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News Article

Bushmeat and the Battle Against Ebola


Research Highlights Concerns Over Bat-Meat in Ghana

Hunting and eating wild meat, or bushmeat, is thought to be a major source of emerging zoonotic diseases, especially in the developing world. A new paper seeks to understand why people risk infection from bushmeat and which demographic groups might be most at risk. The collaborative team, based at Cambridge University, interviewed almost 600 Ghanaians about why they hunt, sell or consume fruit-bat meat, and their perception of disease risk from these activities. Bats are a known reservoir of diseases such as Ebola virus and Henipavirus that can “spill-over” from animals to humans. The team found that bat-bushmeat is primarily eaten for taste and as a luxury item. Bushmeat hunting was associated most closely with rural residents of the Volta region and members of a particular tribe. They also showed that hunters are most at risk from potential zoonotic infection because of scratches and bites they sustain. The team hope that their findings may inform disease control measures, should a future outbreak occur and call for further monitoring of the bat-bushmeat trade.

The Ebola virus as with many emerging infections, is likely to have arisen through the practice of hunting and eating bushmeat. The Straw-Coloured Fruit Bat, Eidolon helvum, is widely hunted and eaten in Ghana. The species is thought to carry a particularly high risk of zoonotic pathogen transfer, including Ebola. Hunting and consuming wild animals for food can potentially transmit these infections through bites, scratches, bodily fluids and excrement. Identifying the people and practices involved may be important for targeting future public health interventions should an outbreak occur or for schemes aimed at reducing the bushmeat trade.

A collaborative research team from Cambridge University, the Zoological Society of London and the University of Ghana sought to investigate Straw-Coloured Fruit Bat-bushmeat derived public-health risks. Specifically, they aimed to “investigate the sociological characteristics of communities who interact with bats and to assess their attitudes and perceptions regarding bats and disease”.  The researchers interviewed 577 people across southern Ghana, including hunters, vendors and consumers of bat meat. Questions focused on the practicalities of bushmeat activities (hunting, cooking, selling); participant’s motivation for engaging in the bushmeat trade, as well the legalities and social norms around wild meat. Researchers also gathered demographic data of participants to identify possible variation in attitudes across social groups.

Hunting and Cooking

The researchers found that hunters used a variety of means to capture bats, including shooting, netting and scavenging, and that all of the hunters reported coming into contact with bat blood and getting scratched or bitten. Scavenged bats were collected alive, usually when bats fell to the ground, but this too carried risks: four interviewees explained how people would fight over the bats, sometimes even lying down on top of the bats to prevent others from taking them, often sustaining bites and scratches.

The most common method of cooking bats was to smoke them before adding them to food. Grilling the meat was also very popular. Contrary to previous studies, there was little evidence of medicinal use of bat body parts or raw flesh.

Most significantly, hunters perceived themselves as having the lowest risk of disease transmission from bushmeat, compared to vendors or consumers. Given their close contact with live bats, this suggests they may be most at risk of zoonotic disease transmission.

Who and Why?

Hunters, vendors and consumers of bat meat all tended to be older (7-10 years above average for the sample) than those people with no connection to the practice. The researchers believe this could mean a decrease in youth interest in bat-bushmeat as populations become wealthier and more urbanised. This is supported by further findings in the study, that those people living in urban environments with more formal education are less likely to consume or hunt bushmeat.

However, the authors point out that increasing household incomes in Ghana, could also lead to increased bush-meat consumption.  The majority of respondents (43%) cited the taste of bat-meat as their main motivation for eating it. Combined with relatively high prices, this suggests that bat meat is seen as a 'luxury food' in Ghana.

Finally, most interviewees (50%) also linked eating bat-meat to culture and specific tribes. More than 25% of respondents identified the Kwahu tribe as major consumers of bat-meat. The authors also identified the eastern region of Volta as having a particularly intensive bat-meat trade.

These findings suggest that, contrary to many other bushmeat studies, economic factors like trade and subsistence may not be the only motivation for engaging in bushmeat hunting. This, suggests the ZSL’s Marcus Rowcliffe, may have significant implications for future efforts at reducing the bat-bush meat trade.

“Unfortunately, there may not be a simple way to minimise the risks of zoonotic spill over from bats…Although many programmes suggest economic opportunity as the major motivation behind livelihood choices and success of alternatives, it may not be enough on its own.”

Deterrents

The team asked respondents about possible deterrents to hunting. They found that laws and fines alone are unlikely to induce change. Though respondents said they would be deterred by fines of a certain size, almost no one knew of the existing hunting laws in Ghana, suggesting that enforcement is a major issue.

Surprisingly, despite hunters’ low perception of disease risk, danger of infection by bats was the most common reason given that could lead them to quit hunting. It is possible that zoonosis awareness campaigns could be a more effective deterrent to hunting than alternative economic incentives.

The authors conclude by calling for further work of this kind and monitoring of the bat-bushmeat trade in the interests of public health. As paper co-author, Professor James Wood, points out, "Understanding both actual and perceived risk factors is vital. If a bat-borne zoonotic disease outbreak were to occur in Ghana, our information could prove invaluable in helping target those groups at greatest risk and in planning disease control measures." 

 

A.O. Kamins, O. Restif, Y. Ntiamoa-Baidu, R. Suu-Ire, D.T.S. Hayman, A.A. Cunningham, J.L.N. Wood, J.M. Rowcliffe. Uncovering the fruit bat bushmeat commodity chain and the true extent of fruit bat hunting in Ghana, West AfricaBiological Conservation, 2011; 144 (12): 3000 DOI:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.09.003

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • Michael Taylor
  • Contact Details
  • Michael Taylor
  • Date
  • 16 October 2014