The Ebola virus has killed over 5000 people in a small part of West Africa and now needs the maximum response from local and international health care organisations to slow the transmission rate and save lives. Recently there has been some discussion on how Ebola was transmitted to humans with speculation that the trade in venison or game meat or, if you insist, bushmeat, has been partly to blame. In my post this week I’d like to have a look at what the trade in venison represents to many Africans, the effects of labelling this source of wild protein as ‘bushmeat’ and the general phenomenon of zoonoses or infectious diseases that spread from animals to humans.
There has been a call recently to stop the trade in bushmeat because of the potential disease risks that eating bushmeat poses. These calls represent yet another simplistic whitewash of a very complex situation. Conservationists would like to stop the trade in bushmeat because they have convinced themselves (a) that the trade is stoppable and (b) that this would lead to these species being conserved. This is nothing less than an attempt to justify the actions and morality of conservationists in the context of the Ebola outbreak. These positions are delusional, represent a misunderstanding of the cultural significance of venison to millions of Africans, and vastly simplify the reality of zoonoses transmission generally, including those which routinely move from domesticated animals to humans on farms all over the world.
Let’s deal with the ‘bushmeat’ nomenclature first. One man’s bushmeat is another man’s venison. Would we call Scottish Pheasant bushmeat? Should the farm stall down the road from my house that sells Scottish Red Deer venison change the name of these products to Scottish Red Deer bushmeat? When I posed this question to a group of academics recently they scoffed at this suggestion and insisted that the bushmeat nomenclature was valid because it referred to illegally harvested mammals. If we accept this then why have authorities in African countries made an entire trade, which is conducted across the African continent in almost every African country where a harvestable population of wild mammals exists, into an illegal activity? Venison represents more than just a meal to millions of Africans. It is a highly valued food because of its cultural significance. Urban dwellers who earn more than enough money to buy the best cuts of beef will seek out venison because it represents status (just like it does in the West), a link with a fondly remembered rural past (just like in the West) and because it is perceived to be good for you and free of any of the contaminants that have become to be associated with domestic livestock (does ‘organic’ sound familiar to anyone in the West?). Making the trade illegal instantly criminalises millions of people and makes any attempts to control such a widespread trade a serious infringement of individual rights. It is impossible to arrest people by the tens of thousands, so the bushmeat trade represents a cherry picking opportunity – anyone you don’t like can be arrested for trading in bushmeat because everyone is doing it. It’s ridiculous. The act of making a central activity of African rural and urban existence illegal represents nothing less than severe repression.
Nevertheless it is clear that the trade in venison represents a threat to some animal populations, but this is a problem of ownership, tenure and governance of a common pool resource. The unsustainable trade in venison represents the symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. If Africans were allowed a legal harvest of wild venison, and the trade was open, my prediction is that rural communities would come together to manage the harvest sustainably. I’m not sure how omnipotent the conservationists think they are, but if they imagine they are ever going to be able to control a trade as widespread and as culturally entrenched as the trade in venison across Africa, they are deluded. Sustainably managed by rural communities, the trade in venison from bats, duikers, game birds and other small species represents a massive potential source of income for rural communities that is currently conducted in secrecy and represents a classic open access commons. Common-pool resource theory tells us clearly that open access commons are harvested to destruction and if conservationists continue to insist that the trade in venison be banned, they need to be prepared to take responsibility for the open access commons they are creating, because policing the trade is impossible. One of the effects of the Ebola outbreak has been the collapse of the bushmeat trade across west Africa. In the absence of any sustainable limits to the harvest this is probably a good result for the species which are being over harvested, but it represents the collapse of a major economic activity which will be causing hardship to people who depended on the income from selling venison.
Although the transmission of Ebola from animals to humans sounds like something out if a science fiction movie to many people, disease transmission from animals to humans occurs regularly. Pigs occasionally transmit the H1N1 swine flu virus to humans and farm workers are particularly at risk. There have been regular outbreaks in the United States and in 1976 a number of people died in an outbreak on a military base. However, the number of cases is very small, just like Ebola and there seems to be some doubt that eating venison is a primary cause of transmission. Eating pork is certainly not the main cause of H1N1 transmission. Thousands of straw coloured fruit bats are sold for food in Ghana each year and although it is thought that these bats may have transmitted Ebola to humans, there have been no cases of Ebola in Ghana. The situation is clearly more complicated than it appears. Of course, Ebola is a virulent disease and deserves a dramatic and focussed response to stop it spreading, but making the link between ‘bushmeat’ and Ebola is more of the simplistic nonsense that so many conservationists draw comfort and justification from. Linking ‘bushmeat’ with disease on such flimsy evidence is an attempt to demonise the trade and provide scientific support for condemning food which is culturally important to millions of Africans. It’s time to recognise the trade in venison for what it is: an economic opportunity for millions of Africans which is in urgent need of a governance strategy that ensures the harvest is sustained for generations to come.