Should Wild Meat Markets be Shut Down?

Your television displays lurid clips of caged animals in markets, and your Twitter feeds lambast the dangers of so-called “wet markets” and of consuming wild animals. The message is clear: the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic that has exploded in China and swiftly expanding to the rest of the world is a result of such practices. It should be stopped.

Recall that we have heard this message before. During Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in West Africa, for instance, the very same claims were lobbed.[1],[2] To be sure, political conditions in China and in various sub-Saharan states differ substantially, and nobody refers to “wet markets” in Africa, but rather to “bushmeat” chains and markets. But current reporting on the COVID-19 epidemic echoes reproaches of African “bushmeat” markets, hunting and butchering practices, and popular demand for wild meat. The contention is that these markets, practices, and cultural tastes facilitate Ebola and other zoonotic disease epidemics – that is, epidemics of animal diseases that spill over into human populations.[3] In response, during prior Ebola epidemics, some African states implemented wild meat bans in an apparent effort to control spreading infection.[4] Others opted for campaigns to discourage consumption of such wild meat during epidemics.[5] And still others have advocated stringent controls over the hunting, marketing and consumption of wild animals over the longer term to prevent future zoonotic spillovers.

What is deeply problematic about these outright bans and calls is that they confuse draconian crackdowns with feasible and effective action. My point here is certainly not to dispute that animal diseases do indeed spill over into human populations: there is plenty of evidence attesting to its occurrence, including for this latest epidemic.[6] The butchering, preparation and marketing of wild animals do entail a risk of zoonotic spillover. Our long-term field investigations in the equatorial African forest, specifically in southeastern Cameroon, show that most adult populations very frequently butcher, handle, market and prepare nonhuman primate meat.[7] So this physical contact with potentially infectious bodily fluids is important, and it does constitute a risk. But our research leads us to argue that “bushmeat” bans will not curtail zoonotic spillovers, nor is it likely that the suppression of “wet markets” do so.[8] Why?

Our research in equatorial Africa reveals that efforts to suppress wild meat trades and consumption, even of protected species, simply drives those activities underground.[9][10] People are endlessly creative about finding ways to circumvent these restrictions, and during epidemics, even more so.[11]

Wild meat restrictions, even during non-epidemic times, can deprive people of an important protein source in locations where animal husbandry can prove exceedingly difficult, because enzootic diseases can frequently decimate flocks and herds. Our informants in the Democratic Republic of Congo have repeatedly recounted difficulties in keeping their chickens and goats alive – so much so that several have abandoned goat raising altogether. We have also found in southeastern Cameroon that wild meat restrictions weighed most heavily on people with few other sources of food and who could least afford it. In epidemic periods, the consequences of wild meat consumption, sales, and market bans can prove even more onerous for already-vulnerable populations, since it can be exceptionally difficult to find other sources of protein.[12] These restrictions and bans can also deprive people of the pursuit and consumption of historically- and culturally-significant foods.[13],[14]  Hunting, butchering, preparing and eating wild meat are not just practices to obtain food. They both shape and are shaped by relations between men and women, and between generations; by available technologies; by the symbolic importance of killing, sharing, and consuming wild meat; and by the emotional engagements that people express about these animals.[15],[16]

Restrictions on wild meat acquisition and consumption also erodes public trust in authorities. Nearly thirty years ago, I attended a meeting in the Central African Republic, in which inhabitants of a protected forest bitterly lamented to government officials that conservation efforts had privileged the well-being of animals over those of human beings. The result was that they had little confidence in the ability of officials to understand and respond to their own critical needs and well-being. In epidemic situations, this destruction of public confidence can have grave consequences for controlling disease transmission. Bonwitt and colleagues found in the West African Ebola epidemic that wild meat bans eroded public trust in government efforts to control transmission, destroyed confidence within and between communities, and galvanized rumours.[17]

Finally, although it is true that in equatorial Africa that people do have physical contact with potentially infectious animal fluids during butchering, meat preparation and marketing, we also found that other kinds of contact – both physical and spatial — can occur that might facilitate transmission. People and nonhuman primates compete for certain forest fruits, as well as for foods cultivated in forest gardens. We have heard stories of and observed some people recovering partially-eaten fruits, which, if eaten by nonhuman primates or other animals, could transmit certain pathogens.[18] Keeping wild animals as pets is a long-standing practice in central and west Africa, and can lead to infectious bites and scratches. And although animal attacks on people are rare, they do happen and can transmit certain diseases.[19],[20] In addition, not all zoonotic pathogens are transmitted through infected bodily fluids of animals: certain zoonotic disease transmissions can occur when people and animals inhabit the same ecological space.[21] A “bushmeat” consumption and marketing ban would do nothing to stop these sorts of zoonotic transmissions.

Given the frequency of human physical contact with potentially infectious animal bodily fluids, zoonotic spillovers are not especially common. They do happen, but it would seem that many initial spillovers result in dead ends – that is, an animal-borne pathogen can infect a person, but that person cannot transmit the infection to another. Moreover, in most documented Ebola epidemics, almost all epidemics resulted from a single spillover. But the epidemic can only happen because of human-to-human transmission. The capacity of a robust and accessible health care system with well-trained and well-equipped personnel can go a long way towards limiting this transmission.

Restrictions and bans on wild meat have, then, weighed most heavily on the world’s most vulnerable people. It is true that living conditions, social relations, food practices, and political situations in central African states and in China are not the same, and for insights into the difficulties and epidemiological consequences of imposing a “wet market” ban in China, readers would do well to consult the recent contribution of Lynteris and Fearnley.[22]

So how to address the problem of zoonotic spillovers and epidemics? A better-developed animal surveillance system that screened and tested key animals could be effective. Well-conceived communications campaigns do seem to discourage wild meat consumption as well. Better protection and the dissemination of safer practices for those who butcher, handle and market wild meat could also help. But as the current COVID-19 epidemic reveals, it is what happens after the spillover that really matters. At this writing, global health institutions, regional health organisations, national governments and their health structures are struggling mightily to contain transmission. Avoiding a truly global pandemic may or may not be possible anymore.

This highly transmissible coronavirus may strike even more broadly than it already has. But the most vulnerable populations to COVID-19 and its social, political, and economic consequences will be people living in locations without sound medical systems – that is, without effectively trained and equipped medical personnel working in accessible and well-provisioned health structures.

Five years ago, in their reflection on the One Health agenda, Susan Craddock and Steve Hinchliffe observed that “not everyone (or, indeed, every species) is equally at risk, not every country is equally able to recognize and respond to disease outbreaks, and not all actors in disease interventions possess equal financial or political leverage to effect change.”[23] The case of mass quarantine and shuttering of meat markets in China displays a capacity to impose restrictions that would be unheard of in Africa. But genuine attention to highly diverse political and financial conditions and capacities, and to real global inequalities would go much further towards redressing problems of zoonotic pandemics than shutting down a wild meat market.


[1] Hogenboom, M. 2014. Ebola: Is bushmeat behind the outbreak? BBC News.

[2] Actman, J. 2019. What is bushmeat? National Geographic.

[3] Bats are the suspected reservoir of Ebolavirus. In most cases, epidemics have begun following human contact with another infected animal, primarily nonhuman primates and antelope species. (Leroy et al. 2005; Goldstein et al 2018; Leroy et al. 2009. Human Ebola Outbreak Resulting from Direct Exposure to Fruit Bats in Luebo, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2007. DOI: 10.1089=vbz.2008.0167; Judson et al PLoS Pathogens, 2016.)

[4] Bonwitt J et al. Unintended consequences of the ‘bushmeat ban’ in West Africa during the 2013-2016 Ebola virus disease epidemic. Social Science & Medicine 200: 166-213.

[5] Luiselli, LM. 2016. How an Ebola campaign in Nigeria discouraged bushmeat consumption.

[6] Ji, W., Wang, W., Zhao, X., Zai J, Li X. 2020. Cross-species transmission of the newly identified coronavirus 2019-nCoV. J Med Virol, 92,4:433-440. doi: 10.1002/jmv.25682.

[7]Narat, V. et al. 2018. Using physical contact heterogeneity and frequency to characterize dynamics of human exposure to nonhuman primate bodily fluids in Central Africa PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 12, 12: e0006976.

[8] Lynteris, C., Fearnley, L. 2020. Why shutting down Chinese ‘wet markets’ could be a terrible mistake.

[9] Narat, et al. 2018. Using physical contact heterogeneity and frequency to characterize dynamics of human exposure to nonhuman primate bodily fluids in Central Africa PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 12, 12: e0006976.

[10] Bonwitt J et al. Unintended consequences of the ‘bushmeat ban’ in West Africa during the 2013-2016 Ebola virus disease epidemic. Social Science & Medicine 200: 166-213.

[11] Seytre, B. Les errances de la communication sur la maladie à virus Ebola. Bull. Soc. Pathol. Exot. 109, 314–323 (2016).

[12] Dindé, A.O., Mobio, A.J., Konan, A.G. et al. Response to the Ebola-related bushmeat consumption ban in rural Côte d’Ivoire. Agric & Food Secur 6, 28 (2017).

[13] Duda, R. et al.  Ethnozoology of bushmeat », Revue d’ethnoécologie. ; DOI : 10.4000/ethnoecologie.3976

[14] Giles-Vernick T, Rupp S (2006) Visions of Apes, Reflections on Change: Telling Tales of Great Apes in Equatorial Africa. African Studies Review 49:51–73

[15] Brown, H, Kelly, A. 2014. Material Proximities and Hotspots: Toward an Anthropology of Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers. Med Anthro Q, 28, 2: 280-303.

[16] Narat, V., Alcayna-Stevens, L., Rupp, S. et al. Rethinking Human–Nonhuman Primate Contact and Pathogenic Disease Spillover. EcoHealth 14, 840–850 (2017).

[17] Bonwitt J et al. Unintended consequences of the ‘bushmeat ban’ in West Africa during the 2013-2016 Ebola virus disease epidemic. Social Science & Medicine 200: 166-213.

[18] Rupp, S., Ambata, P., Narat, V. et al. Beyond the Cut Hunter: A Historical Epidemiology of HIV Beginnings in Central Africa. EcoHealth 13, 661–671 (2016).

[19] Oishi T (2013) Human-Gorilla and Gorilla-Human: Dynamics of Human-animal boundaries and interethnic relationships in the central African rainforest. Revue de primatologie (Online) 5:63

[21] Narat, V., Alcayna-Stevens, L., Rupp, S. et al. Rethinking Human–Nonhuman Primate Contact and Pathogenic Disease Spillover. EcoHealth 14, 840–850 (2017).

[22] Lynteris, C., Fearnley, L. 2020. Why shutting down Chinese ‘wet markets’ could be a terrible mistake.

[23] Craddock S., Hinchliffe S. 2015. One world, one health? Social science engagements with the one health agenda. Social Science & Medicine, 129: 1-4.

Tamara Giles-Vernick currently conducts research at the interstices of medical anthropology and ethnohistory (historical research using anthropological tools), investigating infectious disease transmission and global health interventions in Africa. She leads multidisciplinary research examining the changing nature and contexts of human contact with great apes and monkeys in equatorial Africa and the health consequences of that contact; she also conducts anthropological research on hepatitis B and vaccination, the historical emergence of HIV in central Africa; malnutrition; infantile diarrhea in the Central African Republic; an historical epidemiology of malaria in west Africa; hepatitis C transmission in hospital and dental settings in Egypt; a comparative history of pandemic influenza; a history of global health in Africa; and the history of epidemiological surveillance.


14 replies on “Should Wild Meat Markets be Shut Down?”

Thanks for this analysis. Also, to what extend does the focus on wild meat markets obscure the wider conditions of industrial agriculture and meat production that by reducing biodiversity foster the emergence and spreading of viruses, while simultaneously forcing communities that earn their livelihoods from wild meat to enter ever deeper into (formerly) wild areas (as argued for instance by Rob Wallace in his book “Big Farms Make Big Flu”)?

Dr Giles-Vernick

I would like to invite you to contribute to an anthropology journal. Could you get in touch please?

[…] Η έρευνα μας στην Αφρική του Ισημερινού αποκαλύπτει πως προσπάθειες για να καταπιεστεί το εμπόριο και η κατανάλωση άγριου κρέατος, ακόμα και από προστατευόμενα είδη, απλώς οδηγεί αυτές τις διαδικασίες σε υπόγειους δρόμους.[9][10] Οι άνθρωποι είναι ατέρμονα δημιουργικοί στο να βρίσκουν τρόπους να παραβλέψουν αυτούς τους περιορισμούς, και κατά τη διάρκεια των επιδημιών ακόμα περισσότερο.[11] […]

[…] Οι απαγορεύσεις άγριου κρέατος , ακόμα και κατά τη διάρκεια εποχής χωρίς επιδημία, μπορεί να στερήσει από τους ανθρώπους μια σημαντική πηγή πρωτεΐνης σε περιοχές όπου η κτηνοτροφία μπορεί να αποδειχθεί υπέρμετρα δύσκολη , επειδή οι ασθένειες που επηρεάζουνε ζώα σε ένα συγκεκριμένο τόπο μπορεί συχνά να αποδεκατίσει κοπάδια και ορδές. Οι πληροφορητές μας στην Λαϊκή Δημοκρατία του Κονγκό έχουν επαναλαμβανόμενα αφηγηθεί δυσκολίες στο να κρατήσουν τα κοτόπουλα και τις κατσίκες ζωντανές – τόσο πολύ ώστε πολλοί έχουν εγκαταλείψει την εκτροφή κατσίκας εντελώς. Έχουμε επίσης βρει στο νοτιοανατολικό Καμερούν ότι οι απαγορεύσεις άγριου κρέατος έχουν επιβαρύνει περισσότερο ανθρώπους με ελάχιστες άλλες πηγές τροφής και οι οποίοι ελάχιστα θα μπορούσαν να το αντέξουν οικονομικά. Σε περιόδους επιδημίας, οι συνέπειες της κατανάλωσης άγριου κρέατος, οι πωλήσεις και οι απαγορεύσεις στην αγορά μπορούν να αποδειχθούν ακόμη πιο κοπιαστικές για τους ήδη ευάλωτους πληθυσμούς, αφού μπορεί να είναι εξαιρετικά δύσκολο να βρουν άλλες πηγές πρωτεΐνης.[12] Αυτοί οι περιορισμοί και οι απαγορεύσεις μπορούν επίσης να στερήσουν από τους ανθρώπους το κυνήγι και την κατανάλωση ιστορικά – και πολιτισμικά – σημαντικών τροφών.[13],[14] Το κυνήγι, η σφαγή, η προετοιμασία και η κατανάλωση άγριου κρέατος δεν είναι απλά πρακτικές για να αποκτήσουμε φαγητό. Διαμορφώνουν και διαμορφώνονται από σχέσεις μεταξύ ανδρών και γυναικών, και μεταξύ γενεών, από διαθέσιμες τεχνολογίες , από την συμβολική σημασία του κυνηγιού, του μοιράσματος και της κατανάλωσης άγριου κρέατος, από τις συναισθηματικές δεσμεύσεις που οι άνθρωποι εκφράζουν σχετικά με αυτά τα ζώα.[15],[16] […]

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