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How an Ebola campaign in Nigeria discouraged bushmeat consumption

Countries like Nigeria affected by Ebola have launched campaigns to curb the consumption of bushmeat like fruit bats. Shutterstock

Bushmeat trade is a regular feature in many parts of Africa. People rely on it for livelihoods and, more importantly, for food. Trade in bushmeat is particularly common in west and central Africa where people regularly eat antelope, wild pigs and boars, large rodents, fruit bats and monkeys.

But bushmeat presents a problem for public health. Research has linked the consumption of bushmeat to the Ebola outbreak that spread across west African countries in 2014 and 2015, and led to over 11 000 deaths. According to most authorities fruit bats were involved in the contagion.

Since the Ebola outbreak has been brought under control a number of governments in countries affected by Ebola have launched massive media and propaganda campaigns to curb the consumption of bushmeat. These include Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. The campaigns have included distributing information door-to-door as well as promotions on radio, newspapers and television.

The campaign in Nigeria was particularly well planned. It involved broadcasting messages about the dangers of bushmeat on television and radio. Newspapers were also used to spread the message. I was involved in a research project to assess the impact of the campaign. We found that it had a dramatic effect on the trade in bushmeat. This could provide useful lessons for other countries.

Trade in bushmeat in Niger Delta markets

Our study, which involved academics and researchers from the Rivers State University of Science and Technology Port Harcourt and the Institute for Developmnent, Ecology, Conservation and Cooperation, looked at several bushmeat markets in the Niger Delta region. Our aim was to establish whether or not the government’s campaign in the region had discouraged bushmeat consumption. We chose the region because it has some of the highest rates of bushmeat consumption in the country. In addition, the Ebola virus reached Port Harcourt due to travellers from Liberia and Lagos.

The study tracked the average number of carcasses recorded in each market before and after the Ebola virus spread in Nigeria in June 2014.

The markets were surveyed twice a month between March and September 2014. Our survey found a statistically significant fall in trade for all the main traded types of animals. These included antelopes, monkeys, genets, mongooses, rodents, porcupines, birds, crocodiles, turtles and snakes. In particular, the trade in monkeys and fruit bats almost disappeared. Trade in turtles, crocodiles and other cold-blooded species was less affected.

Based on interviews with traders and customers it was clear that the collapse in the bushmeat trade was the result of the Nigerian government’s strong information campaign. People heeded its alerts about the risk of the Ebola virus spreading in the country.

Looking ahead

What still needs to be tracked is whether or not the decrease in trade will continue now that the threat of Ebola has receded.

But the effect of the drop in consumption is likely to have both negative and positive consequences. A negative consequence is that local people who rely economically on the trade may be affected. This includes hunters who may be forced to take up other activities, such as keeping livestock and getting involved in farming. This in turn could affect the landscape.

But many more assessments of the wider impact of the virus, some of which are already under way, still need to be done.

The Nigerian experience shows that bushmeat, although culturally important, is not as important as previously thought for rural people in west Africa. Indeed, the collapse of the trade - both as a response to the virus as well as the Nigerian government’s media campaign - suggests that people can be discouraged from consuming this food source. And that it is possible to reduce the readiness of rural people to consume bushmeat.

Daniele Dendi co-authored this article. He is an ecological economist, with special interest in sustainable development models in West African countries.

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