A blanket ban on bushmeat hunting in Central Africa would endanger both humans and animals, says a new report.
If current hunting levels persist, many species will be extinct in less than 50 years, says CIFOR - the Centre for International Forestry Research.
But bushmeat provides up to 80% of protein and fat needed in rural diets.
Giving locals the rights and incentives to hunt sustainably would protect their livelihoods and save forest mammals from extinction, claims CIFOR.
"The bushmeat crisis is not only a crisis of extinction, it is is also a crisis of livelihoods and food security," said Frances Seymour, director general of CIFOR, speaking to the BBC.
"Criminalising the whole issue of bushmeat simply drives it underground.
"We need to decriminalise parts of this hunting and trade and give local communities the rights and incentives to manage these resources sustainably for their own benefit."
CIFOR estimates that the annual harvest of bushmeat in Central Africa amounts to more than one million tonnes the equivalent of four million heads of cattle.
According to the report, large mammal species are particularly vulnerable.
Many - such as elephants, gorillas and other primate species - have already become locally extinct. But CIFOR warns that existing policies designed to "crackdown" on hunting are often counter-productive, as they "effectively outlaw" the hunting of rodents and other fast-breeding species that are not under threat of extinction.
Overall, international trade in wild animal products has an estimated value of US$3.9bn.
For West and Central Africa alone, the estimates range from $42m to $205m a year. Yet, these statistics are still "largely ignored" in official trade and national policies regulating forest policy, claims the CIFOR report.
The authors of the study call on policymakers in the region to develop policies protecting endangered species, while allowing sustainable hunting of "common" game, since there is no clear substitute available if common wild meat sources were to be depleted.
They cite successful models in Peru and also in Sarawak, Malaysia, where a ban on trading in bushmeat was complemented with recognition of the hunting rights of indigenous peoples.
"If local people are guaranteed the benefits of sustainable land-use and hunting practices, they will be willing to invest in sound management and negotiate selective hunting regimes," said Ms Seymour.
"Sustainable management of bushmeat resources requires bringing the sector out into the open, removing the stigma of illegality, and including wild meat consumption in national statistics and planning.
"Reframing the bushmeat problem from one of international animal welfare to one of sustainable livelihoods - and part of the global food crisis - might be a good place to start."
The report - Conservation and Use of Wildlife-based Resources: The Bushmeat Crisis - was produced for the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
It will be discussed at the forthcoming IUCN World Conservation Congress, in Barcelona, on 5 October.
The study highlights the role of the timber industry in sustainable wildlife management, as around half of the remaining forest in Africa now falls within timber concessions.
The authors note that European consumers are also "partly responsible" for the bushmeat crisis.
"Apart from the direct demand for bushmeat products from expat communities, European demand for African timber exports helps to drive this local timber extraction - both legal and illegal."
The report recommends that the local and international timber industry work with NGOs, local communities, and governments to develop forest policies and management plans that incorporate wildlife concerns.
CIFOR's recommendations were broadly endorsed by Dr Noelle Kumpel, programme manager, Central, East and Southern Africa Programme, Zoological Society of London, who said: "Unless bushmeat hunting is legalised - obviously within an adequately enforced regulatory framework - it will remain largely unregulated and increasingly unsustainable.
"But as well as empowering local people and creating mechanisms for community management of bushmeat, which includes working out what level of hunting is sustainable, we need to direct funds (eg from payments for ecosystem services or carbon) to communities so that they have incentives to do this."