The hunting and consumption of bushmeat (a catchall phrase for the meat of wild animals) has come under the spotlight due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers have known for a long time that capturing and consuming wild animals, including rats, bats and primates, comes with the potential for transmission of a zoonotic disease among human populations.
For many communities in the tropics and subtropics, however, the practice is a vital addition to the local economy and the local diet, despite the fact that the harvest and trade of wildlife is often illegal.
For a group of researchers from the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries this raised the question of how aware practitioners are of the risks. Basing their study in northern Uganda, the team interviewed 292 women from the region who cook for their households and 180 self-identified hunters from 21 villages bordering Murchison Falls National Park. The goal was to gain insights into bushmeat preferences, opportunities for pathogen transmission and awareness of common wildlife- associated zoonoses (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans).
The interviews revealed that most respondents were aware of the risk of diseases being passed on by wild meat. Both hunters and the women who cook meat considered primates to be the most dangerous animals in this regard. Worryingly, however, this didn’t appear to affect behaviour. Hunters reported taking no extra precautions when going about their work.
‘Based on responses to our questions about diseases that wildlife carry, almost all respondents were aware that there is a real and present risk of disease spillover from wildlife to people,’ the authors concluded. ‘Epidemics in recent years may contribute to this knowledge, but for hunters, this awareness does not appear to influence or motivate any precautionary behaviours during the harvest of wildlife, as virtually no respondents reported taking precautions.’
The study also revealed that women trying to avoid primate meat face challenges. In interviews, the women overwhelmingly said that they prefer to avoid purchasing primate meat, but the majority of hunters reported that they usually disguise primate meat as something else.
‘Primates, rodents and bats have long been investigated as important groups in zoonotic spillover events,’ said BreeAnna Dell, a public health expert and one of the study’s authors. ‘Primates are closely related to humans and are believed to share many pathogens with humans, facilitating transmission. These findings raise concerns, as the ability of cooks to know and assess the risks of handling primate meat is subverted through the disguise of these species in the market.’
The researchers hope that highlighting where the dangers and confusions lie in bushmeat hunting and consumption will enable safer practices to be developed. ‘Expanding our knowledge of awareness, perceptions and risks enables us to identify opportunities to mitigate infections and injury risk and promote safe handling practices,’ said Dell.