OVER-HUNTING of wild animals to supply trendy exotic meats to the world’s restaurants and delicatessens, as well as to feed indigenous populations, now poses a major threat to the world’s mammals and to food security, according to new research by Scottish experts.

An international research team headed by scientists from Stirling University analysed data on 1,169 of the world’s land-living animals threatened primarily by hunting.

The figures, collated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), showed over-hunting of mammals was concentrated in countries with poorer populations, where hundreds of species of wildlife are sold annually in meat markets and as delicacies in urban restaurants.

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Animals at risk include large beasts such as the grey ox, Bactrian camels, bearded and warty pigs, and small animals like the golden- capped fruit bat and black-bearded flying fox.

Javan and black rhinoceroses, tapirs, deer, tree kangaroos, armadillos, pangolins, rodents and large carnivores, all of which are hunted or trapped for meat, medicine, body parts, trophies or live pets, are similarly threatened.

The Stirling researchers warn the “ongoing decline” of more than 300 species will affect millions of people in Asia, Africa and South America who rely on wild meat as part of their diet.

They found forests, grasslands and deserts in the third world are now lacking many species of wild animals and becoming empty landscapes.

Dr Katharine Abernethy, Reader in Biological and Environmental Science and leader of the African Forest Ecology group at the university called for consumers to be “educated” about the damage done by the demand for exotic meats.

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She said: “More needs to be done to effectively address the threat of over-hunting, especially in the Tropics.

“Millions of wild animals are harvested every year and this is highly unsustainable, putting both wildlife species and traditional livelihoods at risk.”

She added: “Bold moves such as increasing poaching penalties, promoting sustainable food alternatives, particularly in urban areas and educating richer consumers, who do not need the meat for food security, on the threat to mammals that are hunted will go some way to alleviating the problem.”

Scientists found hunting endangers more primate species than any other group. Some 126 species including the lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and many species of lemurs and monkeys are affected.

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Large carnivores and herbivores comprise a small percentage of all mammals listed but tended to be impacted more severely by over-hunting. The loss of these large mammals could cause long-lasting ecological changes, including overpopulation of prey.

To curb the over-hunting crisis, researchers suggest more logistical and financial support is needed from richer developed countries and conclude that only big changes and political will can diminish the possibility of humans consuming many of the world’s wild mammals to the point of extinction.

Professor William Ripple, from Oregon State University in the US, who also took part in the study added: “Our analysis is conservative.

“These 301 species are the worst cases of declining mammal populations for which hunting and trapping are clearly identified as a major threat.”