Are you being served? Taking wildlife off the menu

When on holiday in a new place, it can be tricky to know what to eat. You want to try the local cuisine but aren't keen on running the risk of an impromptu bush tucker trial instead of the hearty dinner you were hoping for. But while it's one thing to be confronted with a steaming bowl of cow's stomach (guatita in Spanish, if you were wondering...), it’s a whole other world when the main course has a place on the endangered list. Savvy travellers need to keep their wits about them if they want to fill their bellies and do it responsibly.

The bushmeat crisis
It may come as a surprise to many that bushmeat is still a problem – yet it was only a few years ago that Nairobi’s hugely popular The Carnivore restaurant stopped serving giraffe. As much as this may appeal to some travellers intent on sharing quirky food stories, it is indicative of a wider problem. While some antelope species, such as kudu, springbok and oryx (gemsbok) are arguably far more sustainable than their farmed counterparts (when hunted within agreed quotas), other bushmeat is a massive issue in various parts of Africa – particularly Central and West Africa, with Cameroon experiencing one of the most severe poaching crises in the world. Even large primates – including chimpanzees and gorillas – can be spotted for sale in Cameroon's markets, and local extinctions of particularly vulnerable species are beginning to occur. According to the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF), “In Central Africa alone, researchers estimate that one million metric tons of bushmeat is consumed each year.”

Why is the crisis getting worse?
One of the greatest contributors to the expansion of Africa’s bushmeat trade is the opening up of large tracts of forest in Central and West Africa by logging and mining companies. New logging roads destroy critical habitat and allow commercial hunters to penetrate further into the forests. In addition, some logging companies found that the cheapest, most easily available source of food for their workers is meat from the jungle. Some pay commercial hunters to supply their workers. By the time the timber has been harvested, most of the animals in the area have been killed.

The trade in bushmeat does not just jeopardise wildlife populations; it poses a real threat to human health. Increasing levels of contact with wildlife result in an increased risk of animal-derived diseases including HIV, monkey pox (similar to smallpox) and Ebola. An additional tragedy is the orphaned animals that are the by-product of the trade, which may be sold on as pets or kept until they are big enough to eat.

If the illegal, unsustainable and inhumane bushmeat trade is not stopped, many endangered species – including chimpanzees, bonobos and eastern lowland gorillas – will become extinct within 20 years. As a traveller, you can do your bit to help curb this unsustainable use of wildlife by avoiding bushmeat – and by signing up to BCTF’s Bushmeat promise Force.

Shark fin soup
In China, it's not just bush wildlife that's at risk – sharks have long been a delicacy. Well, their fins have; the rest of the shark is thrown back into the sea to die. While this was once practised on a relatively sustainable scale, as China's population grows and becomes wealthier, the food of Emperors is now becoming popular with the masses. This is not only decimating shark populations, but – as sharks are apex predators – threatening whole marine ecosystems; an incredible 100 million sharks are hunted every year to support the hunger for this wasteful foodstuff.
“Three sharks are being killed every second so people can use their fins to make shark fin soup. Shark fin itself is tasteless, it just provides a gelatinous bulk for the soup which is flavoured with chicken or other stock. Many people, especially the consumers, are unaware of the suffering that finning causes.”
But steering clear of shark fin soup is only one thing you can do. You can help create change by putting pressure on governments to get it taken off the menu. For more information visit the Shark TrustShark Trust.

Eating whale meat
You don’t have to travel halfway round the world to find unethical wildlife on the menu: whale meat is served in Norway and Iceland, as well as in Japan, Greenland, Alaska and the Faroe Islands. It’s a tricky topic; traditional Inuit communities in Alaska and Greenland have practised whale hunting for centuries, it is a deeply traditional part of their culture and the numbers taken are small enough to be sustainable (in addition every part of the whale is traditionally used – from the blubber to the baleen). However, when the meat is sold to visiting tourists it becomes a commodity rather than a cultural trait, and growing tourist numbers results in a higher demand for whale meat – certainly not sustainable.

In Norway, Iceland and Japan, however, there is no such dilemma: these countries defy the global moratorium on commercial whaling and between them kill over a thousand whales each year. As ever, tourism can increase demand; steer clear of any restaurant with whale meat on the menu.

Bluefin tuna
It’s not just exotic species that are threatened by our eating habits – the humble tuna is suffering too. Bluefin tuna is an endangered species, yet is considered a delicacy, especially for sushi and sashimi. Single fish can grow to up to two metres and command prices of hundreds of thousands of dollars – a huge reward for skilled fishermen. European stocks are believed to be on the verge of extinction. It doesn’t matter how delicious this fish may be, please avoid it at home and abroad.

What we think
The debate about bluefin tuna and the issues with shark fin soup highlight a common problem with unethically sourced and over-consumed wildlife – that consumers only care about the cutest animals being rescued from the plate. It’s no coincidence that activists fail to gain traction in their campaigns for the less photogenic wildlife. But let’s face it; restaurants encouraging you to tuck into a bluefin steak might as well be tempting you with a panda kebab.
As with any issue plaguing the responsible traveller, eating responsibly on holiday is about keeping informed and being discerning – refuse that shark fin soup and say no to bushmeat. Proving that there is no demand among tourist consumers for unethically sourced food is one of the best ways to create change in tourism, and keep that nasty taste out of your mouth.

Bird’s nest soup
Travel in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, and it won’t be long before you bump into bird’s nest soup. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. Swiftlets make their nests out of saliva, which hardens into a glutinous material that’s been boiled into a cure-all soup for around 1,000 years.

Chinese traditional medicine and folklore say that the nests are an all-singing, all-dancing fountain of youth; science says that while rich in protein and amino acids, it hasn’t proved to have cancer-crushing benefits just yet. But tradition is a potent thing, so swiftlet nests sell for an average of £760 per kilo.

Delicate or delicacy?
This is where the debate begins. The value and demand of bird’s nest soup has rocketed since 1990 and doesn’t show any sign of slowing. White-nest swiftlets are the most valuable colonies, as they don’t line their nests with feathers. Between 1950 and 2000, the value of a white swiftlet nest shot from £17 a kilo to £1,390 a kilo. Some have sold for as much as £7,000 per kilo.

In theory, harvesting swiftlet nests could be perfectly sustainable. In Malaysian Borneo, for instance, there are strict laws: collectors must be licensed and they must only collect nests twice a year (early in the year so birds have time to produce a second nest before laying their brood; and again after the chicks have fledged). It’s said to keep swiftlet populations stable – although it’s a difficult line to swallow when you consider the massive demand pushed by an increasing Chinese population and wealth.

But harvesting can be backbreaking work where deaths are not uncommon. Harvesters build often precarious bamboo scaffolding to reach nests tucked into the high corners of the limestone caves of Southeast Asia (mainly Borneo, but also Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam). Sometimes, they don’t even do that: just climb up mountains of poisonous bat guano. Rocketing prices also means that harvesters are collecting more nests than they should. And migratory workers from low income communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines often do the dirty work and leave without investing the money in the local communities.

Swiftlet farms are easier to manage sustainably; but it’s also easy for someone to whack up an unlicensed shed in their back garden, without learning how to look after the health of swiftlet nests. And there hasn’t been any research on the affect of farming on the swiftlets’ health and the wild population. It’s long overdue – in Malaysia alone the number of farms has gone from 1,000 in 2005 to 60,000 in 2015.

So should I eat bird’s nest soup?
Considering the murky origins of the bird’s nests and the unknown affect of the industrial farming of swiftlets, we’d say no. Unless you’re eating them in a country like the USA, where strict FDA (Food and Drug Administration) rules apply to imported food, then you’re unlikely to find out the true origins of the bird’s nest. If in doubt, order the wonton soup instead; it’ll probably be tastier than the egg white tang of the bird’s nest.

Eating responsibly whilst on holiday can be a bit of a minefield but be informed, ask questions and enjoy the experience!