LeBreton et al. (2006) provide a rare examination of local perceptions of risk associated with the hunting, butchering and consumption of bushmeat. A growing awareness of the impact of the bushmeat trade on wildlife populations (Milner-Gulland, Bennett & the SCB 2002 Annual Meeting Wild Meat Group, 2003) and the scale and economic importance of the trade for rural livelihoods (Fa, Currie & Meeuwig, 2003) have made it an active focus of conservation and development efforts. In the last decade, a greater appreciation of the link between wildlife consumption and the emergence of infectious diseases has brought the bushmeat trade to the attention of epidemiologists as well (Leroy et al., 2004). However, to date, surprisingly few researchers have attempted to apply findings on disease transmission towards efforts to conserve wildlife and associated human livelihoods on the ground. While the ultimate implications and application of LeBreton et al.'s study are not entirely obvious, the work is remarkable in its scale (3000+ subjects!) and should inspire considerable follow-up efforts.

Perhaps the first follow-up work might endeavor to quantify why some individuals perceive a risk associated with butchering bushmeat but not in hunting or eating it. Although ‘perceptions of disease risk’ appears in this paper's title and the authors report that ‘A high proportion of individuals reported perceiving a risk of disease infection with bushmeat contact’ in the Abstract and Results, they later report that the risk perceived by participants may or may not have anything to do with their awareness of exposure to disease (Discussion). While it seems reasonable that the authors interpret a fear of contact with blood as reflecting an awareness among those interviewed of an avenue by which zoonoses spread, it is also possible that such fear stems from cultural factors. The many, apparently ancient, taboos surrounding the handling of primate blood in West African cultures may ultimately reflect some awareness of disease risk, but their proximate explanations are far less biological. Disentangling the difference between awareness of disease transmission versus avoidance for cultural reasons may seem a useless hair-splitting exercise, but it is actually quite important if conservation efforts aim to use such risk aversion as a strategy for limiting the harvest and consumption of wildlife.

How conservationists might go about using perceived disease risk of wildlife butchering to foster sustainable harvests in Africa is a whole other challenging and politically loaded issue. In addressing the application of their results to conservation and human health, LeBreton et al. present a balanced approach that includes two elements. In the first, efforts to conserve endangered species, most notably primates, should emphasize disease risks and thereby capitalize on an existing fear of butchering these species. In the second, those who butcher and handle wildlife should be trained in practices to minimize risk and provided with protective outerwear. While the second recommendation seems an unquestionably important and direct response to a known threat to human health, the ability of the first to conserve wildlife is far less clear. Presumably, wildlife handling, butchering and consumption have always carried some disease risk and Cameroonians have long been aware of this. Yet, they go on taking the risk: why? It is possible that the risk is perceived as easily outweighed by the economic/nutritional benefits and that disease awareness campaigns might change the balance of this cost–benefit equation. However, I believe most hunters, butchers and consumers accept the risk (and will continue to do so despite disease-education programs) because they lack safer alternative sources of protein and income. If true, disease education may affect bushmeat consumption in urban markets, but it may only serve to alienate the rural poor who rely on it because they must. Moreover, if the risk or impact of acquiring a disease from bushmeat is actually quite small (perhaps relative to other diseases) but presented as serious, conservation educators face being discredited by the communities in which they work. This regrettable outcome can now be seen in parts of Africa where conservation programs intentionally exaggerated the likelihood and consequences of eating poisoned wildlife despite the fact that thousands of rural consumers ate bushmeat regularly with seemingly no ill effects.

LeBreton et al. appear extremely sensitive to the risks of alienating the communities in which they work and their description of the role of bushmeat in Cameroon is one that needs more broadcasting in the western world. Bushmeat is too often presented by our popular press as something akin to a drug trade in which the weak and immoral indulge. Those who study or observe the bushmeat trade in Africa know that it cannot be so easily categorized: it includes and is relied upon by millions of people living below the poverty line in rural areas, and by millions of others in urban centers, domestic and abroad, who buy it because of preference and not necessity. In some of these places enforcement and education may halt the trade. However, in many rural areas, it is not a question of stopping or not stopping the bushmeat trade, but a question of how we as conservationists can affect the trade to preserve the many species that appear unable to sustain heavy harvest. Reaching this goal will require the cultural sensitivity and multi-faceted approaches emphasized by these authors.

Last, along with their novel evaluation of perceptions of risk, LeBreton et al. also present a broad characterization of economic and other correlates of those who hunt, butcher and/or eat bushmeat. This effort to identify the factors that drive patterns of wildlife use in Cameroon is vitally important and, with other current work, helps ‘bushmeat research’ move beyond assessments of sustainability toward better directing conservation action where it is needed. Unfortunately, the results as presented in this paper tell us only which factors are linked to wildlife use in those interviewed; they do not tell us which of these factors were the best predictors of consumption, hunting or butchering nor do they reveal how the many variables considered were related to one another. With the information provided, a reader cannot assess the degree to which the predictors chosen explain the behavior of individuals. With a sample size in the thousands it is not surprising that significant relationships are found, but is there a great deal of variance yet to be explained?


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  2. References
  • Fa, J.E., Currie, D. & Meeuwig, J. (2003). Bushmeat and food security in the Congo Basin: linkages between wildlife and people's future. Environ. Conserv. 30, 7178.
  • LeBreton, M., Prosser, A.T., Tamoufe, U., Sateren, W., Mpoudi-Ngole, E., Diffo, J.L.D., Burke, D.S. & Wolfe, N.D. (2006). Patterns of bushmeat hunting and perceptions of disease risk among central African communities. Anim. Conserv. 9, 357363.
  • Leroy, E.M., Rouquet, P., Formenty, P., Souquiè re, S., Kilbourne, A., Froment, J.-M., Bermejo, M., Smit, S., Karesh, W., Swanepoel, R., Zaki, S.R. & Rollin, P.E. (2004). Multiple Ebola virus transmission events and rapid decline of Central African wildlife. Science 303, 387390.
  • Milner-Gulland, E.J., Bennett, E.L. & the SCB 2002 Annual Meeting Wild meat group (2003). Wild meat: the bigger picture. Trends Ecol. Evol. 18, 351357.