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Taking bushmeat off the menu could increase child anemia

UC Berkeley study raises questions about trade-offs between human health, environmental conservation.

The red-tinted hair and bloated abdomens of these three young girls in Madagascar are typical signs of malnutrition.

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that consuming bushmeat had a positive effect on children’s nutrition, raising complex questions about the trade-offs between human health and environmental conservation.

They further estimated that a loss of access to wildlife as a source of food – either through stricter enforcement of conservation laws or depletion of resources – would lead to a 29 percent jump in the number of children suffering from anemia. Among children in the poorest households, the researchers added, there would be a three-fold increase in the incidence of anemia. Left untreated, anemia in children can impair growth and cognitive development.

The findings are to be published the week of Nov. 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“When thinking of creating protected areas for diversity, policymakers need to take into consideration how that will impact local people, both in livelihoods and from a health perspective,” said study lead author Christopher Golden, who did the research while a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and at the School of Public Health. “We need to find ways to benefit the local population in our conservation policies, not hurt them.”

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide consume bushmeat a key source of bio-available iron, particularly for those living in rural communities. But when the menu includes endangered species, the researchers said, human nutritional needs must contend with efforts to manage wildlife resources.

Because bio-available iron is primarily sourced from meat, the researchers hypothesized that increased consumption of wildlife would result in a reduced incidence of clinical anemia. They tested their theory by monitoring the diet and hemoglobin levels of 77 children every month for a year.

The children, all under 12 years old, lived in the Makira Protected Area of Madagascar, one of the most critical biodiversity hotspots in the world.  The Makira region is located in a remote part of eastern Madagascar, and its inhabitants rely heavily upon local wildlife – such as lemurs and bats – for food.

Children there who ate more bushmeat had higher levels of hemoglobin, an iron-containing protein in red blood cells, even after factoring in such variables as consumption of domesticated meat, household income, sex, age and nutritional and disease status, the researchers found.

Eating domesticated meat is prohibitively expensive for many households, while wildlife is free, the authors noted. They found that, among impoverished people, bushmeat accounted for up to 20 percent of overall meat consumption. While many of the wildlife species are illegal to hunt, enforcement in the protected areas can often be lax.

“It is clearly not environmentally sustainable for children to eat endangered animals, but in the context of remote, rural Madagascar, households don’t always have a choice,” said Lia Fernald, UC Berkeley associate professor in the School of Public Health, who worked with Golden to design the study. “In places where a diverse range of nutritious food is unavailable, children rely upon animal-source foods – milk, eggs and meat – for critical nutrients like fats, protein, zinc and iron. What we need for these children are interventions that can provide high-quality food sources that are not endangered.”

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