Hunting & Health

Our research investigates the costs and benefits of hunting to human health, with a focus on interactions between nutrition and infectious diseases. Hunting and the consumption of animal-based foods is considered a major driving force in human biological and behavioral evolution. Good nutrition is critical for growth, maintenance (e.g. immune function and pathogen resistance), and reproduction. Animal foods are particularly valuable, as they offer a balance of essential amino acids and increased bioavailability of micro and macronutrients that can be difficult to obtain from plants alone. Hunting hypotheses thereby posit that derived human traits, including our intelligence, emotions, and sociality are evolutionary products of access to nutritionally dense animal foods and the hunting adaptation. However, hunting and consuming meat is associated with energetic and infectious disease risks. For example, the cut hunter hypothesis puts a modern day “bushmeat” hunter as patient zero for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and other zoonotic pathogens are known to spillover into humans from wildlife regularly, and unsustainable hunting threatens biodiversity and food security long-term. Ultimately, our research aims to understand risk and resilience of hunting societies to ecological change and identify opportunities for synergistic public health and conservation action.

Hunter butchering wild meat (left) and child selling bushmeat in local village (right) illustrates the conflicting health risks and benefits associated with hunting.


Drivers of hunting

During interviews in Nigerian hunting communities, hunting was described as an undesirable livelihood, even by the hunters themselves. The most common reason people gave for hunting was to feed their children. Indeed, indicators of need, including large family size and low education increased the likelihood that an individual hunted as part of their livelihood. Despite a large majority of hunters reporting they would not hunt if they had an alternative livelihood, food

preferences and cultural uses of wild animals generate a demand for bushmeat. People generally preferred bushmeat over domestic meat, including preferences for certain animals and body parts (e.g. porcupine skin, and pangolin and monkey tails). Participants commonly reported consuming wildlife for cultural purposes, including festivals, holidays and special occasions, and family and cultural tradition increased the likelihood that an individual hunted. These findings point to an underlying role of culture and preference, alongside nutritional and economic need, in driving hunting and consumption patterns and predisposing hunters to risk from wildlife diseases.

Benefits from wild meat

Provision of wild foods in a known ecosystem service.  However, the direct importance of this service to food security in the rural tropics is not well understood. This is particularly true for wild meat, commonly referred to as “bushmeat”, which is consumed locally but also traded widely. Our study provides a direct test of the food security hypothesis in a region of high biodiversity and heavy involvement in bushmeat trade in southern Nigeria.


We show that meat is the most common food item sourced from the forest, and that consumption bushmeat helps protect households from food insecurity. Our data point to the importance of mammalian biomass, specifically rodents, over biodiversity in improved household food security status. Meanwhile, food insecure households incorporate a wider diversity of species into their diets (figure). We also show that the inclusion of wild meat in diets and livelihoods is related to forest proximity, which is affected by deforestation and agricultural expansion. Our findings signify that food security is tied to human wildlife contact in this region, and its bounding effects on wildlife conservation and global health security.

Risks from wild meat

Primates are important hosts of zoonotic diseases.  Our shared biology allows infections to more easily jump between primate species.  Primate meat is among the most preferred meats in these study sites. They are also most commonly kept as pets and used as medicine, specifically to cure cough.

Surprisingly, hunters reported hunting small nocturnal primates (specifically, pottos and angwantibos) more frequently than any other primate. Because pottos are consumed almost exclusively within the village, they rarely appear in market surveys and the hunting pressure on these species has not been fully appreciated.

Ungulates, including several duiker species, red river hog (known locally as "bush pig"), and buffalo are among some of the most abundant and frequently hunted animals.  Hunters report collecting ungulates that they found dead in the forest.  This is a particularly risky form of contact as multiple zoonotic outbreaks, including anthrax and Ebola, have been traced back to people who handled animals that died of natural causes.  Bush pig is particularly desirable prey as it is more profitable that other animals. Small deer are used widely for medicinal purposes. For example, water chevrotaine, known locally as Bejuy, is used for treating chills.  This treatment is so common that the illness it treats is refereed to as "Bejuy fever".

Rodents are the most abundant of all animal taxa and also host the largest total number of viral zoonoses. Cane rats, porcupine, and giant pouched rats are among some of the most frequently hunted animals.  They inhabit highly disturbed areas, and are frequently hunted by farmers as well as hunters. Rodents tend to dominate in areas where forests have been converted to farms or plantations.  With more dense rodent populations and heightened levels of human-rodent contact, risk of disease transmission can increase in these areas.  Porcupine is the number one preferred meat in this region.  Other rodents, like flying squirrels, are consumed less frequently.

Carnivores are not considered a particularly desirable prey, but eaten readily when hunted opportunistically.  Genets and civets are eaten regularly, whereas larger prey like golden cats and even leopards have only been eaten by older generations, presumably because they were more common. Genets (pictured) and other animals are sometimes kept in peoples homes, either as pets or simply to keep until they are large enough to eat.

Some wild birds and reptiles are very desirable prey (e.g. guinea fowl and rock python). Others provide little meat, and thus are not profitable to sell. These animals are consumed primarily in hunting sheds by hunters or kept for their family's food pot. Python fat and bile are used to treat a wide variety of ailments, but most commonly as a body rub to cure soreness or pain.  Tortoise is consumed by pregnant women to confer strength to her unborn child.

Supported by:

U.S. Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (TIES)  Small Grant provided through Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and implemented by World Learning​

National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences  (SBE -1604902)

​Primate Conservation Inc.

National Institutes for Health Parasitology and Vector Biology Training Grant     

​Kohler Fellow at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery 

​Fulbright Institute of International Education Scholarship