By Luwi Nguluka
If you have been reading this series of articles for the last few months you may have paused and asked yourself “why is bushmeat so important all of a sudden?”. Perhaps living in a developing country such as Zambia you may question the wisdom of investing resources in wildlife conservation when so many other pressing issues persist.
To better understand the significance of Zambia’s illegal bushmeat trade and the effects it has on our country, let’s take a look at the Kafue Lechwe. This a small but iconic species of semi-aquatic antelope, endemic to the Kafue Flats of Zambia. That means this species can only be found in our country and nowhere else in the world. A study released in 2019 by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) showed evidence of continued decline of the population of the species.
The Kafue Lechwe population currently stands at an estimated 23,000, the lowest ever recorded for the Kafue Flats. A previous study conducted in 2015 estimated a population of 29,000 thus suggesting a 19 percent decline in 5 years. Looking back in time to the 1930s hundreds of thousands of Lechwe roamed the flats and even in the more recent 1970s populations exceeded 100,000. So, what happened?
As our country’s population has grown so has its taste for bushmeat. The drastic population decline of the Kafue Lechwe and other species can now be attributed to an increase in the trade of “Nyama Ya Mu Sanga”. This misunderstood popular meal is pushing species into extinction. Illegal bushmeat is unregulated and as a result the meat is unhygienically prepared and dangerous to eat. The recent COVID-19 global pandemic has been linked to the illegal wildlife trade, which has been reported as the cause of many zoonotic diseases in humans. While bushmeat poses a huge threat to public health in Zambia it poses an even bigger threat to wildlife populations as shown in the case of the Kafue Lechwe.
Zambia’s illegal bushmeat trade is a large but destructive and unsustainable industry that not only affects prey populations (food for larger carnivores) but all wildlife. A primary mode of capture of wildlife for meat, is the use of wire snares. These snares are silent and indiscriminate killers which result in significant bycatch. While intended to capture prey for human consumption, the placement of snares in protected areas often results in the capture of many other vulnerable species such as elephants and lions and wild dogs.
It is now well understood that this indiscriminate poaching will lead to the collapse of prey populations which in turn results in the collapse of other flagship populations and ultimately ecosystem degradation which affects us all. As we all know, our ecosystems are finely balanced and the collapse of one vital part of the system results in the collapse of another. As the Ubuntu adage states “I am, because we are”. Ecosystems function in the same way. Scientists have reported across the world that we will face increasingly more human disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic and environment challenges such as droughts from climate change if we continue to damage ecosystems.
To put things in greater perspective. The Kafue Flats is a 6,500 square kilometre floodplain historically known to be one of the richest wildlife habitats in Africa. The area is important for fishing, cattle grazing, sugarcane farming, and production of hydroelectric power. It not only sustains local people through hunting, fishing, and cropping but it also a direct source of water and resources for the millions of people living in nearby areas such as Lusaka. In Zambia, we cannot afford to lose the Kafue Lechwe, the Kafue Flats or the precious ecosystem balance that keeps us all alive.
So, the next time you are offered “nyama yamu sanga” at a special occasion or a friend’s house, remember illegal bushmeat dangerous for you, for me and for Zambia.