At local markets in provincial centres across Central and East Africa, bushmeat is traded. A vast array of wild meat, including those of protected species such as elephants, hippos, and chimpanzees, is openly traded.
Some estimate that some six million tonnes of bushmeat are extracted from Africa’s forests annually and the booming business has resulted in the sharp declines, and in some instances localised extinction, of wildlife species. The hunting of wild animals at such alarming levels is thought to be the leading cause of wildlife depletion in Africa’s tropical forests, with allegations that it may also be responsible for the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in people coming in to close contact with infected animals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda.
The trade in meat from wild animals has long been recognised as the primary threat to the biodiversity of tropical forests, but tackling practices of eating endangered animals is no simple task. To begin with, in remote rural communities, bushmeat is often linked to issues of food security and economic viability.
In a recent study, Robert Nasi, Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry comments that: “For people in the countryside, bushmeat is a crucial part of their diets, and we cannot simply tell them not to eat it – they will always continue to…in cities it is somewhat easier to find other sources of protein than in a village in the middle of the forest.”
Bushmeat consumption in rural Central African households, for example, can provide 100% of animal protein intake. In addition, a study in Cameroon identified that up to 33% of village income was derived from the sale of bushmeat.
However, there are also fears that consumption of bushmeat could be the cause of major health risks in humans. Recent warnings from health officials working in the DRC have sought to discourage people from engaging in activities involving contact with infected animals in light of the suspected outbreak of the Ebola virus in the country which was first reported on August 17.
In large cities in the likes of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Cameroon, a growing trade in ‘luxury’ bushmeat is now being driven by urban elites, amongst whom the exotic nature of bushmeat is prized as a symbol of privilege.
One factor contributing to this trend has been the growing migration from the countryside to cities. Newly-settled urban dwellers familiar with their remote rural backgrounds can provide access to a nuanced index of available bushmeat. Moreover, interaction between different ethnic groups can transform beliefs over the ‘taboo’ nature of certain species into recognition of their tradable market value elsewhere.
Bushmeat trade has been further assisted by the building of roads into remote rainforest territory. In particular, logging companies, usually accompanied by large workforces, have created expanding networks of roads into previously untouched wildlife territories. This can have many unintended repercussions.
A report from the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York comments that: “Logging companies frequently regard wild meat as a free subsidy to feed their workers, with logging roads improving connectivity between wildlife and markets. Typically, the advent of roads leads to rapid increases in commercial hunting and subsequent population crashes of exploited species.”
As hunting becomes increasingly commercialised, wildlife ecosystems are being placed under intense pressure. Furthermore, as local species are overexploited and yields decrease, hunters move to other territories, creating ever-expanding zones of wildlife depletion. This has led to what has been described as the ‘empty forest syndrome’ whereby key ecological species responsible for fundamental environmental processes become locally extinct. Invariably, cascading consequences disrupt key ecological and evolutionary processes, altering species composition and reducing biological diversity.
Unsurprisingly, the negative impact on animal populations has been startling. Primate populations in certain areas of Equatorial Guinea, for example, have fallen by 90% and disappeared altogether in other areas. Meanwhile in parts of Cameroon, large mammal species including elephants and lions have become extinct through hunting in the last 50 years.
Looking past the ecological and environmental aspects, the accelerating bushmeat trade intersects with poor civic governance and local conflict. In fieldwork conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, it was found that, “in urban bushmeat markets, protected species comprised more than half of all bushmeat sales during peacetime and increased fivefold in wartime”.
For this, military officials are most to blame. Tasked with patrolling protected areas, select senior members of the armed forces are complicit in the illegal hunting of protected species as a means of both gaining access to informal economies and privileging clientele systems of governance. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that during wartime, breakdowns of authority permit open-access exploitation of local wildlife.
More broadly, policy initiatives have tended to prove ineffective, being subject to corruption and remaining poorly enforced. For example, a recent investigation in Mozambique conducted by the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic found that government officials and police officers were purchasing illegal bushmeat. The report pointed to “the weak penal structure providing no deterrent to illegal hunters, and failure of…the police to enforce fines imposed on illegal hunters”.
For solutions to be found to the bushmeat crisis, it is necessary to recognise the socio-economic and cultural contexts within which practices not only exist and succeed, but may currently be central to local diets and livelihoods. The solution is not one of just enforcement, but of developing sustainable and mutually beneficial projects that involve local communities such as campaigns to discourage the consumption of endangered meat amongst urban dwellers. Reducing illegal hunting requires the rigorous enforcement of deterrents whilst offering alternative livelihoods for those engaged in the trade.
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