We are eating the world’s wild mammals to extinction

Stop the killing.
Stop the killing.
Image: Reuters/Alex Grimm
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You’re probably aware of the deplorable trade in wildlife that’s driving many mammal species to extinction. Rhino horns for Chinese traditional medicine, elephant ivory for ornaments, or monkeys as exotic pets.

But the biggest threat to these mammals isn’t human greed for rare objects. It’s simple hunger.

That’s the finding of a study by William Ripple of Oregon State University and colleagues in the UK, Australia, Sweden, Brazil, and South Africa, just published in Royal Society Open Science. The researchers collected and synthesized what are often patchy datasets on the health of mammal species around the world. Of the 1169 mammal species that are threatened with extinction, they found that 301—more than a quarter—are threatened primarily by human hunting. And in most cases, it’s for their meat (though some are hunted for more than one reason).

Those 301 mammal species include 126 species of primates, 65 species of ungulates (deer, antelope, and the like), 27 species of bats, 26 species of marsupials, 21 species of rodents, and 21 carnivores (tiger, cheetah, and the like). All of these species live in poor countries, where basic shortages of protein push people into hunting them.

Losing these species can have a cascade of effects. Many of them perform crucial ecological functions, such as dispersing seeds, consuming overgrown vegetation, maintaining soils, and preying upon other species to keep ecosystems in balance.

There’s also the risk that by coming into contact with these species or eating them, humans could catch diseases. Past pandemics, such as black death, Spanish flu, and AIDS were all zoonotic diseases (ones that jump from animals to humans), and so too, most likely, will be the next big one.

It’s hard to be sure just how much wild meat gets consumed each year. Estimates include some 89,000 metric tons of wild meat harvested in the Brazilian Amazon and more than a million metric tons harvested across Africa. What’s clear is that tens of millions of people depend on wild mammals for food.

What’s more, climate change will affect the poorest in the world the most. So by eating this food source now they are also eating away at their food security in the future.

So instead of simply trying to stop the consumption of wild meat, we need a more organized way to reduce hunting and supplant it with other food sources. Ripple and his colleagues make a few suggestions.

First, create larger areas of protected land for wild animals. Though some African countries have done this, a lot more needs to be done.

Second, provide legal rights to hunt sustainably. This would let hunters maintain their livelihoods while letting conservationists move them away from the most vulnerable species.

Third, find alternative sources of food. “The terms ‘protein’ and ‘meat’ are not synonymous. Historically, many cultures around the world obtained the vast majority of protein from plants and not animals—either wild or domestic,” Ripple et al write in their study. “High-protein plant foods such as soy, pulses, cereals, and tubers can satisfy protein requirements that are associated with fewer environmental impacts than livestock or wild meat.”

Fourth, better education and adequate access to family planning can go a long way. Some 225 million families want to avoid having children (paywall) but don’t have access to contraceptives.

Finally, a lot of the threat to mammals does still come from human greed for rare horn and other body parts. So, finally, the authors suggest that countries around the world need to work together to better police and end the illegal wildlife trade.