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African taste for wildlife is under scrutiny

Elephant trunks and smoked gorilla limbs hang from a vendor's stand in Gabon, part of the trade in "bushmeat" that an international conference will try to curb.
/ Source: Reuters

Elephant trunks and smoked gorilla limbs hang from Emile Ndong’s stall, “ripening” in the tropical heat.

“A good ceremony, a marriage or an initiation is worthless unless you serve game at the table,” said Ndong, a hawker at the bustling Oloumi market in Gabon’s capital of Libreville.

Ndong is one of many profiting from Africa’s booming trade in bushmeat -- a business that has serious consequences for the continent’s wildlife.

Finding ways to curtail this industry will be discussed at an international conference in Madagascar from June 20-24 that will seek ways to harness Africa’s ecological treasures for development, while also protecting them.

“Bushmeat is probably the biggest threat to biodiversity in central Africa,” said Juan Carlos Bonilla, head of the Central Africa program for Conservation International, the main organizer of the Madagascar symposium.

From Ivory Coast in the West through Equatorial Guinea to Kenya in the East, poaching to feed the bushmeat market is rampant. And it is threatening entire species, including man’s closest relatives, the great apes.

Even in the continent’s economic powerhouse of South Africa, poor farmers and rural laborers poach wild game to supplement their incomes, using snares, poisons and traps.

'Industrial scale'
In west and central Africa bushmeat is big business.

“In the past game was locally hunted and consumed as part of the diet of villagers. But now it is being consumed on an industrial scale,” said Bonilla.

He said two key factors were driving the trade.

“There is rapid urbanization with cities becoming populated with migrants from the countryside. These migrants settle but continue a way of life that is linked to the forest,” he said.

A bushmeat seller holds a monkey at a market in Ivory Coast's capital, Abidjan, May 12, 2006. Finding ways to curtail this industry will be on the agenda of a major conservation conference in Madagascar this month, which will seek ways to harness Africa's ecological treasures for development while also protecting them. Picture taken May 12, 2006. To match feature ENVIRONMENT BUSHMEAT REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon/Files (IVORY COAST)Thierry Gouegnon / X01735

Bushmeat has long been a staple among forest communities.

The other factor is the opening up of previously remote and wildlife-rich regions by the logging industry, which is hacking new roads into rainforests.

“These are structured markets which start with commercial hunters in the forest, using mostly snares and traps, but they are linked to major urban markets,” Bonilla said.

The prices vary but delicacies such as monkey can command $150 or more in oil-rich countries such as Equatorial Guinea, finding a market among the newly affluent.

The hunters themselves get a pittance.

One recent study by Conservation International said monkey hunters on Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko Island -- home to several rare and endemic species -- only made about $30 a month.

Alternative jobs sought
So job creation and poverty reduction would probably go a long way to eliminating the “production” side of the industry.

“Providing alternative employment is a measure that would likely enjoy broad-based local support (on Bioko Island),” the study said.

“Hunters come from varied backgrounds and cannot be said to be ‘hard-wired’ to shoot monkeys,” it added.

Primate species at risk on Bioko Island include the rare red and black colobus. Elsewhere gorillas and chimpanzees are targeted by the trade.

Conservationists have warned that poaching, logging and disease could soon wipe out the last of the world’s great apes unless new strategies are adopted.

Human health risks
There is also a health risk for humans: scientists think past outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in central Africa were caused by the consumption of infected monkey meat.

Some researchers believe that better protection for the diversity of the planet’s creatures and plants could help shield humans from diseases like AIDS and Ebola, and be more cost-effective than developing vaccines.

In Gabon, the most sought after bushmeat items are monkey head, bush pig, crocodile, pangolin, gazelle, and elephant trunk -- many of which come from protected species.

At a sweltering open-air market in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, saleswomen flick clouds of flies off a bewildering variety of meat including antelope, pangolin and squirrels.

“There’s a python in the refrigerator waiting to be smoked,” said Apollinaire Yao, one of several young men smoking meat.

Bribes along the way
Seller Anne-Marie N’Zi gives some insight into the trade.

“I get my supplies from women coming from upcountry with bushmeat. It’s difficult to get because the water and forest (guards) and customs officials demand lots of money from them along the way. That makes meat a little more expensive.”

Denis Amani Kouame, director of Ivory Coast’s Water and Forests Ministry, said he did not have the resources to enforce the law, and that legalizing hunting could help.

“Hunting has been forbidden in Ivory Coast since 1974 but nevertheless wildlife resources are diminishing at an alarming rate,” he told Reuters.

“The only people benefiting ... are the poachers and restaurant owners who have established and maintain an illegal economic sector worth more than 100 billion CFA francs ($193 million) per year,” he said.

Lax law enforcement is underscored by the fact that Libreville’s market is just 90 feet from the municipal police station.

At the market, shoppers appear unperturbed at the sight of six dead bush pigs, their young still alive, tethered by their feet.