The Illegal Commercial Bushmeat Trade in Central and West Africa

All of the great apes of Africa, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas are endangered by human population growth, habitat destruction, illegal trafficking of apes for entertainment, private zoos and hunting. Bushmeat trade is the commercial hunting and selling of wild animals for food. It is very different from subsistence hunting, which comprises killing animals for food for a family or village. Once money is involved, anything goes. Even mothers with babies are shot which is, of course, tantamount to killing the goose that lays the golden egg. It is not sustainable. In the Congo Basin and elsewhere in Central and West Africa this is one of the most serious threats to chimpanzees and other endangered animals, which will result in ever more species becoming endangered.

It was in the 1980s when foreign logging companies moved in and the bushmeat trade took off. Even when companies were practicing sustainable forestry, they opened up the forests with roads. Hunters, riding the logging trucks, were able to penetrate into previously inaccessible areas where most species, including chimpanzees, were still plentiful. Roads were also built for mining and oil and gas operations. Hunters would camp at the end of the road and, after days of shooting or trapping, get transport back to town with their smoked or sun-dried meat. Other hunters simply stayed, selling their catch to the staff of the extraction companies. For many wealthy African city dwellers, bushmeat is a status symbol proving that they can stay true to their culture. Some of the meat even finds its way to African communities overseas.

Various organizations are trying to control and prevent this illegal trade in a number of ways. As a result, some logging companies, such as CBC, working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in northern Congo, have issued orders to prevent their drivers from transporting bushmeat. However, this is too often hard to enforce. I have met drivers who were threatened if they refused to comply with hunters’ demands, and often it is the same for law enforcement officers in rural areas.

It is not only wild animals whose lives are threatened by the bushmeat trade—people do not appreciate the risks to their own health. There is increasing evidence of the danger to humans caused by handling, cutting the flesh and cooking certain kinds of wild animals. The Ebola virus, devastating more and more areas of West Africa, is thought to be transmitted by fruit bats, initially to chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos. These apes may become infected from handling fruits contaminated by bat faeces, and can then pass the disease on to humans. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1), that causes AIDS, originated from the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV cpz) from chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) of Central Africa. HIV-2 originated from SIV smm found in sooty mangabeys in West Africa.

Gorillas (and possibly other primates) may carry diseases such as simian foamy virus, chickenpox, tuberculosis, measles, rubella, yellow fever and yaws. People have caught such diseases, and some died. African squirrels (Heliosciurus and Funisciurus) have been implicated as reservoirs of the monkeypox virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and their use as bushmeat may be an important means of disease transmission to humans. Killing, cooking and eating bushmeat puts the entire human population in the area at risk, opening a doorway through which animal diseases can be transmitted to humans, sometimes with lethal effects.

In view of the above, it is clearly of utmost importance that conservation organizations, including the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), invest heavily in education, since many local people do not understand what is going on. Urban populations, as well as those in the forest, do not realize that it is illegal to kill and consume endangered species, including chimpanzees. Indeed, most of them have no idea which animals are endangered. Nor do they understand the serious and potentially irreversible damage to the ecosystem implicated in this slaughter.

JGI, along with some other conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has raised money to put up billboards and carry out education initiatives in the DRC, such as JGI’s Roots & Shoots programme1 in schools, and organize outreach to community members. These activities are all designed to raise awareness and bring local community members to the table as conservation partners. To this end a number of films, presented in the local languages, are highly effective in spreading the message. Building up a connection between communities and the animals that live in the habitats surrounding them is one of the most important steps we can take to fight the bushmeat trade. It is also important to encourage government officials to strengthen law enforcement and educate their employees.

Another education tool, the one forced upon us because of the practice of shooting mother chimpanzees and other primates for food, is the creation of sanctuaries for orphaned infants. When local people, especially children, visit our chimpanzee sanctuaries, they are typically impressed by the very obvious similarities between humans and chimpanzees. We have heard many, as they leave, saying they will never eat chimpanzee meat again. Once people understand that animals actually matter, that they have feelings and personalities, and above all that the bushmeat trade is totally unsustainable, it is surprising how quickly their attitude can change. It is all a question of education.

It is also necessary to provide alternative ways for these commercial hunters to make a living. At the big refugee camp for people who fled the violence in eastern DRC, a hunter was persuaded by a 15-year-old teen, a member of JGI’s Roots & Shoots programme, to give up hunting wild animals and, instead, raise chickens, ducks and guinea-fowl. The result was so promising that he persuaded 75 other hunters to follow his example. These men are now back in the DRC and they took their poultry with them to get a good start in a hard new life.

Ecotourism is another way of helping the situation. Establishing wildlife lodges and organizing tours into the forests for visitors, provides employment for people living around conservation areas and brings foreign exchange into the area. Attracting tourist dollars helps to understand the value of wildlife. People always remember their “safaris” and their encounters with animals, and are then more willing to help to conserve nature.

Clearly it is in the best interests of humanity, animals and the environment to make every effort to end the illegal bushmeat trade.

Notes

1 Roots & Shoots is JGI’s environmental and humanitarian programme for young people from kindergarten through university (and increasingly for older people also). Its main message: every individual makes a difference, every day. Each group (which could be a couple of children or a whole school) chooses three different kinds of projects to make the world a better place—one to help people, one for animals (including domestic animals) and one to help the environment. R&S is now in over 130 countries with about 150,000 active groups. It began in Tanzania in 1991 and is growing especially fast in the developing countries. The name is symbolic.  A huge tree starts as a tiny seed. Small roots emerge, then a tiny shoot. It seems so weak and frail. Yet there is a life force in that seed that is so powerful that those roots can work their way through rocks to reach the water and eventually push them aside. The shoots can force their way through cracks in a brick wall to reach the sun and eventually knock that wall down… Think of the rocks and walls as all the problems we humans have inflicted on the planet—social as well as environmental. The message is one of HOPE—hundreds and thousands of young people around the world can break through and make this a better place for all living creatures.