Overhunting is one of the leading causes of the biodiversity crisis. Despite being illegal in many places, hunting is a widespread practice amongst rural and traditional communities in the tropics. Although people may be quick to condemn hunters for this threat to wildlife, addressing such a complex issue requires a broader view and detailed understanding of the agents and circumstances involved. This means (though it is not limited to) distinguishing between different types of hunting and hunters, and considering their distinctive behaviours, impacts and motivations.

Tooth of a jaguar (Panthera onca), kept as a souvenir by the hunter who killed it.   

In Brazil, hunting is poorly regulated by legislation, and although subsistence hunting is explicitly permitted where it is necessary to provide food for hunters and their families, as well as by traditional communities within their territories, difficulties with the legal acquisition of guns and ammunition frequently push hunters into illegality. The main governmental action towards diminishing hunting is law enforcement and the criminalization of hunters as a whole. Not surprisingly, this strategy has performed poorly so far, because hunting is not only an important aspect of the culture and livelihood of many rural communities, but also plays an important role in the food security of socio-economically vulnerable citizens and of isolated communities.

Landscape of the Amazonian savannahs of Amapá, Brazil.

When addressing hunting amongst rural communities, asking, “Why do they hunt?” should come first, before considering how we could—or even whether we should—interfere with the practice. With that in mind, my team and I assessed local hunting as part of a research into the conservation status of the red-handed howler monkey Alouatta belzebul. This threatened primate occurs in the Cerrado of Amapá, a savannah complex in the northern Amazon in Brazil. Much of the natural forest in this region has been replaced by extensive Eucalyptus plantations, and soybean cultivation is expanding rapidly. In addition, subsistence hunting is virtually omnipresent amongst rural and traditional communities in the Amazon. Together with habitat loss, hunting is the main threat to our study species, so understanding the drivers of this was crucial in our efforts to improve the outlook for this primate.

Hunted agouti Dasyprocta leporina.

To find the answers to our questions, we visited communities throughout 2,600 km² of the savannahs of Amapá and interviewed local people to gather information on their livelihood, including socio-economic parameters as well as hunting habits. We talked to hunters and heads of households about hunting activities, stocks of local game species and governmental actions regarding hunting and related topics. After the initial contact, greatly facilitated by local assistants, we were very well received in the communities, which generally recognized our effort to understand hunting in the region as a contribution to the conservation of the ecosystem and of their livelihood. Some of those local perceptions of the ecosystem and its conservation were compiled to a short video entitled “Savanas do Amapá”.

Using some of the information provided by the local people, we assessed possible factors that might influence hunting levels in local communities. We found that, although hunting also has cultural aspects, people tended to hunt less when they had access to alternative sources of animal protein and a higher per capita income.  Additionally, contrary to our expectations, hunting was more intense closer to cities, which could be related to the trade of wild meat with urban communities. Our findings provide insights on how we can manage hunting pressure on sensitive key species while respecting the culture, livelihood and food security of local communities.

The researcher and a family from a local community that contributed to the study.

Tackling the specific drivers of hunting in the region, for example by promoting of fish farming in rural communities, could simultaneously increase income and accessibility to fish, which would decrease the local reliance on wild meat for subsistence. Educational programmes and support for the formation of local councils dedicated to the participatory creation of management plans could also be powerful tools to empower local communities towards making more sustainable decisions regarding the use of local wildlife. Although other threats such as habitat loss also need to be addressed to ensure effective conservation of the ecosystem as a whole, we are confident that our work presents a vital step forward in the protection of its natural resources and the people who rely on them.

Landscape of the Amazonian savannahs of Amapá, Brazil, featuring a Eucalyptus plantation in the horizon.

All photographs by Saulo M. Silvestre.

The article Drivers of hunting in the savannahs of Amapá: implications for conservation is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Saulo M. Silvestre obtained a BSc in Biology (2014) and a Msc in Ecology and Conservation (2016) from the Federal University of Sergipe, Brazil. He has experience in ecology, animal behaviour and conservation, with a particular interest in Neotropical Primates. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Postgraduate Program in Tropical Biodiversity at the Federal University of Amapá, Brazil.