Protein from forest wildlife is crucial to rural food security and livelihoods across the tropics. The harvest of animals such as tapir, duikers, deer, pigs, peccaries, primates and larger rodents, birds and reptiles provides benefits to local people worth millions of US$ annually and represents around 6 million tonnes of animals extracted yearly. Vulnerability to hunting varies, with some species sustaining populations in heavily hunted secondary habitats, while others require intact forests with minimal harvesting to maintain healthy populations. Some species or groups have been characterized as ecosystem engineers and ecological keystone species. They affect plant distribution and structure ecosystems, through seed dispersal and predation, grazing, browsing, rooting and other mechanisms. Global attention has been drawn to their loss through debates regarding bushmeat, the "empty forest" syndrome and their ecological importance. However, information on the harvest remains fragmentary, along with understanding of ecological, socioeconomic and cultural dimensions. Here we assess the consequences, both for ecosystems and local livelihoods, of the loss of these species in the Amazon and Congo basins.