CANTERBURY, U.K.--The mushrooming trade of "bushmeat" in tropical countries is the most pressing issue in conservation biology today, said scientists at last week's meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology. But some animals can compensate by reproducing more often, according to new research presented here on 18 July. These critters would be the best candidates for a sustainable bushmeat harvest, the researchers say.
Currently, the worldwide trade in bushmeat--wild animals killed for food--is at least five times what forests can bear. Even in protected areas, the bushmeat trade can be a serious threat to dozens of endangered species. But conservation biologists could mitigate the crisis by advising local communities on which animal species can better withstand exploitation, argued Richard Bodmer, a conservation biologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
Bodmer and his colleague Pablo Puertas of the Wildlife Conservation Society studied the impact of bushmeat hunting in Peru. They compared hunting and abundance of collared and white-lipped peccaries--small piglike creatures--at two sites in the Amazonian rainforests. Although hunting pressure was intense at one site and low at the other, they found about the same number of peccaries at the two sites. When they compared the reproductive rates at the two sites, by scoring the number of pregnant females shot, they found that peccaries in the intensely hunted region kept their numbers up by reproducing more often.
This response to hunting probably also serves a natural purpose, says Bodmer. Because peccaries find themselves on the menu of many predators, they could have evolved to adjust their reproduction rate in response to fluctuating numbers of predators, Bodmer says. In contrast, other species such as primates and the lowland tapir are not devoured by as many predators and can't cope with human hunting. He says the managers of local hunting should be made aware of these biological differences.
It's an important study, says Caroline Tutin, a gorilla expert at the University of Stirling, U.K. "Although the bushmeat crisis is very serious, [this research] shows that not all animals are the same." She says that it is likely that one could find similar cases in Africa, although no similar data are available yet.