Unintended Consequences Of Banning Wild Meat
This study looked at the effects of a wild meat ban on communities in Sierra Leone following an Ebola outbreak. Ebola, a viral disease that kills 50% of patients, can be caught by humans after contact with infected animals. During the Ebola epidemic in 2013-2016, West African governments banned the hunting and consumption of wild animals to try to stop Ebola from spreading.
However, once the disease has been caught by a person who’s come into contact with an infected animal, it is then mainly spread through human-to-human contact. Researchers interviewed villagers who felt that the ban conflicted with their personal experiences of safely eating wild meat, and therefore were less trusting of government advice. Too much focus on wild meat also meant that more important medical advice was side-lined.
Banning wild meat is a standard protocol when there is an Ebola outbreak, and the government of Sierra Leone did so throughout the 2013-2016 West African epidemic. It was enforced by the police and punishable by fines and prison sentences. The public health community, however, criticized the ban as it took focus away from more relevant medical advice, such as preventing human-to-human transmission.
Of course, many animal advocates support various types of bans on consuming meat. However, wild meat is arguably an important source of food and money for many rural villagers in Africa, as well as being culturally valued for medicinal or symbolic properties. Bans on hunting and eating wild meat, whether in the name of conservation or public health, can negatively affect poor communities. Banning wild meat unnecessarily may undermine obedience to future bans.
Researchers qualitatively interviewed 46 rural villagers in Sierra Leone about their experiences and feelings towards the wild meat ban during the Ebola outbreak. The villagers did not believe public health messages about wild meat being risky, as they had safely eaten it for generations. Framing wild meat as hazardous contradicted the everyday experiences of the people who relied on it as a source or food or income.
This conflict caused community distrust of government efforts to control Ebola. During village meetings, people raised suspicions about the “true” reason for the ban, such as weakening villagers or protecting endangered animals. Some people ignored the ban altogether, while others tried to partially obey it, for instance by catching only certain species they were sure did could not give them Ebola.
The ban also affected livelihoods and social relationships. The price of wild meat fell and families that would have sold animals in high demand in cities (e.g. cane rats) resorted to eating them themselves. Villagers pressured village chiefs not to enforce the ban. Solo hunting continued, but group hunting ceased. Communities distrusted each other and tension was in the air. People were unwilling to share wild meat with their friends, straining relationships.
Instead of controlling the spread of Ebola, the wild meat ban undermined public support and trust and stressed rural communities. When advocating for government policies that will protect animals you should also consider how they’ll be communicated to the people who are supposed to obey them, to improve support and compliance.