COVID-19 has forced international attention on wild meat – with calls (and, in some places such as China, action) to ban its trade and consumption. However, as has been pointed out by many (PDF), this response overlooks the impact of such a restriction on rural populations that depend on wildlife for their livelihoods and wellbeing.
In July, we carried out research to understand how the spread of COVID-19 and information about the virus is affecting the wild meat people in rural Cameroon are eating, and why. Our study covered four villages around the Dja Faunal Reserve where we are undertaking research and developing practical guidance on how to implement better projects providing alternative food and income for people who rely on wild meat. The study involved 23 interviews with women and men aged 18-60.
It’s important to underline that our study only allows us to share insights specific to the Dja and may not be relevant to other areas of Cameroon, or other countries. We hope to start a conversation around this one dimension of how COVID-19 is affecting the lives of rural people and their wild meat consumption. We have changed people’s names for anonymity.
Rising food prices, but reducing hunting pressure?
People’s accounts of how COVID-19 is affecting them point to rising costs of transport, and of hygiene and food products. This is caused in part by restrictions on transport and movement – for example, ‘bush taxis’, usually carrying 7-8 passengers, are restricted to carrying only 3 – pushing up the costs of travel per passenger.
Many cited increases in the cost of sugar, rice, flour, fish and wine. One respondent, Christian, explained how beans had become ”scarce and expensive” so his household now relies on wild meat and fish for protein.
Some suggested COVID-19 is reducing hunting pressure in the Dja. According to an eco-guard, Florent, there are less professional hunters entering the forest because fewer customers are buying wild meat.
This could be down to a number of reasons: customers are not travelling to markets due to restrictions and high transport costs; COVID-19 has impacted expendable income; and customers may be frightened of eating wild meat due to associating the origins of the virus with wild meat from a wet market.
According to Fabrice, a hunter and farmer: “Before [COVID-19] the meat was not even doing a day without being sold. There were always customers. Now there is not [a market to sell wild meat]”.
So what’s going on here? Intuitively, one might expect hunting to increase as incomes fall or unemployment rises – as recently hypothesised by researchers modelling the effect of COVID 19 on wild meat trade. However, it appears that around the Dja, hunting pressure may have reduced as hunters instead rely on farm produce (such as manioc and plantain) for subsistence to cope with the COVID-19 shock.
Disease may come from pangolin, monkey, gorilla and bats…
Our question on how people’s consumption of wild meat had changed showed mixed results – seven respondents stated that COVID-19 is not impacting their wild meat consumption.
Eight respondents linked COVID-19 to specific wildlife species including pangolins, monkeys, gorillas and bats. Local awareness about a link between wildlife and the virus appears to be the result of government and NGO campaigns. For example, Benoit told us that flyers had been distributed advising against contact with and consumption of wild meat.
However, Francis suggested, while initially this raised some concerns about wild meat, this fear is disappearing: “At the beginning, when someone was cooking I was afraid to eat [wild meat]. But with time, it looks like [wild meat] is not even involved in the disease. So if I have a piece, I eat.”
Yvan questioned ideas linking the virus to pangolins: “Why is it that before, even during our ancestors’ era, this disease did not catch us. I think that white people are lying to us. They produce things and now it is having impacts on us black people”.
Similar observations were made in West Africa during the 2013-16 Ebola outbreak. Focusing on Guinea and Sierra Leone, researchers found that health messages citing the risks posed by wild meat were undermined by people consuming wild meat without incident. And, that bans on wild meat consumption led to heightened distrust, particularly of external health bodies including NGOs and government officials.
Some respondents explained they are taking extra precautions when cooking wild meat. Audrey stated that “When I cook pangolins, [if it] spend[s] enough time on the fire – [the fire] kills the virus” and Ester explained that “…when [you] eat [wild] meat at home, don’t eat it the same day – wait a day and then eat when well cooked”.
Our next steps are to test a decision support tool for improving the design of wild meat alternative projects (often referred to as alternative protein projects) in Cameroon. The toolkit (also available in French) focuses on five key steps from scoping feasibility to developing a theory of change.
If you are interested in using the tool (no matter where you are in the world) please get in touch. You can register interest by emailing email@example.com.
This research, part of the UK government-funded Darwin Initiative Why eat wild meat? project, was undertaken following an internal IIED ethical review process that jointly identified with FCTV key safeguards to ensure that project participants and staff were not put at risk from COVID-19 during the research process.