as an income-yielding venture. In this analysis, ANAYO EZUGWU looks at the danger such activities pose not only to human health, but also to the preservation of wildlife in Nigeria
In many parts of Nigeria, bushmeat hunting and poaching is a survival strategy for the people. It also significantly adds to household income in many rural communities, which has led to increased consumption of bushmeat across the country. Traditionally, hunting for wild animals in Nigeria occur on foot or with dogs using primitive weapons and traps, but increased access to firearms together with an increase in road infrastructure, has enabled people to access remote areas, and harvest wildlife more productively to reach new local and global markets for bushmeat trading.
Additionally, as urban centres grow, the demand for bushmeat in these urban centres is anticipated to increase. Over the years, Nigeria has emerged as a massive market for bushmeat trade and consumption. Bushmeat is a term used in Nigeria to refer to wildlife species often poached and consumed by people. Bushmeat is often gotten from animals such as pangolins and grasscutter, among several others, are brought into urban cities such as Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. The continuous killing and consumption of animals as bushmeat is a threat to Nigeria’s wildlife as poaching of these endangered species continues to deplete the population of the animals in the forest.
In the past, Nigeria’s wildlife used to attract foreign tourists, who visit forest reserves such as Yankari Games Reserve and Gashaka Gumti. But the activities of poachers who kill animals indiscriminately for meat have reduced its population. Conservationists have estimated that Nigeria only has fewer than 50 lions, 100 gorillas, 500 elephants and between 1,400 to 2,300 chimpanzees left in the wild.
Research conducted in Lagos, Calabar, Abuja and Port Harcourt by WildAid, an international conservation organisation revealed that 71 per cent of 2,000 participants had consumed bushmeat at some point in their lives, and 45 per cent had consumed it within the last year. More than 50 per cent of people who consume bushmeat in the year under review do so because of the special taste while 30 per cent said it was part of their culture, and 25 per cent said that it was healthier and fresher than regular meat and fish. Faced with enormous threats including hunting for meat, wildlife species in Nigeria have declined dramatically over the past 50 years, it stated.
Today, it added, Nigeria had fewer than 50 lions, 100 gorillas, 500 elephants and between 1,400 to 2,300 chimpanzees left in the wild. According to the report, the bushmeat trade is prevalent in West and Central Africa, with Nigeria being the transit point for the illegal wildlife trade. Part of the report read, “The report found 71 per cent of participants had consumed bush meat at some point in their lives, and 45 per cent had consumed it within the last year. “COVID-19 was of concern to 27 per cent of consumers who said they stopped buying bush meat in a country that was previously impacted by an Ebola outbreak.
Bushmeat consumption dipped at that time, but increased again after publicity died down.” While bushmeat was an important part of rural food security, the report stated that rapid urbanisation had caused a soaring urban demand for bushmeat, despite widely available and affordable alternative protein sources. It stated that more than 50 per cent of those who had consumed bushmeat within the last year (2020) cited taste as the main reason, while 30 per cent said it was part of their culture, and 25 per cent said that it was healthier and fresher than regular meat and fish.
The report added that, “Seventy-five per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in the last decade have originated in animals, according to the World Health Organiza-tion1. Outbreaks of Ebola, HIV, and SARS have been linked to the wild or bushmeat trade, with COVID-19 also potentially spread through this activity and causing tremendous health and economic impacts. “Nigeria has flourishing bushmeat markets in major cities selling both legal and illegal bushmeat.
This trade remains largely unregulated. The process of trapping and transporting wild animals in stressful and unhygienic conditions in which they come into contact with people and domesticated animals greatly increase the risks of new disease introduction and transmission. “A commercial trade serving large urban centres poses a significantly higher risk and a larger rate of the outbreak than subsistence use in rural areas.
For example, the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed over 11,00 people. Several governments launched large-scale mass media campaigns that discouraged people from consuming bushmeat. “Consumers quickly adjusted their preferences away from bushmeat, especially fruit bats and monkeys, and switched to alternatives such as fish.
Bushmeat sellers complained bitterly about the poor sales during the epidemic; however, by 2018 sales of bushmeat had rebounded in Nigeria9. Wildlife in Nigeria faces a number of threats from poaching for body parts and meat, to habitat loss from deforestation, infrastructure development, and agricultural expansion. “Populations of lions, elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees in Nigeria have dramatically declined and some species, such as pangolins, are either endangered or on the brink of extinction. Other declining species, including crocodiles and antelope species like duikers, are widely found in bushmeat markets across the country.
In addition to bushmeat consumption, Nigeria has emerged as the primary transit hub in Africa for ivory and pangolin scales exported to Asian countries. “The country was linked to about half of all pangolin scale seizures globally between 2016 and 2019. While wildlife laws and penalties were upgraded in 2016, they are often poorly understood by the public and law enforcement officials and frequently go unenforced by authorities. While many rural communities have limited dietary options, urban bushmeat consumption is a matter of choice driven by a number of factors from health to taste, as well as culture and concerns about chemicals in imported frozen chicken and turkey. Among the many protein choices in urban areas, bushmeat is frequently more expensive than regular meat or fish and is sometimes purchased for special occasions.
“Grasscutters are the most popular bushmeat in Nigeria, eaten by 44 per cent of bushmeat consumers, followed by antelope/ deer (25 per cent), snake (21 per cent,) and wild pig (15 per cent). Other species consumed include monkey (11 per cent), porcupine (10 per cent), tortoise (9 per cent), crocodile (8 per cent), monitor lizard (7 per cent), bat (6 per cent), sea turtle (4 per cent), and chimpanzee, pangolin, hedgehog and civet (approximately 2 per cent each).
“Thirty-two per cent of bushmeat consumers indicated that they consumed other bushmeat species beyond those listed above. These may include other species commonly found in bushmeat markets, such as genet, squirrel, giant rat, rock hyrax, guinea fowl, mongoose, and buffalo.” According to medical experts, the continuous consumption of bushmeat can increase the risk of zoonotic diseases, which are said to have emerged from wildlife species. Diseases such as Ebola, Lassa fever, monkeypox and even COVID-19 are believed to have been transmitted through the consumption of bushmeat or interaction between wild animals and poachers while hunting.
Despite the health implications, there is a perception among the people that meat from wildlife is of better quality than farmed animals, because bushmeat has a nostalgic quality for many Nigerians, reminding them of their youth and offering an increasingly urbanised population a way to remain connected to their heritage. And, of course, there are those that simply prefer the taste.
A medical practitioner, Dr Mark Ofua, said the continuous consumption of bushmeat in the country has increased the spread of zoonosis. He says zoonosis is a disease that can be shared between animals and humans. Dr Ofua said over 70 per cent of the diseases in Nigeria came from animals that have been domesticated by the people such as chickens, dogs, and cows among others. He said: “Because we have domesticated these animals, they are now used to us and their diseases like Tuberculosis, Rabies and others now have cures.
“For wide animals, they have their diseases that are strange to us, but the more we begin to bring these animals into town we expose ourselves to such diseases. And whenever it comes into the human population and because we are not prepared for it, it causes an epidemic or pandemic. “A very good example is the COVID-19, which has been traced to a bushmeat market in China. So, that is one major implication to human health. The same way we are used to human diseases, these animals are used to theirs. For example, if you catch a monkey in the forest, it is already harbouring some viruses and bacteria that it is used to and its not killing it, but by the time you bring it into town, that process of taking it from its natural environment, their immunity drops and the disease escalates. “So, the virus that was at five per cent in the forest by the time it gets into town, is already at about 50 per cent.
So, that animal is already a time bomb because once you handle it, you have exposed yourself to those diseases.” Dr Ofua advised Nigerians to change the culture of bushmeat consumption, because of its implication for human health and the environment.
“In Nigeria, bushmeat is said to be cultural, because people always say it is their culture to eat bushmeat, but they forgot that killing of twins and human sacrifice was once in our culture, but when we discovered that these things were not good, we changed the culture. Now that we are beginning to learn that bushmeat has health implications, we can also change the culture. “The first thing is cultural change. We have farm animals like chickens, so people should eat Chicken. The truth is that there is no meat that is sweet. Every meat is sweet because it was conditioned with ingredients.
If I cut raw meat and give it to you, you will not eat it. So, any meat you get as long as you condition it with the right ingredients is going to be sweet. So, we need to have this cultural shift from consumption of bushmeat, because it is not good for our health,” he said. Speaking at the launch of a public awareness conservation campaign against illegal demand for and wildlife trade in Lagos recently, President of WildAid, Peter Knights, said that Nigeria has no surviving cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes and has fewer than 50 lions, 100 gorillas, 500 elephants and 2,300 chimpanzees left in the wild. Knights said one species like pangolins are either endangered or on the brink of extinction, adding that other species declining in population include; crocodiles and antelope species like drinkers, which are widely found in bushmeat markets across the country. In addition to bushmeat consumption, Nigeria has emerged as the primary transit hub in Africa for illegal ivory and pangolin scales trafficked to Asian countries.
He further disclosed that over half of the pangolin scales seized globally between 2016 and 2019, came from Nigeria. Despite ongoing conservation efforts, poaching for body parts and meat along with habitat loss from deforestation, infrastructure development and agricultural expansion threaten wildlife in Nigeria. According to the World Health Organisation, 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases in the last decade originated from animals. It revealed that outbreaks of COVID-19, Ebola, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) among others have been linked to the wild or bushmeat trade.
WHO also noted that COVID-19 spread through this activity and caused tremendous health and economic impacts. Likewise, statistics by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN), Red List of threatened species in 2018 listed countries with the highest numbers of species facing the risk of extinction. There are about 38,646 species at risk worldwide listed as endangered species and about 513 species distributed, or endemic are at risk in Nigeria as endangered species among others.