Bushmeats—such as camel, crocodile and kangaroo—can be found in markets far away from their source, such as this one in Toronto, Canada. ©GanMed64, flickr

Becoming a locavore—someone who prefers to find and eat local foods—is a growing and, in most cases, healthy trend in the United States. Locavores typically forage for berries, fruits, mushrooms and nuts; and some take up hunting, deciding they prefer to eat free-range, organically grown meat.

Today, there are several books and TV shows to help nonhunting locavores learn how to supply their own meat. Some state and federal wildlife agencies are even providing guidance. In Wisconsin, where I live, the department of natural resources has created the Learn to Hunt program, with sessions on how to hunt deer, mourning doves, pheasants, quail, raccoons, squirrels, turkeys, waterfowl and woodcocks. In fact, six states have worked together to develop the website Locavore.Guide, a comprehensive collection of 14 pilot programs that help locavores become anglers and hunters.

Of course, eating meat that is locally sourced by your own hand has been a longtime tradition in other cultures and on other continents, such as Africa and Asia. Unfortunately, though, when this historical and healthy way of eating evolves into a big business, it also becomes a big danger.

African bushmeat has become an international business in recent decades. Disturbingly, hunting forest elephants for bushmeat has been on the rise. ©Richard Ruggiero/USFWS

When eating bushmeat goes big, it’s no longer bountiful

Until the early 20th century, subsistence hunting—an older term for locavore hunting—was not a significant threat to wildlife populations. It wasn’t until hunting began to cross over into commercial enterprises that problems arose.

Now, a new study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal on October 19, 2016, has found that 301 endangered land mammals—so designated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species—are primarily at risk from hunting for food. Those species represent 7 percent of all the land mammals assessed by IUCN and about a quarter of all endangered mammals.

The 301 species include 168 primates, such as the lowland gorilla and mandrill; 73 hoofed animals, such as the Bactrian camel and wild yak; 27 bats, such as the black-bearded flying fox and the golden-capped fruit bat; 26 marsupials, such as the grizzled tree kangaroo; 21 rodents, such as the alpine woolly rat and the Sulawesi giant squirrel; and 12 carnivores, such as the clouded leopard and several bear species. All eight species of pangolins are threatened, even though they won top-level protection at the recent summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Despite protections under CITES, poaching and illegal trade in pangolins continue at a high rate. All eight species are declining and at risk of extinction. ©David Brossard, flickr

That’s due to the fact that bushmeat—defined as any terrestrial amphibians, birds, mammals or reptiles harvested for food—is now a big business. What used to be subsistence hunting has grown into an international, multimillion-dollar industry. In Africa, logging and mining companies (almost none of them African) have built roads into previously inaccessible forests, making it possible to create a commercial trade out of something that was once just an animal here and there for a local meal. When trucks carrying wood leave these forests for the cities, they are often also transporting the smuggled, sun-dried or smoked meat of some of the world’s most endangered animals, including forest elephants and gorillas.

When it doesn’t stay local, it’s a planetary problem

This problem isn’t just one for Africa. It’s tendrils spread out to cover the entire planet. In urban Africa, bushmeat is bought and sold at incredibly high prices as a luxury item. In some cities, a small piece of chimpanzee meat can command the same price as an entire cow. Internationally, it is sold on black markets. London, New York and Toronto are hubs for bushmeat sales and consumption, where there are appetites for unnecessary, “exotic” meats, especially those that are endangered.

Not only is the bushmeat trade causing us to lose animal species and biodiversity, we’re irrevocably upsetting the balance of many ecosystems. Removing animals from environments means removing species that are vital for dispersing seeds and pollinating flowers. And we’re placing the livelihoods and food security for hundreds of millions of rural and indigenous people across the globe in jeopardy, which in turn can create hundreds of millions of refugees.

Hopefully, the locavore trend here at home will help us understand the desire of those in other countries to eat locally, too. ©likeaduck, flickr

I’m not suggesting that the locavore trend here or locally eating bushmeat over there leads to species extinctions. In Central Africa, for example, while bushmeat accounts for up to 80 percent of protein intake, the majority of it consists of duikers (small antelopes), porcupines and pouched rats. In Central Africa’s Congo Basin, 70 percent of the mammal species that are hunted are not listed as threatened on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. So, being a locavore or eating bushmeat that you procure is not the problem. It’s when it becomes a big business that things go badly.

If you’re in doubt, just look to our own history with the passenger pigeon.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,