Tastes Like Chicken

Side-by-side taste tests offer clues to stem the bushmeat crisis in Gabon

By Erik Ness

Like most wildlife biologists, David Wilkie never imagined he would one day serve up wild animals in an African café. “I never thought I’d be talking about elasticities of bushmeat demand either,” says Wilkie, of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York. But the complexities of the bushmeat crisis have driven Wilkie into what might be called conservation cuisine.

Throughout Africa, Asia, and South America, hunting is eradicating animals even faster than logging. “The speed that the forest can be emptied is astounding,” says Wilkie of the bushmeat trade. With colleagues from WCS, Gabon’s Centre International de Recherches Médicales de Franceville, and the government of Gabon, Wilkie gathered two years of market data and surveyed households in rural forest villages, forest towns, coastal villages and towns, and large metropolitan areas.

“It’s the first attempt to look at bushmeat consumption and bushmeat sales at a national level, rather than just a single site,” says Wilkie of the research, forthcoming from the Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, Conservation Biology, and other journals. Gabon has a long history with WCS and in 2002 set aside ten percent of the land in national parks for ecotourism development. The bushmeat trade threatens this plan, and Gabon’s Division of Wildlife and Hunting hopes to use the data to prevent the emptying of its forests.

One of the core components of Wilkie’s study was a taste test to challenge, among other things, the glum assumption that Africans are bushmeat connoisseurs, unlikely to accept substitutes. Contracting with local restaurants to do taste tests provided some comic relief. The hot and humid jungle climate is not ideal for meat preservation, so bushmeat can be fresh, smoked, or even slightly rotten, and at first they tried to test all these variants. “Just having a restaurateur prepare this for us was a hoot because they thought we were completely nuts,” he says.

The final taste test between game species (such as porcupine and blue duiker) and chicken and beef yielded many insights—debunking, for example, the assumption that all wild game tastes a little like chicken. Surprisingly, in a sample biased toward bushmeat consumers (only people who had already eaten bushmeat were included), there wasn’t an overwhelming preference, either stated or observed, for bushmeat.

And it turned out that variety was important. Fish is half of the animal protein eaten in Gabon, and those who stated a dietary preference for fish tended to choose bushmeat in the tests. Because the marine fishery is already strained and the status of the fresh-water fishery is unknown, Wilkie warns, “If you do something about bushmeat, you’d better also think about fish management at the same time.”

The study also revealed that bush-meat dynamics differ enormously between rural and urban settings. Villagers consume an overwhelming amount of the total bushmeat biomass but tend to eat robust common species such as blue duikers (Cephalophus monticola), brush-tailed porcupines (Atherurus africanus), and other rodents.

bushmeat chart Tastes Like Chicken

Bushmeat makes up a minuscule two percent of urban diets, but the commercial hunters who serve the cities are not going to hunt cane rats and porcupines when shotgun shells cost a dollar. “[They’d] rather shoot something larger,” says Wilkie, which means hunting large-bodied, easily overhunted wildlife in relatively pristine areas. “We would never have known this, had we not done a nationwide study.”

In the end, money mattered most. “People are making a lot of their decisions because of price,” he concludes. While some economists have proposed legalizing and taxing the trade, the evidence suggests it would take a 25-percent tax rate—falling mostly on the poorest of the poor—just to recoup collection costs.

“You probably don’t need to ban bushmeat consumption in the rural areas,” he argues, “where only wildlife tolerant of hunting remain.” Instead, he suggests working with logging companies to keep contract hunters from entering pristine areas. “Logging companies are keen to look as green as possible. Pictures of dead gorillas in the backs of pickup trucks doesn’t improve their image one iota.”

About the Author

Erik Ness is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin.

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