Putting a financial value on hunting can help preserve ecosystems under threat from expanding agriculture, according to new research.
- Hunting resulted in about 70 megatonnes less emissions per year than the equivalent protein from farmed beef
- Paying subsistence hunters in carbon credits would give commercial value to the ecosystems they hunt in
- Australian farmers may be able to get carbon credits by incorporating kangaroos and feral animals into their production systems
A study published today in the journal Nature found that the diets of people living on bushmeat — animals hunted from the wild — in Amazonia and tropical Africa, created far less greenhouse gas emissions than if they were to get their protein from farmed beef.
Yet those same areas are under continual threat of land clearing for the expansion of cattle grazing.
By putting a financial value on both the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions being saved by people living on bushmeat compared to beef, and the amount of CO2 being sequestered by allowing those ecosystems to remain intact, the researchers argue that we could create a financial incentive to protect those habitats in regions like the Amazon and Congo Basin.
And the findings may also have implications for Australia.
Bushmeat hunting sites analysed
The researchers looked at the results of studies from 49 sites from countries across tropical Africa and the Amazon region of South America.
Bushmeat hunting at the sites analysed was the main source of protein for about150,000 people in total.
Researchers found that the bushmeat diet — mostly mammals and birds — produced 71 megatonnes less CO2 or CO2-equivalent emissions per year on average than a comparable intake of farmed beef.
The data for the consumption of bushmeat from the 49 sites was compiled from studies conducted between 1973 and 2019.
For perspective, they estimate that’s worth around $US3 million per year in carbon credits.
The UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) is essentially a carbon-offsetting scheme where high-polluting industries can pay low-income countries to conserve forests.
But according to the researchers, the REDD+ scheme looks at the amount of carbon stored in the physical forest without taking into account the offsets of the people living on those resources.
Paying people to preserve their environment and enabling them to continue living a lower-impact lifestyle is a valid approach to conservation, according to conservation scientist Matthew Hayward from the University of Newcastle, who wasn’t involved in this study.
“Those kinds of payments for ecosystem services are becoming more and more important,” Professor Hayward said.
But bushmeat also has problems
Research published in 2019 by Professor Hayward found that hunting wild game for meat and body parts was the number one threat to more than 150 animal species.
Elephants, gorillas and the Somali ostrich were among the megafauna directly threatened by hunting for bushmeat.
And some methods of bushmeat hunting, like using snare traps, are extremely cruel, according to Professor Hayward.
However, many people around the world rely on catching animals as their only source of protein, and it generally has a much smaller ecological impact than intensive agriculture.
“It’s easy for us white people to have a go at bushmeat hunting because [food scarcity] is not a problem first-world people have to face,” Professor Hayward said.
“The alternative to deriving protein from bushmeat is large-scale agriculture, which is what we perform, and that’s completely ecologically devastating, creating monocultures.”
He said there were ways to make hunting more sustainable, such as creating buffer zones around reserves, as well as education and raising the living standards of people in some of these areas.
But even with current practices as they are, Professor Hayward said bushmeat was generally a better option than agriculture for people living in lower population densities.
What about hunting in Australia?
Agriculture in Australia is responsible for just under 15 per cent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock alone for 11 per cent.
Australia has several species of wild game that can potentially be substituted for red meat.
Those include feral deer, goat and rabbit, as well as kangaroo.
While there are a lot of factors involved in calculating the carbon emissions of food, such as the distance driven to acquire it and the amount of time spent in refrigeration, it is broadly true that a wild-caught goat or kangaroo will have a smaller carbon footprint than farmed cattle in Australia.
An individual who is able to hunt their own food here is therefore likely to have a smaller carbon footprint than if they get the equivalent protein from beef.
A second benefit to hunting in this way is the removal of pests from the environment.
However, on the scale that hunting is a realistic option for Australians, it’s unlikely to be viable for significantly reducing the national greenhouse gas budget or keeping our pests under control, according to environmental policy expert Richard Price from the ANU.
“The amount of invasive animals we have in Australia is way beyond hunters to be able to manage in numbers that are required to really reduce their impact on the environment,” says Dr Price, who is also a portfolio director at the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions.
The key to hunting have any significant impacts in Australia is to establish a commercial market for their products, something Dr Price doesn’t think will happen.
“You can’t have all Australians going out and shooting their own animals. You have to have an industry if you’re to get to [that scale] of eating,” he said.
“With bush animals in Australia … there’s just no demand there — it’s a niche industry.
“Those who have got money won’t keep that kind of product on their table night after night, but they will keep coming back to things like beef and chicken.”
But George Wilson from the ANU’s Fenner School says there is potential for Australian farmers to be earning carbon credits from incorporating kangaroos and feral goats into their productions systems.
Professor Wilson’s research interests include the sustainable use of wildlife on the rangelands and the production of low-emission kangaroo meat.
“With support from Agrifutures Australia, we are currently working on how that might be achieved,” Professor Wilson said.
“Our investigations indicate that instead of replacing livestock that have perished in the drought, landholders should be making greater use of the kangaroos that have survived the drought and breeding them back in order to gain carbon credits.
“Improved kangaroo management and greater engagement by landholders in it can also lead to additional credits being earned under the revegetation methodologies under the Emissions Reduction Fund.”
The authors of the research published today were contacted for comment, but a response wasn’t received by deadline.
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