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Finding Balance for a Sustainable Future: Wild Meat Consumption, Wildlife Economy and Landscape Restoration

The consumption of wild meat remains a morally contested and controversial issue in conservation policy and science.

Controversy arises from the decline to game populations as a result of unsustainable harvesting practices. However, whether sustainable or not, wild meat consumption forms a crucial component of the livelihoods for many people, meeting both cultural and nutritional needs.

The interaction between the efforts to conserve, restore, protect, and sustainably use wildlife products like meat, is a complex and evolving issue. Hence, a balance must be found between the needs of humans and wildlife restoration as well as the right mix of strategies to use wildlife products without threatening extinction.

The major question is; can legal and sustainable wild meat utilization contribute to restored, transformed, enhanced and maintained landscapes?

Wild Meat Consumption

Wild meat, also known as bushmeat or game meat, comes from animals harvested in the forests, savannas, and wetlands. People eat wild meat for taste, culture, availability, affordability, and health reasons. Meat from wild species is organic and an essential source of lean protein, micro nutrients and livelihoods for many people in rural and urban communities. Meat from wild species is part of rural livelihoods and economic growth worldwide.

It has been shown that wild meat generates over US$3million income for local communities in the tropics. Moreover, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, wild meat from ungulates accounts for about 30% of all wild food consumed. In some communities, it is the main source of nutrients and its absence could result in protein deficiency, leading to an increased risk of anemia in children.  

One of the critical challenges facing humanity today is finding a balance between protein demand from meat and restoring landscapes. The demand for meat protein continues to surge due to rapid global human population growth. Global human population is expected to increase from 7.8 billion to between 9.2–9.9 billion by 2050 escalating food demand. As result, competition for different land use options such as housing, industrialization, and agriculture will be accelerated, further driving biodiversity loss and emitting additional carbon into the atmosphere.

Most consumed wild meat species are in the communal, protected and conserved areas, their trade is either unmonitored, prohibited and or restricted. In some instances, the process to acquire the meat is cumbersome to follow limiting access to protein for local populations.

To find the balance between wild meat consumption, protein demand and conservation, most interventions follow demand reduction strategies. These programmes target local hunters and aim to shift them away from hunting to alternative sources of protein or livelihoods, and or through enforcement of harvesting bans. In addition, subsidies are offered to increase agricultural and livestock production. Resultantly, there is over-conversion of rangelands to livestock and agricultural production at the expense of landscapes integrity, conservation objectives and values.

Notwithstanding these bans, restrictions and alternatives for protein, the demand for wild meat protein has increased substantially in local and international markets driven by people looking for healthier food options, broadening the food base, culture and different tastes. As a result, illegal and unsustainable harvesting practices are common, threatening the survival of wild meat species.

Over-reliance on prohibitive consumptive use of wildlife and wild resources without the ability to enforce compliance has left the wild species vulnerable, wild meat industry fragmented and loosely formalized. This partly explains, why it is largely characterized by illegal trade. A study by Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2018 on the production and trade of wild meat in the UNECE region found that no country had all the production and trade data on consumed wild meat species. Also, most countries had no formalised markets.

Prohibitive wild meat use policies coupled with underdeveloped value chains do not yield a full potential for local livelihoods and is dominated by unsustainable harvesting practices such as the use of snares, traps, poisoning and poaching. Moreover, unregulated harvesting practices harm non-target species and cause damage to overall ecological integrity of landscapes. Consequently, a decline in wild meat species and animal populations. For example, Kenya lost nearly 60% of its large wildlife over the last 30 years due to a mixture of policy, institutional and market failures.

Wild Meat Consumption, Landscape Restoration, and Wildlife Economy

In an attempt to find a balance, the Global Biodiversity Framework of 2022 advocates for sustainable utilization of terrestrial wildlife resources through Goals and Targets. Specifically, Goal B focuses on sustainable use, management of biodiversity and ensuring that nature’s contributions to livelihoods are valued, maintained, and enhanced. Furthermore, Target 5 emphasizes that the use, harvesting and trade of wild species should be sustainable, safe, and legal.

It is therefore important to know the impact of relying on wild meat consumption on landscape restoration as well as distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable practices related to wild meat consumption. Overarching questions are: How can consumption of wild meat lead to restoration of landscapes? What is sustainability in wild meat harvesting and trade? How can sustainability in wild meat harvesting and trade be entrenched or retained?

Wild meat consumption reduces carbon foot print

In comparison to livestock, literature shows that wildlife species are efficient users of local vegetation have superior physiological adaptation to the environment, maintain greater carrying capacity, have greater reproductive and growth rates and increased meat production potential. One study shows that a mean per capita wild meat consumption of 41.7 kg per year for 150,000 people at 49 sites can spare ~ 71 MtCO2-eq annually under a bovine beef substitution scenario and only ~ 3 MtCO2-eq yr−1 if demand is replaced by poultry with a potential to generate US$185K in carbon credit revenues under an optimistic scenario for local communities.

Sustainable Harvesting and Hunting

As human population and demand for wild meat protein continue to grow, unsustainable harvesting has become one of the most pervasive and urgent threats to wildlife worldwide. Also, these unsustainable harvesting practices affect a fifth of Red List Threatened species, and coupled with habitat degradation, leading to widespread defaunation and wild meat specie extinctions.

When wild meat harvesting is conducted sustainably and within regulated limits, it has positive effects on landscapes. Sustainable harvesting practices also help control populations of certain species, preventing overpopulation and its associated ecological consequences.

Furthermore, local communities that engage in sustainable harvesting practices are able to generate livelihoods, support their well-being and maintain natural resources including wild meat species. Over-harvesting of wild meat species disrupts food chains, causes imbalances in biodiversity, and has the potential to cause extinction of vulnerable species. Unsustainable harvesting practices of wild meat species has cascading effects. They suppress the long-term carbon storage capacity of natural forests by depleting large-bodied bird and mammal species serving essential ecosystem functions, like dispersing large-seeded carbon-dense tree species.

Wild Meat Value Chains and Sustainability

The 14th Conference on the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP14)’s decision on sustainable wildlife management gives insights into sustainable utilisation of wild meat species. The conference held that sustainability can be achieved if “the aim is to promote sustainability of supply at the source, managing the demand along the entire value chain, and creating the enabling conditions for legal, sustainable management of terrestrial wild meat in tropical and subtropical habitats…”.  A value chain-based sustainability approach may therefore answer the question on sustainable wild meat specie utilisation. Thus, studying and profiling activities that add or subtract sustainability in the entire value chain of each wild meat species will potentially offer opportunities for entrenching and retaining sustainability.

A value chain assessment addresses a range of questions: Who are the consumers, producers, harvesters, processors, wholesalers and traders? What is being supplied or demanded? What are the barriers/opportunities in wild meat value chains?

Knowing actors involved, their roles and responsibilities in the value chain sustainability matrix is key to retaining, managing, modelling and championing the sustainable utilisation of wild meat species. Such an assessment is the cornerstone for developing participatory approaches to regulating offtakes that include co-management with local communities, devolution to local authorities, as well as engaging harvesters and wildlife entrepreneurs to monitor their own harvests using catch-per-unit effort for example.

Moreover, past and existing approaches to offtakes and landscape protection focus on reducing local and urban trade by enforcing regulations and market prohibitions. However, their impact has not yet been evaluated. Unpacking the local and international demand for wild meat will likely provide insights into potential consumption trajectories and help planning for sustainable offtakes.

Sustainability in wild meat sector cannot be complete without acknowledging the important role of wildlife economies to local communities, sustainable landscape restoration and development. It is therefore essential to explore legal and inclusive value chain sustainability options and sustainable economic models that allow communities to thrive on wild and domesticated meat protein.  

Sustainable Development Goal Target 15.7 states the need to: “Take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.” Reduction in demand and supply of illegal wild meat requires a combination of strategies. For instance, promoting and supporting legal, responsible and sustainable wild meat consumption, raising awareness among local communities and consumers on the ecological impact of unsustainable harvesting.  

Studying value chains of both illegal and legal wild meat trade channels, laws and law enforcement, and most importantly how to entrench sustainability in the entire value chain, is needed for sustainable use of wild meat species and landscape restoration.

Finding a Balance

To address the complex interplay between Wild Meat Consumption, Wildlife Economy and Landscape Restoration a multi-faceted approach is needed. This includes:

  1. Strengthening restoration efforts: Implementing robust conservation strategies to protect wildlife habitats, combat poaching, and promote sustainable harvesting practices.
  2. Promoting co-existence of complementary wildlife livelihoods: Investing in sustainable agriculture, eco-tourism, wild meat by-products utilization and other income-generating activities associated with wild meat harvesting and trade.
  3. Education and awareness: Raising awareness among local communities and consumers about the ecological impact of unsustainable harvesting practices, promoting responsible consumption, and supporting wildlife conservation enterprises/initiative
  4. Establishing enabling regulations and making wildlife economies inclusive: Strengthening legislation and enforcement against illegal hunting and wildlife trade, while supporting wildlife economies and community-based initiatives that align with sustainable practices.
  5. Addressing the complex issues of conservation, environment, wild meat, and wildlife economy requires collaboration and partnerships across sectors. Governments, conservation organizations, local communities, and the private sector must work together to develop sustainable policies, support conservation initiatives, and implement effective enforcement against illegal wildlife trade. They must also combine global efforts to entrench sustainable wild meat and life utilization to yield significant positive outcomes for landscapes.
  6. Co-creation, design and implementation of approaches to address wild meat overharvesting are much more likely to have long-term success. However, examples in literature of such practices are sparse. An over-reliance on the prohibition of wildlife use and enforced legal exclusions, may only work in places where dietary dependence for wild meat is low and for threatened wild meat species.

This review reveals that the use of wild meat is inevitable and utilisation management is key to restoration of degraded landscapes, maintaining flourishing landscapes and transforming unbalanced landscapes.

The lack of regulations, bans, poor law enforcement and limited local community involvement in the formal wildlife economies contribute to poaching, unsustainable wild meat harvesting practices and illegal trade. Extensive and illegal harvesting associated with consumptive bans of wild meat species results in ecological imbalances, disrupting ecosystems and threatening the survival of many wildlife species. Embracing traditional knowledge and practices is important in maintaining the ecological balance of the landscapes.

Underdeveloped value chains have devastating consequences to landscape restoration, endangered species and robs rural communities of livelihood capitals. There is a need unpack what is known, and what needs to be known about wild meat sustainability, market opportunities, barriers and policies to support the growth and sustainability of the wild meat sector for enhanced landscapes, global food and nutrition security.


Dr Wiseman Ndlovu is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Wildlife Economy Institute the coordinates the wild meat programme.

To hear more about this topic, sign up to the OGRC Tipping Points webinar, on 27 July, at 1pm (CAT), focused on wild meat and lab meat, in which Dr Ndlovu will be taking part as a panelist, alongside Dr Paul Bartels and Ms Lactitica Tshitwamulomoni. Register here.


Wiseman Ndlovu

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