Remote rural landscapes are often critical for biodiversity conservation, and also for supplying natural resources vital for rural human livelihoods. Underlying policies and programmes on sustainable development is the assumption that use of natural resources to fulfil human needs can be sustainable. The Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines (AAPG) provide a solid basis on which to try to achieve this - to ensure that management planning for natural resource use considers the needs and rights of potential users, while also emphasizing the need to minimize damage to biodiversity and the ecosystem.

A further consideration, recognized in the (AAPG), is the use of science to assess how this balance can be achieved, and the recognition that knowledge of both biological and social systems is essential if the conservation and societal goals are to be met. Those goals can only be met if we know the productivity of the resource being used, the limits to sustainable offtake levels, and hence the potential of the resource to provide livelihood support. If offtake is unsustainable, no amount of politically wishful thinking will prevent the resource from being depleted, and people from being tied to a declining resource base.

An illustration of this is a case example: the use of wild meat by people living across the tropics. Although very specific, the underlying principle of understanding the limits to natural productivity, and using that in management planning, applies equally to any other natural resources which are intimately linked to livelihood support.

Definition - Sustainable use

Defining sustainability is difficult, given the complexities of biological systems, and the range of relevant management goals. If the concern is wildlife conservation, hunting can be regarded as sustainable if hunted populations do not consistently decline in numbers over time or are not reduced to levels where they are vulnerable to extinction. Given the importance of hunted species to people, it is also important to include a third criterion for sustainability: that hunted populations are not reduced to levels where they can no longer meet human needs.

Importance of wild meat to tropical forest peoples

Many rural peoples across the tropics still depend on wild meat for their nutrition. E.g.:

  • Two-thirds of the meals of a remote Kelabit community in Sarawak, Malaysia, contain wild meat, and it is their main source of protein.
  • Efe Pygmies in the Ituri Forest, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, eat about 160g of wild meat per person per day.
  • Ten indigenous groups in Latin America consume an average of 184g of wild meat per person per day. Some rural hunting communities eat even larger quantities of wild meat. Especially if other foods are scarce, people can obtain much of their overall nutrition from wild mammals. Estimates of daily consumption of wild meat per person include: 160-290g for families in northern Republic of Congo, 250g for the Yanomamo in Amazonia, and more than 250g for the Kalahari bushmen in southern Africa. The Yanomamo and also certain rural peoples in Central Africa eat more meat than many people in developed countries.

Variation in potential supply of wildlife from different tropical ecosystems

Productivity of an ecosystem for wild meat depends on the number of breeding animals per unit area, their size (the amount of meat per animal), and the average number of offspring per capita per unit time. The former two factors are captured by measuring biomass. Tropical grasslands commonly support mammal biomasses of 15,000 - 20,000 kg/km2. Most are fast-breeding ungulates and rodents. Thus, in grasslands, significant amounts of wildlife can be hunted and still be sustainable. In the humid tropics, human-disturbed areas such as farm fallows can also be very productive for rodents and ungulates. In contrast, mammal biomass in intact tropical forests rarely exceeds 3,000 kg/km2, and most are primates which breed slowly; thus overall productivity for wild meat is low. Tropical forests can only sustainably support a maximum of only one person/km2 if they rely solely on wild meat for their protein.

The limited productivity of tropical forests for wild meat means that options for livelihood support and poverty alleviation strategies based on hunting are limited, especially as human populations grow. Across most of the humid tropics, use of wildlife for food is already unsustainable. E.g., in Tangkoko Duasudara Nature Reserve, North Sulawesi, from 1978 to 1993, hunting reduced the number of crested black macaques by 75%, anoa and maleo birds by 90%, and bear cuscus by 95%. In Bioko, Equatorial Guinea, hunting has reduced primate populations by 90% in some areas and to local extinction in others. And in 23 heavily-hunted sites across Amazonia, densities of large mammals have been reduced by 81%. If heavy hunting and wildlife trade continues, whole populations disappear. In the last 40 years, 12 species of large animals have become extinct or virtually extinct in Vietnam mainly as a result of over-hunting.

The people who immediately suffer as wildlife disappears are the millions across the tropics living at the development frontier, who are often the poorest and most marginalized in their countries. As their lands are opened up, wildlife declines. These people typically lack the education, skills and cultural context to take advantage of cash-earning jobs. They also lack capital or access to agricultural markets, so cannot readily switch to alternative livelihoods or food sources. They sometimes sell wildlife for cash, but if this is unsustainable, both their protein source and income vanish. Between 1975 and 1985, as their land was opened up by roads and hunting pressure increased, the proportion of successful hunts of the Agta in the Philippines declined from 63 to 16%, and the number of kills per hunt declined from 1.15 to 0.16 animals. The Agta went from being hunters of abundant wildlife in primary forests, to being struggling foragers with inadequate wildlife resources. The protein intake of the Yuquí Indians in Bolivia declined from 88g to 44g of protein per person per day after their lands were opened up to outsiders. Thus, the supply of wild meat is not meeting the demand. Theoretical calculations from Central Africa predict that, at current harvest rates, wild meat supplies will decline by 81% over the next 50 years.

Many more people do not depend on wildlife as a full-time source of food or income, but as a buffer to see them through times of hardship such as unemployment, crop failure, or warfare. That buffer goes if the wildlife disappears.

Thus, as human populations grow, the amount of wild meat which can be supplied from tropical forests will become increasingly unable to support human livelihoods. Moreover, the productivity of the wildlife resource is insufficient to provide capital to raise people out of poverty and into other livelihoods. Exceptions are rare, and occur where people are at extremely low population densities, e.g., the Amana Sustainable Development Reserve, Brazil, where human population densities are about 0.1 people/km2.

Savannahs and human influenced landscapes can, in theory, produce more wild meat, so their capacity to support both biodiversity conservation and human livelihood support through harvesting of wildlife is greater. Even here, however, the supply of wild meat in these systems has limits. The systems are highly variable and cannot easily be quantified, but sustainable offtake will be exceeded if human populations are high, and if offtake is supplying significant outside commercial markets.

Implications for management

How do we ensure that we conserve biodiversity and ecosystem function (Principles 4 and 5) while also respecting the rights and needs of local communities (Principles 9 and 10)?

Systems can be sustainable, but we must acknowledge that:

  • There are biological limits to the amount of wild meat that natural systems can supply sustainably.
  • If the people who truly depend on the resource are to continue to use it sustainably, management must ensure that user rights are clear and legally codified, and that systems are in place to ensure that only they have access to the resource.
  • This usually means preventing commercial trade, and outsiders from hunting in traditional lands.
  • Human livelihoods are most effectively sustained in highly modified ecosystems, where humans have intensified agriculture and grazing systems.
  • To achieve sustainable landscapes, planning must be at a landscape scale. These must contain areas dedicated to production of food to meet human needs, and areas dedicated to conserving wildlife.


Consumption of wild meat is one specific case example. To examine the role which any natural resource can play in sustaining human livelihoods, a similar examination of the productivity of the resource and the needs of the users is essential in planning any extraction regime. Only if we do this can we ensure that the Addis Ababa principles of balancing human rights and needs with biodiversity conservation will be met.


Robinson, J.G. and Bennett, E.L. (2004). Having your wildlife and eating it too: an analysis of hunting sustainability across tropical ecosystems. Animal Conservation 7: 397-408.

Elizabeth Bennett is Director of the Hunting & Wildlife Trade Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Email: