In the dense tropical forest near Wamba in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Makaite has watched as outsiders strip his traditional lands of wildlife to supply a long-distance market for bushmeat that sees it transported 250 miles by road to Kisangani, and at times, a further 950 miles downriver to the capital Kinshasa.
For Makaite and his ancestors, wildlife has for millennia provided an essential source of food and, at times of need, cash. Hunting and eating wildlife are also the foundation of the Efe Indigenous Peoples cultural identity. Today, their food security and way of life are being threatened by unsustainable trade in wildlife for consumption by people living in urban centers far from Makaite’s traditional forest lands.
Most city dwellers can no more imagine the impact they are having on the food security and health of Makaite and his relatives than Makaite can imagine the global disease risk posed by rural-to-urban trade in wild antelope, primates, pigs, rodents, crocodiles, bats and pangolins.
We have seen first-hand the devastation that can be caused by diseases that spill over from wildlife to humans. Nineteen outbreaks of Ebola have erupted across Central Africa since 1976. In the Democratic Republic of Congo alone there have been eight outbreaks in the past 13 years, with three coming since 2018.
While scientists have not traced most Ebola outbreaks to specific animal-to-human transmissions, the European CDC notes that “Ebola outbreaks in the DRC are recurrent as the virus is present in an animal reservoir in many parts of the country. Continuing response measures, a high level of surveillance, and follow-up of survivors is essential to detect and interrupt transmission early on. Response measures might be challenging amid the other outbreaks in the country.”
We cannot know with certainty what public health and economic havoc Covid-19 will ultimately cause in our countries, but we fear the worst.
What we do know is that healthy food and healthy families are an integral part of what makes us Congolese and Gabonese. Eating a traditional meal with our families and friends is important and, in many ways, defines us. But for urban families like ours, eating wildlife is not essential to our diets. It may have social and cultural value, but it is definitely not a food-security issue, as it is for rural families.
We also know that butchering and handling raw wildlife could expose us to potential diseases — which, when transmitted from person-to-person, can spread faster than our public health systems can respond. Ebola –which, as the WHO explains, “is transmitted to people from wild animals (such as fruit bats, porcupines and non-human primates) and then spreads in the human population” — has taught us that if we want to ensure the health of our families and relatives living in cities, provincial towns and rural villages, our countries must take sensible steps to minimize the risk of future disease spillovers from wildlife to people.
To offer guidance to government decision makers and official overseas assistance providers, we as leaders of the Wildlife Conservation Society Central Africa Program have identified key, multi-sectoral steps needed to decrease the risk of future wildlife disease spillovers to humans and to prevent their spread through secondary transmission from person to person.
Our governments, with assistance from the international community, must play a leadership role in preventing the degradation and fragmentation of our immense, intact forests. Doing so will help minimize the wildlife-human interface, reducing our exposure to potential wildlife diseases; protect the traditional lands of all Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) of Central Africa; and halt the massive loss of biodiversity and disruption of ecosystem function caused by the unsustainable commercial bushmeat trade.
We must formally recognize and secure the traditional territorial rights of forest dependent IPLCs. We must prevent others from poaching wildlife within the lands of IPLCs, jeopardizing their food security and food sovereignty.
We should substantially expand already successful wildlife disease surveillance and public health awareness efforts in rural areas. (To cite just a few examples, a project called PREDICT, in the Republic of Congo, successfully identified herpes viruses circulating in bats. Researchers partnered with that country’s ministry of health to conduct community outreach and encourage reporting of dead wildlife, which the researchers then tested for Ebola.
In another study, researchers tested 3,561 wild animals in the Congo basin and, focusing their efforts on bats, rodents and primates, found multiple strains of coronaviruses circulating among them, some similar to known coronaviruses and others possibly signifying new ones.
These kinds of efforts are essential components of early zoonotic (animal-to-human) disease outbreak detection and reporting and do a great deal to protect the health of indigenous hunters and rural families. They can also be scaled up in other places besides Central Africa. Important work in this regard has already begun in Asia, but rolling out these kinds of programs in Latin America deserves some urgent focus.
In Pointe Noire, Republic of Congo, we see that urban families are keen to retain the healthy food and healthy family customs that makes us all Central African. But we can still do so without buying and eating bushmeat. Expanding this new custom of avoiding bushmeat across all major cities in Central Africa will have hugely positive impacts on public health, rural families’ food security, and biodiversity.
For families living in growing provincial towns located close to sources of wildlife where the availability of bushmeat remains a food security issue, we need to vastly increase investment in peri-urban, sustainable production of poultry and farmed fish.
In Tanzania and Nigeria, efforts by the World Poultry Foundation have shown that backyard production of chickens using improved breeds and vaccination against viral diseases dramatically increases productivity, provides a sustainable supply of high-quality meat and eggs, raises household income, and empowers women. This is the approach the makes most sense for our countries.
Lastly, we urge substantial investment in the public health sectors within our countries to prepare for future disease spillover from wildlife, and to be capable of responding swiftly and effectively to prevent the spread of future zoonotic disease outbreaks. Authors of a recent paper published in Science estimated that “prevention costs for 10 years to be only about 2% of the costs” of the pandemic itself. For Central Africa, a good place to start might be planning to calculate 2% of the economic losses suffered as a result of Covid-19 and spend that much on prevention.
Ebola and Covid-19 have taught us that we cannot continue with “business as usual.” We must change our eating habits and scale down the trade in bushmeat as much as we can. To do that, we need support from the global community to protect the health of all people in Central Africa now and in the future.