Exploring why people eat wild meat – and designing better alternatives

New research from Cameroon investigating drivers for wild meat consumption will help find sustainable alternatives that work for rural people.

Stephanie Brittain's picture
Stephanie Brittain is a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Oxford
29 July 2020
The sky is visible through a forest

Forests around villages in Cameroon, where local people have been asked about their attitudes to eating wild meat (Photo: copyright Stephanie Brittain)

COVID-19 has put wild meat trade and consumption firmly in the spotlight, resulting in international calls for a ban on places selling wild meat (so-called ‘wet markets’) and on international trade of wild meat.

Often missing from this discussion is the fact that many rural communities depend on wild meat for their food security and livelihoods.

We’ve been carrying out research around the Dja Faunal Reserve in Southeastern Cameroon to find out more about why rural people eat wild meat. The results from interviews and focus group discussion with around 550 people – women and men, young and old – from four villages around the reserve might not be what you’d expect: it’s not just about availability and ease of access.

Drivers and alternatives

Where hunting is illegal or unsustainable, wild meat alternative projects try to replace the consumption of wild meat with more sustainable options. However, project success has been mixed or lacking, and projects often end up providing an additional source of food or livelihood activity, rather than replacing wild meat hunting as is often intended.

This is because projects are often developed with poor understanding of why people eat wild meat in the first place. Understanding the drivers of wild meat consumption at the local level, and exploring whether there is an appetite for alternatives is key.

It’s commonly assumed that people eat wild meat because no alternatives are available, or because they have low incomes and cannot buy alternatives from local markets. However, people we spoke to rarely cited lack of alternatives or financial difficulties.

Rather, people eat certain wild species because they are easy to hunt, such as the blue duiker, while pangolin, fish and porcupine taste good and are considered healthy ‘white’ meats, especially compared to darker fleshed species that people link with stomach upsets and other illnesses.

Reasons given for preferring certain meats

I love the taste of pangolin. The others I eat because they are there.

When I eat fish I feel great, the others can give you worms.

Gorilla, chimpanzee, leopard and large duiker species were avoided due to bad taste, the taboo of consuming totem species such as leopard or chimpanzee, or health concerns – certain duiker species for example can give people worms, rashes or harm pregnant women and unborn children. These concerns are important for project implementers to explore and understand.

Reasons given for avoiding certain meats

Leopard gives women spots if we eat it. Also, my parents always told me not to eat it. Same with the Hyrax, it’s just not in our tradition to eat it.

Gorilla and Chimpanzee look like humans in a pot – how can you eat something that looks like a human? Also I don’t like the taste of them.

Importantly we found real diversity in the drivers of wild meat consumption, with consumption differing according to age and gender; women tend to cite tradition (women are subject to more taboos and traditions that control the meats they eat), while men more often cite the law and health (men often hunt, and therefore are most likely to be penalised if caught with a protected species).

How do people feel about alternatives?

We also sought to understand the appetite for wild meat alternatives and what type of wild meat alternative project would be most popular and have the biggest impact in promoting sustainable alternatives.

We conducted scenario-based interviews that allowed people to explain how their hunting and consumption patterns may or may not change under different hypothetical project scenarios.

People picked the scenario they felt would most likely enable them to switch away from a dependence on wild meat hunting and consumption. This process provides insights into how future projects should be designed and implemented. Our top three findings were:

  1. People preferred fishponds to chicken coops as an alternative – fish is more commonly eaten (especially in the dry season) while chicken is reserved for special occasions
  2. People wanted projects that provided food and income. They were less interested in projects that provided food only, and sceptical about their effectiveness for reducing hunting and wild meat consumption, and
  3. People wanted projects that targeted households rather than community cooperative projects due to conflicts and mistrust within the community. People also cited concerns over fair distribution and management of project resources by external NGOs. 

New tool to shape future projects

We’re compiling key lessons from this project into a simple decision-support tool for wild meat alternative projects, ready to use by September 2020.

We’ll be working with conservation and development practitioners across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, to test the tool and ensure the lessons learnt in this study are shared in a way that enables future alternative projects to better account for the needs and priorities of people they affect, resulting in more sustainable and positive outcomes for both people and nature.

If you are interested in trialling the decision-support tool in your organisation or want to find out more about our research, please contact Stephanie Brittain ([email protected]) or Francesca Booker ([email protected]). For more information on the 'Why eat wild meat' project, visit the project page.

About the author

Stephanie Brittain is a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Oxford.

Stephanie Brittain's picture