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For the first time, researchers have uncovered a powerful connection between loss of access to wildlife and micronutrient deficiencies in children, according to a recently published study by the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard Center for the Environment and Harvard School of Public Health, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and others.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world rely on marine and terrestrial wildlife—both of which have been declining in terms of diversity and abundance around the world—as a primary source of food. The new study addresses what has been less understood: how such reductions in wildlife populations impact the health and livelihoods of subsistence communities who depend on them.
The study—titled “Benefits of Wildlife Consumption to Child Nutrition in a Biodiversity Hotspot”—appears this week in the early online edition of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors of the study include: Christopher D. Golden of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, Lia C. H. Fernald, Justin S. Brashares, and Claire Kremen of the University of California at Berkeley, and B. J. Rodolph Rasolofoniaina, a local member of Golden’s research team in Madagascar. Golden, Brashares, Kremen and Rasolofoniaina have all been long-time research associates of Wildlife Conservation Society.
It is well-known that in parts of the world where common foods are not fortified and people do not receive supplements, animal-source foods not only offer protein, fats and calories but also provide critical micronutrients such as iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B-12 (among others) that cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities from non-meat sources. This study measures the role of wildlife consumption in human nutritional outcomes in an impoverished community in the rainforests of the Makira Protected Area, Madagascar.
Specifically, investigators found that losing access to wildlife for food induces a 30 percent relative increase in the prevalence of anemia (from 42 to 54 percent) in pre-adolescent children. “The consequences of anemia like this are severe,” notes Golden, the lead author of the study. “Children’s cognitive development, their physical capacity, their future trajectory in life, can be dramatically affected by anemia and other diseases related to poor nutrition. Without conservation efforts, it is highly possible that local people could inadvertently deplete many of the wildlife populations that they depend on for food- and health.”
To develop alternatives to reliance on bushmeat, Golden and colleague Dr. Graham Crawford from the San Francisco Zoo are spearheading a project to develop infrastructure and systems for improving poultry health.
“Seasonally, 60-80 percent of chicken flocks may die off due to poultry diseases that are easily prevented through vaccination. Chickens may serve to reduce pressure on wildlife, while also meeting the micronutrient needs of focus in our research,” added Golden.
Christopher Holmes, Director of WCS’s Madagascar Program, said: “We also have to recognize that in such an impoverished area, people will continue to consume wildlife. In the case of Makira, WCS has led the creation of a protected area that engages local communities in co-management while at the same time promoting more sustainable approaches to wildlife management. The great paradox here is that people in Makira rely critically on wild meat for their health, but at current hunting rates the wildlife isn’t going to be available for them for much longer. Further, immediately cutting meat consumption will have dire health consequences. The only way out of this trap is to find a nutritious substitute for wild meat. That’s why we believe a focus on poultry could be key to both sustainable wildlife conservation and public health outcomes.”
There is surprisingly little research demonstrating causal relationships between environmental change and human health, and this unique work fits within a larger framework of research being organized by WCS and a consortium of 25 public health and conservation institutions under the “Health & Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages,” or HEAL, program.
According to Dr. Samuel Myers, Golden’s current advisor at the Harvard School of Public Health, “This is exactly the kind of research we need to begin to understand the incremental human health benefits natural systems may be providing to humanity. We suspect that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that access to both marine and terrestrial wildlife populations may be a key to nutrition in subsistence communities around the world. The HEAL initiative will help us better understand these and other critical conservation-public health connections and as importantly- help inform both conservation and public health policy.”
This work was supported through research grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Fund, and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. The Wildlife Conservation Society provided logistical support throughout the research process.