A special issue of the African Journal of Ecology is dedicated to the wild meat trade that is rapidly emptying Africa’s forests of its wildlife. The issue contains more than a dozen studies on various aspects of the wild meat trade. WCS conservationists have authored four of the studies examining urban restaurants and supply chains, governance, and behavior change.

Hunting and trade of wild meat is having a huge yet unrecognized impact on biodiversity loss, and current strategies to manage it are not working. Decision makers need to consider wild meat hunting and trade as an issue for global sustainability alongside deforestation, fisheries management, and others. This means establishing effective monitoring and intervention strategies at a local and global scale.

The four WCS-led studies include:

Profiling the types of restaurants that sell wild meat in Central African cities (Wright et al): Authors surveyed 326 restaurants in Brazzaville and Kinshasa and found that 10,000 wild meat dishes are consumed in these two cities daily, which equates to approx. 1,459 metric tons of wildlife annually. The amount of illegally procured wild meat passing through restaurants is significant and its overt sale continues to reinforce the social norm around eating wild meat. The majority of wild meat-selling restaurants are informal establishments owned by women. However, the number of restaurants dependent on wild meat sales was small and it was not generally considered to be central to the viability of the business. Changing the long-standing practices of wild meat supply chain actors, and crucially those of consumers, requires active engagement with these groups to forge mutually beneficial allegiances. Deeper insights alongside respectful negotiation is ultimately the pathway forward for designing collaborative and innovative strategies for behavior change in the wild meat sector.

Empty laws, empty forests: reconsidering rights and governance for sustainable wildlife management in the Republic of Congo (Mavah et al):National regulations and enforcement for wild meat in the Republic of Congo are ineffective, yet undermine indigenous institutions. In common with many forest communities globally, this is creating an “open access” resource at the same time that demand for wild meat is increased by roads, towns, markets and new harvesting technology (guns, wire snares). Authors argue that the illegal wild meat trade globally reflects outdated institutions of exclusionary conservation. Additionally, the disempowerment of local people can be framed as an “empty laws” open-access syndrome in which neither national nor local controls are working. Authors say that this institutional problem needs to be resolved by reestablishing local tenure and rights. In proposing measures to rebuild local commons (private-community ownership), the paper highlights community rights, the issue of unsustainable commercial use and markets, and the substantial advantages of participatory face-to-face community governance relative to the representational committee-based governance associated with development projects.

From the forest to the fork: A conceptual framework of the wild meat supply–demand system to guide interventions in tackling unsustainable trafficking and consumption in the Congo Basin (Wieland et al): WCS and partners developed a conceptual framework entitled “From the Forest to the Fork” that examined and considered change in three interrelated, dynamic components of the wild meat market system: the supply side, the demand side and the regulatory context. Using this framework, WCS has developed a strategic portfolio of interventions that reinforce each other and aim to change market system dynamics along the wild meat value chain. While the framework was originally developed with large urban centers in mind, WCS has adapted it to also address dynamics in rural protein-poor towns along the wild meat value chain to provide legal, sustainable options to consumers and engage wild meat value chain actors in other businesses. Using this Forest to the Fork framework has provided a new way of working to enhance WCS’s conservation practice and innovation in Central Africa. Much investment is still needed for ensuring impact in Central Africa's forests, yet frameworks like this will provide strategic insights that promote best practice at scale.

Combining offtake and participatory data to assess the sustainability of a hunting system in northern Congo (Riddell et al): Research suggests that wild meat is hunted at unsustainable rates throughout much of the Congo basin, although accurately measuring hunting sustainability is challenging. A village in Northern Congo was the focus of study, which had been relatively remote until the arrival of a large number of people, infrastructure, and logging activities, and the study covered the period before and after the opening of the timber concession. The authors combined three types of offtake (removal of wildlife from the habitat) data: The first was a ten-year dataset on animals hunted, where data was reported to conservation project staff by the hunters. The second dataset included a participatory map of hunting areas around the focus village, which elicited discussions by hunters on how wildlife abundance and profile, and hunting techniques and strategies had changed over time in the area, and possible reasons why. The third dataset was a fine-grained, one-year dataset on hunting activity which included distance of each hunt from the village, and a detailed examination of more hunting variables than in the ten-year study. The conclusions drawn from the different data sets were broadly the same (indicating wildlife depletion over time, changes in the type of animal hunted, all strongly linked in time to the arrival of workers to a logging camp and to the later opening of a new road). Important additional information from the two shorter-term datasets included how hunters perceived wildlife changes over time, and to what they attributed it (wildlife depletion was attributed to their changing socioeconomic landscape, especially the immigration of people to the logging concession). The study also states how the hunters dealt with the lower numbers of available wildlife:  they hunted more at night, travelled further and to previously unused areas to find animals, and hired out their guns to others). The authors discuss how combining such different types of datasets can better distinguish between changes in prey populations and changes in hunting strategy, improving the effectiveness of long-term offtake data sets to assess sustainability of hunting.