Right around the world mammals large and small are on the brink of being eaten into extinction. Despite the widespread nature of this problem, the full impact of the practice on wildlife, and the people who depend on it to survive has never been fully calculated. Now researchers have completed the first global assessment of the hunting of terrestrial mammals.
They found that across many developing nations, primarily in Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa, over 300 species of mammal are targeted. They range from small animals such as duikers and fruit bats to larger creatures like chimpanzees and Bactrian camels. Killed primarily for their meat, they are also being exploited for their supposed medicinal properties, as seen happening with devastating effect to the pangolin and scaly anteater. But according to the research, published in Royal Open Society, this is no doubt an underestimate.
“Our analysis is conservative,” said William Ripple from Oregon State University, who co-authored the study. “These 301 species are the worst cases of declining mammal populations for which hunting and trapping are clearly identified as a major threat. If data for a species were missing or inconclusive, we didn't include it.” This means that there are no doubt other species that are equally under threat of being eaten to extinction.
To be sure, the other threats facing the great wealth of wildlife in the regions are still vast, from deforestation to expanding agriculture, but the authors warn that even if these things were stopped and the forests left intact while hunting continued at an unabated pace, the ecosystems would be broken anyway. These “empty” forests may look healthy, but without the mammals such as rodents and primates providing vital ecological roles like seed dispersal, the forests will eventually die anyway.
The issues surrounding bushmeat are often difficult to confront. This is because hunting in the forests and grasslands in many parts of the world are a necessity for hundreds of millions of people around the planet. As such it is intimately tied to issues relating to food security, as well as the risk of disease and land-use changes. This means that it is hard to prevent people from doing something on which their survival depends on, but equally, a collapse in the populations of many mammals would lead not only to an ecological disaster, but a socio-economic one too.
With more roads allowing easy access to remote regions, and a burgeoning urban population, the hunting for bushmeat has shifted dangerously from a sustainable practice on a local level to a commercial operation crossing international borders. The researchers see the solution rooted in tougher legal protection for many of the species involved, while at the same time giving more power to local communities who rely on bushmeat for survival.