To End Bushmeat Hunting, Let Them Eat Chickens
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 18, 2017
by Richard Conniff/The New York Times
The idea that the humble chicken could become a savior of wildlife will seem improbable to many environmentalists. We tend to equate poultry production with factory farms, downstream pollution and 50-piece McNugget buckets.
In much of the developing world, though, “a chicken in every pot” is the more pertinent image. It’s a tantalizing one for some conservationists because what’s in the pot there these days is mostly trapped, snared or hunted wildlife — also called bushmeat — from cane rats and brush-tailed porcupines to gorillas.
Hunting for dinner is of course what humans have always done, the juicier half of our hunter-gatherer origins. In many remote forests and fishing villages, moreover, it remains an essential part of the cultural identity. But modern weaponry, motor vehicles, commercial markets and booming human populations have pushed the bushmeat trade to literal overkill — an estimated 15 million animals a year taken in the Brazilian Amazon alone, 579 million animals a year in Central Africa, and onward in a mad race to empty forests and waterways everywhere.
A study last year identified bushmeat hunting as the primary threat pushing 301 mammal species worldwide toward extinction. The victims include bonobo apes, one of our closet living relatives, and Grauer’s gorillas, the world’s largest. (The latter have recently lost about 80 percent of their population, hunted down by mining camp crews with shotguns and AK-47s. Much of the mining is for a product integral to our cultural identities, a mineral used in
the circuit boards of our cellphones.) The victims also include at least three species humans have probably already eaten into extinction: the kouprey, a water-buffalo-size animal from Southeast Asia; the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo from Papua; and a squirrel-size hutia from Cuba.
Bushmeat hunting also often leaves large carnivores without prey animals to eat, one reason so-called protected areas across Africa now harbor only a quarter as many lions as they could, according to a recent study in the journal Biological Conservation. The lions and other predators frequently get caught in wire snares set out for smaller animals. Some animals escape, minus a limb, and hobble along with the help of their social group. Such injuries are now so common that staff members at Panthera, the cat conservation group, talk about an “emerging” category of wildlife — “thousands upon thousands of tripod lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs and others who have lost their limbs to snares.”
So what do chickens have to do with this gruesome business? Assuming you could persuade governments to enforce laws against the hunting and selling of bushmeat, said David Wilkie of the Wildlife Conservation Society, you could not possibly make it work without providing an alternative source of protein. In many rural areas, particularly in Central and West Africa, wildlife is what there is to eat, accounting for up to 80 percent of protein in the diet — and 100 percent of the animal protein. Abruptly cutting off access to bushmeat could mean starvation.
What really worries Mr. Wilkie and others are regional towns near the sources of wild animal meat that have quickly grown into cities and have no access to the commercial food supply chain. “If those towns don’t have a source of protein,” Mr. Wilkie said, “it’s dreadful for wildlife, but it’s also dreadful for children.” Even Kisangani, a major city in an inaccessible region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has become vulnerable, he notes, depleting fish for hundreds of miles up and down the Congo River. Bushmeat now comes from as far as a national park 200 miles away. That is, an essential food source for the city is already rapidly vanishing because of the relentless emptying of forests and water bodies.
In the past, governments and nonprofit groups have tried to promote a practical alternative meat source through wildlife ranching, focusing on the same species targeted by the bushmeat trade. But those efforts have almost always failed, because wild animals make lousy livestock. They are often difficult to breed in captivity, and require too much food and time to reach market size. As a result, many wildlife farmers routinely restock from the wild, merely laundering the bushmeat trade.
Chickens, though, have been subject to intensive domestication efforts over roughly 8,000 years, Mr. Wilkie said, and we know how to rear them cheaply and in quantity. The trick is to translate that knowledge to the small backyard flocks, generally kept by women, in rural villages everywhere.
Such an effort is already underway, largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The focus, said Donald Nkrumah, a program officer there, is on providing more protein for chronically malnourished people and a means of economic independence for village women. It’s not about saving gorillas. But those goals are not mutually exclusive. “I grew up in West Africa. I know they are eating most of the wildlife,” he said.
The reason they are not eating chickens or eggs instead, Mr. Nkrumah said, “is that African chickens don’t grow very fast and don’t lay many eggs” — 30 or 40 a year, rather than the 150 that would be possible with improved breeds. The chickens are also vulnerable to diseases like Newcastle virus, which can periodically kill off 90 percent of a village’s flocks. Better breeds and a suitable Newcastle vaccine already exist to fix such problems. But big agriculture companies have little commercial incentive to push their products out to remote rural markets. What often happens instead, Mr. Nkrumah said, is that “some NGO will get 10,000 chickens delivered to 1,000 households, write a beautiful report and everybody’s happy.” Until it all falls apart.
Hence the ambition at GALVmed, one of the nonprofits funded by the Gates Foundation, is to establish a self-sustaining commercial enterprise with community health workers in parts of Africa and India trained to deliver the vaccine, and a complete distribution chain connecting them back to the manufacturer, with everybody earning a modest living along the way. Likewise, a company called EthioChicken now produces and vaccinates hatchlings, and sells them to a network of regional entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, who in turn sell them to village women at $1 or $1.50 each. The Gates Foundation is pushing the company to scale up to 20 million chickens a year, and Mr. Nkrumah does the math: $7 apiece for the males sold as broilers at three months, 150 eggs at 10 cents apiece over the course of the year, and $5 each when the spent hens are sold for meat. That could be a lot of money and protein for rural people who don’t have much of either.
Will that make a difference for wildlife? Chickens alone won’t stop bushmeat hunting if countries are unwilling to discourage open sale of endangered animals in the marketplace. But in the 1980s, India combined enforcement of anti-hunting law with a program to make chicken far more widely available in rural villages. It wasn’t a simple thing, said K. Ullas Karanth, a tiger researcher for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Western Ghats. “Chickens had to be abundant, they had to be cheap, and people had to be able to afford them.” But the eventual result was that hunting was no longer worth the risk of arrest in much of the country.
Will it also work in Africa, Asia and other regions now eating their way down the food chain? As the human population grows at a rate that rapidly outpaces the ability of natural habitats to feed it, a better backyard chicken could be a real hope for people and wildlife alike.
Richard Conniff is a contributing opinion writer to the New York Times, and the author of The Species Seekers, and other books. Find out more here.