Bushmeat — dried animal meat from rainforest regions in Africa — is considered a luxury item in some countries, such as Ghana. But it’s been known for quite some time that Ebola outbreaks can be traced to animal-to-human contact originating in bushmeat.

Ebola isn’t even the only virus that circulates in animals that ultimately become bushmeat; other viruses or “zoonotic” pathogens can often be traced to bushmeat. So why is it such a hot commodity?

Researchers out of the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London wanted to find out what drove people to eat bushmeat despite the high risk for infection. “Knowing who eats bush meat and why, as well as how they perceive the risks, is important for informing both disease and conservation management plans,” Dr. Olivier Restif of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge said in the press release. “This requires a close-knit collaboration between epidemiologists, ecologists and social anthropologists. That is why we have teamed up with the Zoological Society of London and the University of Ghana to develop this research program.”

While in some areas bushmeat is a luxury, in many other parts of Africa, it’s an essential part of people’s diets — providing them with life-sustaining protein where other food isn’t readily available. Bushmeat is a tradition that seems unshakeable, something ancestors carried on for generations. “Life is not easy here in the village,” one Guinean, Sâa Fela Léno, told The Guardian. Léno complained that outsiders “want to ban our traditions that we have observed for generations. Animal husbandry is not widespread here because bush meat is easily available. Banning bush meat means a new of life, which is unrealistic.”

In the study, the researchers interviewed 577 people across southern Ghana to better understand bushmeat practices in the country. Hunters typically used various ways to capture bats — such as shooting, netting, and scavenging. These hunters didn’t wear protective clothing like gloves, yet they consistently come into contact with bat blood, often getting scratched or bitten in the process.

Overall, men were more likely to be involved in bat hunting, especially in rural parts of the country; women were more likely to sell the bushmeat as vendors. In general, an older population saw bushmeat as an integral part of their lives as opposed to younger people, and most people who handled bushmeat didn’t wear protective clothing.

While most bushmeat that has been linked to viral outbreaks consisted of fruit bats, other types of hunted meat includes monkeys, rats, and even deer.

“Understanding both actual and perceived risk factors is vital,” Professor James Wood of the University of Cambridge said in the press release. “If a bat-borne zoonotic disease outbreak were to occur in Ghana, our information could prove invaluable in helping target those groups at greatest risk and in planning disease control measures.”

Source: Kamins A, Restif O, Ntiamoa-Baidu Y, Suu-Ire R, Hayman D, Cunningham A. “Uncovering the fruit bat bushmeat commodity chain and the true extent of fruit bat hunting in Ghana, West Africa.” Biological Conservation, 2014.