This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Eating Wild: Bushmeat, Game, and the Fuzzy Line Between Them, first released on May 5. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CNN HOST: The coronavirus has spread to countries across the world, but officials believe that it all started in Wuhan, China. It’s believed that the virus may have originated from a market in the city where people can buy an assortment of wild game meat.
AL JAZEERA HOST: “Bats, snakes and other wildlife, as well as dogs and cats, are all sold here. Alive in cages, stacked on top of each other.”
CNN HOST: “Images of the market from early December taken by a concerned customer indicate it was apparently selling other wild game animals, including skinned birds, snakes and raccoon dogs, sparking concern that the virus might have transmitted from animals to humans.”
CYNTHIA GRABER: I imagine that you listeners have heard this, or something like it, in the past few months. The coronavirus has spread around the world and shut down basically everything, and many scientists believe it emerged in wildlife and jumped to humans somewhere along the process of those animals becoming dinner.
NICOLA TWILLEY: But don’t worry, we haven’t suddenly become a coronavirus podcast. This is still Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and while we’re not going to spend this episode discussing the ins and outs of the emergence of COVID-19, we are going to talk about eating wild animals. It’s timely, yes, and also Gina Rae La Cerva has a new book about it.
GINA RAE LA CERVA: I am an environmental anthropologist and a writer. And I have a forthcoming book called, Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food.
TWILLEY: We called Gina Rae because she’s visited some of the last truly wild places on Earth and tasted some of the rarest wild meats.
GRABER: And we wanted to know: why do Americans and many Europeans eat so few wild animals, while people in other parts of the world eat so many?
TWILLEY: And why—if you go out and shoot a wild deer in the U.S.—why is that called game, but if you kill a wild antelope in some countries in Africa, it’s called bushmeat?
GRABER: Plus, should people really be eating wild animals anymore?
TWILLEY: And what’s this all got to do with a soup made of spit?
LA CERVA: So Europe used to be covered in dense, wet deciduous forests, which is very different from what we see today, where really hardly any of this primeval forest exists anymore.
TWILLEY: For her book, Feasting Wild, Gina Rae actually visited one of the last tiny slivers of European primeval forest—it’s in Poland, and it is really just a shadow of its former self.
LA CERVA: So Europe’s forests were so vast that actually we think that the root of the word wilderness came from descriptions of these places.
GRABER: The roots of the words wild and wilderness all go back to untamed animals, the forest was a place teeming with animals ungoverned by human hands.
TWILLEY: Ungoverned, but not untouched. For thousands of years, Europeans would go into the forest to find dinner.
LA CERVA: They ate all kinds of animals, wild boar. There was venison. There was something called the auroch, which is the precursor to domesticated cattle. There was forest bison, moose. The animals were so abundant here that really there was no form of hunting restriction.
GRABER: It was abundant, but it was also really valued. Killing a huge wild animal and then being able to share it was a sign of how wealthy and powerful you were. Kings had to have lots of wild game at all their banquets.
LA CERVA: Animals would be braised in rosewater and spices. Sometimes they would be covered in gold leaf and brought out to the table whole and kind of carved up in front of the guests. So wild meat was very much a form of status for kings.
TWILLEY: But, by the middle ages, those forests were already starting to shrink.
LA CERVA: Between 1000 A.D. and 1300, the year 1300, Europe’s population grew by about 50 million people. And all of those people needed to eat. So there was increasing need to cut down the forests in order to grow grain and various crops. And then also wood was used for everything. It was used for building houses and making carts.
GRABER: And by the 14 and 1500s, Europeans began sailing around the world. They first set forth for trade, and then to stake their claim on foreign lands.
LA CERVA: As colonialism spread across the globe, there was demand for very large old growth trees to create the ship masts that were needed. And as early as the 11th century, the demand for wood was really threatening the forests where these kings went out and hunted the game meat that was so important to their diets and their status.
TWILLEY: Gina Rae says that, originally, European forests had mostly been treated as common land—anyone could hunt there. But as far back as Ancient Rome, the elite had set down laws saying, yes, anyone could hunt—but only as long they weren’t trespassing. And, sort of by default, European kings and noblemen were the ultimate owners of the forest.
LA CERVA: So as European kings started to see their game meat being threatened by the need for forest land, they set out some very similar conservation measures whereby the king really restricted access to hunting in his forests. And this is really the beginning of modern conservation laws whereby people were kept out of the forests.
GRABER: It’s weird to think of royalty preserving their hunting grounds and keeping out the poor folk as the blueprint for the conservation movement, but Gina Rae says these laws were really some of the earliest forms of environmental legislation. Forests were no longer for everyone to use as they pleased, they were just for the kings.
LA CERVA: They had very large administrative networks to manage this forest. So the forest wardens would, you know, they would hand out hunting licenses. They would make sure that game animals didn’t starve in the winter or in times of drought. Sometimes they would prepare the venison for royal feast, and they would mete out punishments.
TWILLEY: These punishments were usually for poaching, and they were definitely not just a slap on the wrist.
LA CERVA: If you ignored the game laws you could have a trial by hot iron. And if you were found guilty, then your eyes would be torn out or you were castrated. So poaching was a really big deal. The kings went to great lengths to prevent people from poaching.
GRABER: And this had an impact on how people related to the natural world around them. The forests had always been wild, in earlier centuries in Europe they’d even been places of spirituality. But at this point the forests started to become scary rather than sacred.
TWILLEY: The authorities deliberately painted a picture of forests filled with outlaws and rebels—dangerous rulebreakers, people who posed a threat to society.
GRABER: But the stories the authorities told of violent outlaws in the forest—some of those were based on reality. There were people breaking the rules in the forest, but they were breaking them because they thought the rules were unfair and they were hungry.
LA CERVA: For poor people, this was one form of getting food, and any time there was an economic downturn, hunting would rise and poaching would rise in the forests. And so people did find it as an act of resistance against the sort of forms of power.
TWILLEY: And some of the rebels who broke the rules and hunted in the forest—they actually became folk heroes. Like Robin Hood and his band of merry men.
LA CERVA: So Robin Hood was, you know, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but this also came out of this idea that the forests were not necessarily landscapes that poor people were allowed to access or use the resources of. And and so it was an act of resistance to go in there and to get an—game animals and feed yourself.
GRABER: One one level, this is a story of power: Who could hunt and eat the wild game in dwindling European forests—and who couldn’t.
TWILLEY: But it’s also the story of the impact that split between rich hunters and poor poachers had on how Europeans thought of wild food and the whole concept of the wild and wilderness. This is a very particular way of thinking of wild meat—as game, to be hunted for sport by the elites, and otherwise off limits.
GRABER: And this is a template that the Europeans took with them as they colonized countries around the world.
LA CERVA: Yeah, so when the first European colonists arrived in the Congo basin, they sort of carried this cultural baggage of seeing forests as these dark, empty wastes wastelands without people. So even though there were, you know, a long history of human habitation and numerous groups living in the Congo basin forests, the European colonists kind of didn’t see them. And there was this real sense of unease.
TWILLEY: Europeans thought of this landscape as darkest Africa. Take David Livingstone—he was a Scottish missionary and explorer who was obsessed with finding the source of the Nile.
LA CERVA: He did an exploratory expedition across the Congo wilderness and he described Congo’s forests as “suffocating wilderness” and “unpeopled waste, that seemed to have an oppressive silence.” So in May of 1885, the quote unquote, international community, which was England, France, Germany, Belgian and Italy, they recognized King Leopold II of Belgium, as having a sovereign claim over much of the Congo. And five years later, these same countries created what was effectively the first international conservation law.
GRABER: This law was passed in the early 1900s, and it was called the Convention for the Preservation of Wild Animals, Birds, and Fish in Africa. Local people couldn’t hunt or trap or fish in certain areas of the country. The law was modeled after the way European forests had become protected game reserves for rich people, rich white people in particular.
TWILLEY: But of course, just like in Europe, the forests in Africa weren’t actually pristine, empty wildernesses before—there were plenty of people who depended on them.
LA CERVA: There were a lot of different groups living in the Congo forest. Some were more nomadic hunter gatherers; others were farming communities living within that rainforest. But for all of these groups, wild meat provided a very essential source of food. So there were all kinds of animals being eaten. Everything from various kinds of antelope to forest buffalo, wild boar, monkeys, you know, just hundreds of different animals that communities ate in the forest.
GRABER: There were cultural taboos around eating certain species, particularly ones that were long-lived and slow to reproduce. Like elephants, which could and did occasionally provide a lot of meat.
LA CERVA: It was kind of considered a sacred act to kill and eat elephant. Similar with eating bonobos, which are a great ape that’s very similar to us. There was belief that there was a direct link to that ancestral spirit world. So all of these cultural beliefs had an ecological basis to really help conserve animals that large social—complex social groupings or were slow growing and thus vulnerable to overhunting.
TWILLEY: Still, all kinds of animals were traditionally eaten—and Gina Rae told us they were all usually prepared in a similar way.
LA CERVA: Because of the heat and humidity in equatorial rainforests, fresh meat really rots quite quickly. And so after an animal was disemboweled, the hunters would warm smoke the animal for many hours over low fires. And over time, the meat develops this thick, strong crust on the outside. And, and because of the humidity of the forest, it has to be redried over these small fires every four or five days. So this method of cooking is great because it actually kills off any potential viruses that might be in the meat due to so many hours of exposure to heat. But from a culinary perspective, all of this slow roasting also means that the meat, when it’s finally reconstituted usually in some sort of rich stew, is incredibly delicate and it just falls to pieces in your mouth.
GRABER: This is still how wild meat is prepared today—Gina Rae tried some wild boar cooked like this when she was reporting in the Congo.
LA CERVA: And it’s usually cooked with tomatoes and spices, and it’s almost like a beef bourguignon or something. It’s just very tender. And it has this really incredibly smoky taste, very complex flavor.
TWILLEY: But in the colonial period, thanks to European restrictions, Congolese people no longer had as much access to their traditional wild meat. They resorted to starches and tubers. And wild meat became rare, which made it even more desirable.
GRABER: And then after World War II there were a number of independence movements across Africa. In the Congo, a man named Mobutu Sese Seko became the leader and eventually the dictator in 1965. We in the U.S. actually backed him because he was against communism.
LA CERVA: So he had a really heavy hand in a lot of aspects of cultural life. And even though he had these Western backers, he really wanted to rid the country of any sort of colonial influences. So he really—he wanted to return the Congo kind of to this authentic country. And he renamed it Zaire. He outlawed wigs and he told his citizens to sort of dress, speak and eat in an authentic manner. And as a result, the sort of desire for these wild meats that had been so much part of the cultural history for so many groups became really popular again. And his military was hugely involved in transporting the wild meat game, particularly into cities. And people in cities who had salaries were willing to pay, you know, more money for these traditional meats. So demand for wild game really shot upwards.
TWILLEY: Some of the old taboos also began to disappear at this point—if you had money to afford elephant, then eating elephant became a status symbol, rather than a sacred, communal dish.
GRABER: Mobutu ruled tightly for a couple of decades, but his grip started to weaken in the 1980s. And then by the ’90s civil war broke out. The war left people desperate and starving all across the country.
LA CERVA: And almost 5.4 million people died. So another 4 million people were displaced from their homes. And what happened during this was that the widespread circulation of weapons in the forests became the norm. So suddenly these forests where you might have had traditional hunters using 12-gauge shotgun to go hunting, suddenly there tons of AK-47s and automatic weapons circulating throughout the forests. So the wild meat trade really got caught up in this civil war. And people went hungry and so longstanding taboos against, for instance, eating bonobos, those disappeared.
TWILLEY: The civil war lasted nearly a decade, and during that time, thanks to the widespread hunger and the guns and the military gangs trading wild meat, the wild animal population of the Congolese forests was decimated. One forest reserve literally lost an estimated 90 percent of all its animals.
GRABER: After the war, international nonprofits showed up to try to help the country heal. A lot of the groups were concerned about the citizens of the Congo. But some were focused on the forests and the wildlife—and they felt that people shouldn’t really be eating that wildlife anymore.
TWILLEY: These environmental nonprofits worked with the government to try to restrict hunting in nature reserves. The NGOs had more of an American attitude to wilderness, as opposed to the European one. In traditional American conservation thinking, the idea is that if we want to keep something wild, then our job as humans is simply to protect it and stay away.
GRABER: But of course local people had been using those forests since forever, and they still wanted to eat wild meat.
TWILLEY: And honestly, these restrictions were more or less impossible to enforce. The Democractic Republic of Congo is a big country. And it’s poor, so there isn’t a lot of money to pay forest rangers. So hunting carried on despite the new restrictions.
GRABER: And scientists and nonprofits remain really concerned about its impact—some animal populations have dwindled so much that they’re threatened with extinction. And losing animals in the forests threatens the forests themselves, too.
LA CERVA: It is increasingly devastating the forests. So scientists like to talk about the empty forest syndrome, which is basically that we have reduced the number of wild animals in these places to such an extent that the trees are no longer reproducing as they might otherwise, because so many of these animals are important in seed dispersal for these different tree species.
TWILLEY: This tension is still very much ongoing today. Because, despite the existence of nature reserves and the environmentalists’ warnings, there’s still plenty of wild meat for sale in the DRC, and plenty of people buying and eating it.
LA CERVA: The central market in Kinshasa, you can buy basically anything that you’re looking for, from makeup to roasted snakes on a stick. There’s lots of live animals, turtles tumbling over themselves, buckets of grubs. And then women giving out tastes. And it just feels very friendly in a lot of ways. I watched one woman who was pregnant. She was negotiating with the wild game vendor and said, “I can’t really afford this.” And the woman said, “I’ll give you a special price for the baby because the baby needs it.”
GRABER: Gina Rae told us that most of the people who are shopping at these markets, their parents and their grandparents ate wild game meat, it’s part of their culinary tradition. They think it’s tastier, and they think it’s healthier.
LA CERVA: So just like we might prefer organic meat or grass-fed beef, people would tell me that the wild game meat is better for you because it comes from the forests and it drinks pure water and it eats pure foods. You know, another thing is that for a lot of people in Congo, white meat, domesticated meat isn’t really considered meat. You know, something like chicken or pork is sort of—it doesn’t have that same earthy quality. Game meat has so many different animals that you can eat. There’s so many different flavors associated with that. So eating something like chicken every night doesn’t really satisfy that same need.
TWILLEY: Chicken actually doesn’t make a lot of sense in the DRC for a bunch of reasons, one of which has to do with … refrigeration! My undying love and endless obsession.
LA CERVA: There’s a few things going on here. One is that the cold chain, so the chain of refrigerated trucks and things like that is not very good in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So for a long time, people were getting sick from eating kind of grocery store chicken.
GRABER: Because the fresh meat was spoiling in transit.
LA CERVA: Again, going back to why wild game is actually seen as healthier is that smoking process preserves it in a way that in a place where you have rolling blackouts, you’re not necessarily going to make sure that that cold chain food is healthy or without illness associated with it.
TWILLEY: There’s also the question of how to feed chickens—the Congo just doesn’t have the vast fields of soybeans that carpet the Midwest and supply American industrial scale chicken farms.
GRABER: And in any case, not all wild game is off limits. In theory all game that comes from protected parks is illegal, and so probably any elephant meat at the market would have been illegally killed. But for a lot of animals, like snakes and antelope and wild boar, there are legal hunting seasons and gun permits, just like in the U.S.
LA CERVA: in theory, a fair amount of it is actually quite legal for people to go to the market and eat game. And many of the customers that I talked to said, “If this is illegal, we would stop doing it.”
TWILLEY: In the markets of Kinshasa, there is some illegal wild meat—elephant, chimpanzee, sometimes even tiger. But there’s also lots of monkey and antelope and alligator and pangolin meat, which is often perfectly legal. And it’s eaten by rich and poor alike.
LA CERVA: You can go to Kinshasa’s Grand Hotel and there you have antelope steaks. You have porcupine—so all these fancy restaurants, you can find plates of boa, crocodile and turtle.
GRABER: And there’s a huge market outside Congo, for wild meat from the Congo.
LA CERVA: And it’s no longer, you know, just village people subsisting, but it’s really become a globalized trade. It’s estimated that nearly 270 tons of wild meat is smuggled into Europe every year, basically in people’s suitcases. The wildlife trade is the third largest black market trade in the world after guns and drugs. So it’s this incredibly large thing.
TWILLEY: Gina Rae says that wild-animal ranching is actually being put forward as a solution in the Congo—a way to help meet this huge demand for wild meat while preserving the last remaining wild populations in the forest.
LA CERVA: So they’re trying to sort of semi-domesticate some of these wild animals, particularly ones like porcupine or forest rodents that grow really quickly and are easier to sort of ranch domestically. The economics are very difficult because a game farmer still has to wait for these animals to mature, whereas a hunter can just go into the forest and find one for free. So the economics are difficult. Also, these animals, because they’re wild, they don’t put on fat in the same way. They don’t convert feed to protein as efficiently as domesticated animals do.
GRABER: So ranching is tough—but banning wild animal meat doesn’t seem to be a solution—people all over the world want to eat meat, particularly the meat that their ancestors ate.
TWILLEY: It’s really a conundrum. It’s easy to sympathize with the conservationist point of view—these animals and their habitat are so threatened—but it’s also hard to argue that people shouldn’t be able to eat this traditional food.
LA CERVA: It was such an interesting thread throughout this book, the sort of contradiction between the very normal and almost, you know, healthy practice of eating wild foods and really the need to conserve them or figure out ways to not deplete these resources. You know, unlike domesticated animals, wild animals, they don’t exist in the same level of abundance within the landscapes. You need a lot more land to raise, for instance, one forest buffalo than you might with cattle crowded into industrial sized ranching.
TWILLEY: So even from a land use perspective, it’s hard to imagine how we could ever scale up to meet the demand.
GRABER: For Gina Rae, it became a question of privilege versus need.
LA CERVA: So a rich person living in an urban area that can pay, you know, 100 dollars for pangolin, should they be allowed to eat that? I’m not sure. But a poor person living next to the forest where this is their only source of protein, they definitely should be able to subsist on this.
TWILLEY: Which, again, is easy to agree with—but almost impossible to implement in real life.
GRABER: So maybe this brings us back to ranching? Could ranching be at least one of the answers for how to balance the demand for wild meat with preserving the forest and the animals in it?
TWILLEY: But that brings up the question of what is truly wild—if we humans are involved in helping raise the animals, are they still wild?
GRABER: Which, in turn, brings us to eating bird spit.
LA CERVA: So the trade in edible bird’s nests is totally fascinating. I hadn’t heard anything about it before I started working on this book.
GRABER: I’d heard of eating bird’s nest soup at Chinese restaurants, I just hadn’t really thought about what that actually was.
LA CERVA: Essentially these nests are made out of the spit of a cave dwelling bird called a swiftlet. So the birds make their nest by weaving these strands of protein-rich spit that harden into these sort of halfmoon-like cups. And people turn them into soups and various drinks. There’s lots of different species of swiftlet, but only two are really used for their nests. And they live throughout Southeast Asia and primarily in limestone caves, throughout the forests.
TWILLEY: These nests are really mostly hardened saliva but they have some feathers stuck in there too—it varies by species, so some swiftlet nests are 95 percent spit and some are just half spit.
LA CERVA: Now, the interesting thing is that the wild nests, because they are adhered to the walls of these caves, these limestone caves, over time as water trickles down along the walls, minerals get absorbed into the nest. So the nests take on these kind of striations of color, sometimes they’re a bit orange, sometimes they’re a bit red. And they kind of almost look like seashells or something. They’re very beautiful looking.
GRABER: They do sound beautiful to look at—but who first got the idea to eat a birds nest?
LA CERVA: The trade in edible bird’s nests actually goes way back to the Ming Dynasty in China, which is, like, the mid-1300s. And we kind of know that because there’s been this Ming Dynasty Chinese porcelain found throughout these Southeast Asian caves.
TWILLEY: No one knows who brought the first bird’s nest back to China or who decided to turn it into soup, but, as usual, there is an origin story that people love to tell.
LA CERVA: Throughout the 14th century in China, merchants followed the cycles of the monsoon. So they’d travel south in the summer to Southeast Asia and then return in the winter. And they’d bring back whatever kinds of strange new foods that they could in order to impress the Beijing elite. So one story is that one of these explorers brought back 60 bird’s nests to the emperor.
GRABER: The emperor was probably pretty intrigued by these tiny colorful wild bird’s nests, but he only had a few of them. And he had so many nobles and concubines that he wanted to give a taste to, what could he do to stretch the bird’s nests out?
LA CERVA: So he had his chef turn it into a soup.
TWILLEY: A lovely story. But whoever actually came up with the idea, bird’s nest soup ended up becoming super popular with the Chinese elite. It was an essential banquet dish. Which meant that people all over Southeast Asia could make a pretty penny harvesting the nests.
LA CERVA: And traditionally these, these nests were harvested from these caves on either bamboo or rattan ladders. And people would go up there with these oil lamps and basically knock down as many nests as they could. And it’s still—some of the caves are still harvested in a very similar method. I mean, they’ve gone from bamboo ladders to metal ladders, but it’s still an incredibly dangerous job, watching these men hundreds of feet up in the air with little guideline ropes to keep them from falling.
GRABER: Over the centuries, the men on ladders sold lots and lots of bird’s nests, and the soup became more and more popular in China. And then in the early to mid-1900s, something strange started to happen.
LA CERVA: What’s really interesting is there’s been this slow shift where the birds have actually started to domesticate themselves.
TWILLEY: The birds apparently really were the ones that kind of started the whole thing.
LA CERVA: In the 1880s, on the island of Java in Indonesia, some of these white-nest swiftlets started nesting in people’s homes, just of their own volition. You know, one was out for a—flying one day from the cave and maybe saw an overhang and it looked nice and they decided to start nesting there. So in the 1930s, there was an economic slump throughout Southeast Asia and there was a lot of these abandoned shop houses. And this provided really excellent habitat for the birds. Then after World War II people began to sort of realize that these nests were valuable. They would darken their houses to encourage the birds to come. They’d make them more like caves, sort of adding different horizontal struts to the ceiling to create more areas for the birds to nest.
GRABER: And people noticed something else interesting. Swiftlets return to where they were born. So if a baby swiftlet was born in a house, then the swiftlet would come back to that house to nest once it was an adult.
TWILLEY: So the population of these semi-domesticated swiftlets started to grow, but the swiftlet ranching industry was still pretty tiny until China’s economy took off in the 1990s, and the new Chinese middle class suddenly had the money as well as the desire to eat like the elites.
LA CERVA: And at the same time, the wild nest population, the wild swiftlet birds was becoming really decimated. I did my research on the island of Borneo. And 95 percent of the cave, the wild cave swiftlets disappeared. The population just completely crashed.
GRABER: So swiftlet ranching really became the way to go. There are now more than 10,000 of these bird houses just in Malaysia, and there are special swiftlet house architects and consultants, it’s a whole industry.
LA CERVA: I like to think of it sort of like we do with bees. The bees aren’t necessarily domesticated. They’re free to come and go. But we’ve kind of provided the housing for them. So it’s really similar with the birds. And these, these buildings have caused a lot of conflict, actually, because they can smell really bad. They often have these loudspeakers that play these recorded swiftlet recordings. So they play up to 100 different sounds.
TWILLEY: These swiftlet soundtracks are loud and not super pleasant for humans but supposedly they soothe and attract the birds. And the birds now actively seek out houses to nest in, rather than natural caves.
GRABER: And today these nests aren’t just for soup. People think the bird’s nests have healing powers, and so you can find all sorts of products made with them.
LA CERVA: You can get bird’s nest in a pill form. You can get bird’s nest chocolate. There’s instant coffee with bird’s nest, there’s face creams, pre-bottled drinks. You can get daily gummy bear snacks with, with bird’s nest in them.
TWILLEY: But Gina Rae wanted to try the real deal—bird’s nest soup made from a cave-harvested wild swiftlet nest.
GRABER: It was actually really hard to track down—Gina Rae thought it’d be fairly straightforward, but she ended up only being able to find wild bird’s nest soup kind of by accident after she’d given up.
LA CERVA: This particular woman made it for me with some salt and some eggs and a mushroom that she says arrives between hot and wet weather. And the long nest strands sort of floated in the broth. And there were, you know, bits of feather in there because she was an older woman. And actually picking out the feathers takes really good eyesight to do, you know. So there was like an element of disgust to it because it was so strange to be eating these long, slippery strands, but it was also really delicious. The nest is sort of soft but discernable, a bit chewy, kind of slippery. Almost had like a leathery texture. And for me, it was, it was a really beautiful experience because these wild nests are increasingly rare and so it sort of felt like eating a relic or sort of an artifact of a vanishing way of life.
TWILLEY: As Gina Rae found, wild bird’s nest soup has gone full circle and become an elite delicacy again.
LA CERVA: So they cost nearly four times as much as the house nests. One wholesaler that I talked to, you told me he sold two kilograms of wild cave nest for 43,000 dollars U.S. So they’re quite valuable. And some people say it’s partially because they’re—they absorb those minerals from the cave wall, that they’re, you know, they’ve got this more kind of irregular shape and nutrients to them. Whereas the house nests are very—just like any sort of industrial farming, everything is much more standardized. They’re very white and pure-looking.
GRABER: So a lot of people prefer the wild bird’s nests, but those nests have been disappearing, and even the caves themselves have been vanishing because people are quarrying the limestone to turn into concrete to build the rapidly expanding cities. And so ever since bird’s nest soup became super hot a few decades ago, people have been asking: Are these birds endangered?
LA CERVA: And so really, it was in the kind of mid-’90s that this started to take off to the point where there was a meeting held to discuss should this bird be put on the endangered species list? We’re seeing all these caves’ populations disappearing and all of these house farmers came forward and said, “No, this is not an endangered bird. Look, we have a houseful of these white-nest swiftlets right here.”
TWILLEY: It’s confusing. Gina Rae says that in Malaysia, the messaging is especially mixed—the country has environmental laws that protect swiftlets and say it’s illegal to handle them, but the agricultural department actively promotes swiftlet ranching.
LA CERVA: The Malaysian Wildlife Department is really unclear if this bird is protected or not, partially because of the sort of murkiness between the wild birds and the semi domesticated house birds.
GRABER: And meanwhile people do keep eating the wild bird’s nests, they’re not well protected, and so of course there’s a black market for them.
TWILLEY: Intriguingly, it increasingly seems from genetic research that the wild cave swiftlets and the house swiftlets are becoming two distinct species—and so conservationists are now arguing in favor of protecting and not eating the wild nests, and only eating these less wild, semi-domesticated ones.
GRABER: And this brings us back to the question we asked Gina Rae after we talked about the Congo—should we be eating these wild foods?
LA CERVA: Yeah. You know, I really didn’t want this book to be depressing. And it’s sort of hard to write about the environment, environmental conservation without feeling a bit depressed. Because the scale at which humans are transforming the natural world and the rate that we’re doing that is just so incredible and destructive. So I think it’s really hard because I think eating wild food is sort of like our birthright as humans. I mean, we evolved as part of this much larger ecosystem and we ate and we hunted and we gathered. And that in itself impacted ecosystems and led to evolution of other creatures.
TWILLEY: But back when we evolved, there were many billions fewer of us. And those wild species we used to hunt—they haven’t had the same kind of population explosion as humans.
GRABER: In fact, it’s the opposite—there are a lot fewer of many of the wild animals we like to eat. In part it’s because we like to eat them and we’ve eaten too many of them, but it’s also because we’ve destroyed their habitat.
LA CERVA: You know, I like to say that humans’ impact isn’t necessarily a matter of kind, it’s a matter of scale. So when, you know, in the 1950s, there was basically half as many humans in the world and eating wild food was not necessarily as problematic as it is now, where it was just so many more people and so many more people with that desire to consume something that we can’t create ourselves.
TWILLEY: The problem is, like we said before, when populations of wild animals get too low—whether it’s because we’ve eaten too many of them or because we’ve destroyed their habitat—when that happens, it has a knock on effect on the entire ecosystem. The health of the entire forest depends on these animals being there to play their various roles.
GRABER: And sometimes we’ve messed with the ecosystem so much, and we’ve killed off so many predators, that we actually have to play the role of predators. Like here in the U.S., if we didn’t hunt deer, their population numbers would explode because their predators are mostly gone.
TWILLEY: Venison is delicious and the deer population is healthier for being culled. As is the landscape. So that’s an example of when it can make environmental sense to eat wild meat.
GRABER: But as we’ve put more pressure on the forests and on these animals, there’s another health issue that’s come up—and, of course, it’s animal diseases that hop to humans.
LA CERVA: Something like corona, we think, originated in a bat. We don’t know. And then there was some sort of intermediate animal. I think, the current thinking is, it might be a pangolin. But we also don’t really know.
TWILLEY: A lot of people talk about this idea of disease spillover as a reason not to eat wild animals—that hunting and butchering wild animals are moments when a virus could jump from its wild host to humans and maybe cause a pandemic.
GRABER: That is thought to be just what happened in the Congo. Scientists think that Ebola originated in bats, then jumped to other mammals, scientists think at least monkeys and chimps and gorillas. And then, somehow, Ebola jumped to the humans who were hunting those animals for food, because it’s transmitted through bodily fluids.
TWILLEY: So that is an example of a disease jumping from a wild animal population to humans because of our appetite for wild meat. It is a risk. But experts say that actually, the bigger risk is just our expanding footprint as a species.
GRABER: Because as we cut down more and more forests and move into areas where we didn’t live before, we’re having more and more interactions with wild animals, and that sheer rise in interactions contributes to the risk of disease.
LA CERVA: There’s actually a lot of reasons why we might be seeing more of these zoonotic outbreaks and they have less to do with eating wild animals and more to do with things like deforestation. So we really have to understand these larger changes in the world in terms of deforestation, climate change, urbanization, that are actually really increasing the rate of these zoonotic diseases.
TWILLEY: Even one of the solutions we mentioned earlier—ranching wild animals to help meet the demand for their meat—that can also be risky in terms of disease transmission. Semi-wild civet cats and porcupines, all crammed together under stressful conditions in closer contact with humans—that’s the perfect set up for a disease spillover.
GRABER: But so are our own mega-ranches of domesticated animals, cows or chickens or pigs.
LA CERVA: In the U.S., we found a huge spate of antibiotic resistant UTIs that actually come from eating farmed animals that are given a lot of antibiotics. So the animals themselves have this antibiotic resistant bacteria and then we consume it and then it’s in our own bodies and we can get UTIs from that.
GRABER: Antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are one major problem caused by our current system of livestock farming. But the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria from intensive animal farming threatens health in general. In 2016, the United Nations called antibiotic resistant bacteria the greatest and most urgent global health risk.
TWILLEY: Already, today, something on the order of three quarters of a million people die each year as a direct result of these drug resistant infections, and that number is predicted to rise to 10 million by 2050.
GRABER: This example, that we’re perhaps at greater long-term risk from antibiotic resistant bacteria than from animal diseases from Asia and Africa, it points to a fair amount of bias in how we even talk about wild animals and diseases.
TWILLEY: Those European and American models for how to think about the wild and eating wild animals—what happens is they get projected onto other cultures. And people who are eating wild food out of necessity or tradition or preference—that’s perceived as bad or dangerous or even disgusting.
GRABER: It’s like how we call wild animals that are being hunted in Africa bushmeat, and we call deer wild game. Or how a market in China is called a wet market, when it’s just a market that isn’t selling dried goods. Like most farmers markets.
TWILLEY: And even in history, it was hunting if a rich nobleman did it and poaching if a peasant did it. Still today, people in the U.S. who love freshly boiled wild lobster that they bought live and then killed—they would likely shudder at the idea of picking out a live wild duck for dinner in a Chinese market. But it’s basically the same thing, which means the prejudice is exactly that—prejudice.
GRABER: And like we’ve said, a lot of this comes from differences in how we relate to wild foods and wilderness itself.
LA CERVA: So this is one of the most interesting things to me, was sort of how our desire to eat wild foods actually really reflected our ideas of what wild nature was. And so for a king, you know, wild nature kind of was about having this land that he had control over. And so eating the animals that came from that was a way of showing his status and his wealth. Whereas for a poor person who is just subsisting off of wild nature, you know, wild nature is sort of a source of nourishment and survival. And so I think throughout history, you can really see how these two ideas of wild nature as sort of this, this place of nourishment and sort of source of food versus this place that’s sort of this pristine, almost mythical place. And it really depends how much you have to interact with wild nature on a daily basis, that, that sort of viewpoint really changes.
TWILLEY: In many ways, Gina Rae says that not eating wild food actually messes up our relationship with the natural world—we start thinking of humans as separate from nature, rather than part of it.
LA CERVA: And so I think when we lose wild foods from our diets, we really lose this connection with wild nature, not as some distant sort of epic symbol, but as something that we are really intimately part of as a large—you know, we are part of this larger evolution, this larger ecology.
GRABER: This is really hard. Many people rely on wild animals and have traditionally eaten them and love the flavor of the different meats, but is that enough of an argument if those animals are disappearing?
TWILLEY: It’s an impossible question to give a blanket answer to. And in fact, expecting a blanket answer is kind of part of the problem—because, again, tied up in this whole question of whether we should eat wild animals is the nuance of where we fit in wild nature—what role we semi-domesticated humans should play in the larger ecosystem.
GRABER: Part of the question always ends up being whether we should be eating animals at all these days, or if it’s an issue of scale and we all have to just eat less meat. Whether it’s domestic or maybe also whether it’s wild.
GRABER: Quick note to all of you listeners who, like us, are desperately missing sitting around a table sharing food with your friends and community—we’re doing an episode on this very topic! We have some questions, and we’d love to hear your recorded answers. What’s your favorite thing about getting together for dinner with friends? How have you tried to recreate that online? What’s missing? What’s one thing you can’t get from these online communal dinners? Tape yourself on your phone—we have instructions on our website on the contact-us page, and then email your responses to [email protected].
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Gina Rae La Cerva, whose book is called Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food. We have a link on our website at gastropod.com.
GRABER: I wanted to also thank all your listeners who’ve been so amazing and not only supported the show with donations large and small, but also who’ve written us such lovely emails. As you all know, it’s just a two-woman show, this is our full-time job, and advertisements are way down these days. We count on your support all the time to make the show, and now more than ever. Thank you so much.
TWILLEY: And from me, it means everything, especially right now. Like Cynthia said, we are a two-woman show but we did have help this episode from a third woman—our fabulous spring intern, Ashley Belanger.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with one of my favorite foods, and maybe yours, too—pizza!