Wildlife on the Menu

The Bushmeat Crisis is Emptying Africa’s Forests

Deep in the heart of the Congo River Basin, the tropical forest is lush and full of life. Immense Sapelli and Okoumé trees tower over the forest floor, and small antelopes called duikers plunge through the undergrowth while the calls of bonobos and sooty mangabeys sound from the leafy canopy. At least, that’s the way it was before the bushmeat hunters arrived.

In forests throughout Central and West Africa, virtually every type of wild animal is being hunted, frequently illegally, for use as food. But while indigenous peoples such as the Bantu pygmies have sustainably hunted this "bushmeat" for centuries, the level of hunting has skyrocketed in the past two decades. Today, species ranging from cane rats to elephants are being hunted at unprecedented levels, and recent estimates suggest a bushmeat harvest of between one and five million metric tons each year—a level that is literally emptying forests of wildlife.

African forests are emptying of primates like this western gorilla because of the bushmeat trade.
Stephen Sautner/Wildlife Conservation Society/Dennis DeMello/WCS

The situation is most dire for primates such as bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas. "As a group, great apes tend to be very much at risk because they breed so slowly," says Elizabeth Bennett, director of the hunting and wildlife trade program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). To be hunted sustainably, some ape species could lose no more than one member per square kilometer every 20 years, but bushmeat hunters are annually killing 6,000 western lowland gorillas (from a total population of less than 100,000), along with 15,000 chimpanzees. Smaller primates wind up on the table, too, with approximately 7.5 million red colobus monkeys being killed for food each year.

"The numbers are just huge," Bennett says, especially when hoofed animals are taken into account: WCS estimates that 28 million bay duikers are killed annually, as are 16 million blue duikers. "And these are conservative figures." The problem has reached such tremendous proportions that last summer, at a meeting of gorilla experts in Germany, scientists from WCS and other institutions said that poaching has surpassed habitat loss as the most immediate threat facing western lowland gorillas, and could lead to their extinction in the next 20 years.

At the root of the problem is a growing population and a tumultuous economy. "Africa’s population went up eight times in the 20th century," Bennett says. "That means you have eight times more consumption than you did 100 years ago." Today, more than 30 million people live within forested regions of Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and other Central African nations, and these inhabitants eat about the same amount of meat each year as most North Americans. More than 60 percent of this meat comes from local wildlife.

Until recently, much of the forest was inaccessible to hunters. This changed in the 1980s, when international logging companies expanded into Central African forests. Roads were built to accommodate logging trucks, carving the forest into easily traversed parcels. Armies of workers followed, many bringing their families, and almost overnight formerly pristine areas were flooded with people.

"Areas that had been previously unexploited and unpopulated are suddenly inundated, and every worker may bring eight or 10 individuals who are dependent on that salary," says Heather Eves, director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF), a consortium of more than 30 organizations and institutions formed in 1999 to address the looming problem. "This brings lots of people together who need to be fed, and the forests just open up."
Logging roads have also allowed the influx of shotguns and steel cable for snares, and have enabled hunters to carry more carcasses out of the forest. As a result, a burgeoning commercial bushmeat market now stretches far beyond the Congo Basin.

"Bushmeat has always been a commodity in this region and used at varying levels of trade, but wildlife is now being exploited for export to urban centers," Eves says. The reason for this is economic: Bushmeat hunters can earn the equivalent of $300 to $1,000 per year, more than the region’s average household income. The hunters find eager buyers in large cities, where many inhabitants purchase the meat as a way to reconnect to their village origins, or to show off their newly acquired wealth. In Libreville, the Gabonese capital, around 1,200 metric tons of bushmeat arrives in the markets each day, and in Pointe Noire, the second-largest city of the Congo, an estimated 150,000 metric tons is consumed each year.

And the markets are not limited to Africa. In 2001, two London shopkeepers were jailed for operating a business that sold meat from monkeys, anteaters and other animals. They offered to custom-order whole lions for around $8,000 each. "Bushmeat hunting has become so commercialized that we’re now finding stores and restaurants in Europe and the United States where bushmeat is available," Eves says.

In addition to the obvious loss of prey species, the bushmeat trade has far-reaching consequences. According to the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), the bushmeat trade threatens forest carnivores such as leopards and crowned eagles by depleting their main prey species. The forest itself is threatened as well, in that the loss of seed-dispersing animals is permanently changing the forest’s composition and structure. Indigenous pygmies are losing the forests and animals they’ve depended on for centuries. And even the bushmeat hunters and consumers are at risk: according to BCTF, the hunting, butchering and consumption of bushmeat, especially primates, is placing people at increased risk of contracting virulent animal-borne diseases. Ebola outbreaks have been linked to exposure to gorilla carcasses, and evidence of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infection has been found in 26 different species of primates, including chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys, which many researchers believe may be a link to HIV/AIDS.

Despite the severity of the problem, some remedial steps are showing signs of success. In northern Congo, WCS has been working with the Ministry of Forestry Economy and a logging company, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB), to reduce bushmeat hunting in a 4.5 million-acre logging concession. The project supplies forest workers with alternative forms of protein, and provides for enforcement by groups of local "eco-guards" who control traffic on logging roads. "This ensures that protected animals aren’t being hunted," says Bennett. "Gorillas and chimps are now easier to see in the concession."

But to significantly reduce bushmeat hunting, many groups are taking the message directly to consumers. Last year in Ghana, Conservation International undertook a national bushmeat education campaign that BCTF says has been very effective in changing behaviors. "People have an incredibly deep cultural link with wildlife in Africa," Eves says. "Talking about bushmeat as a loss of cultural heritage resonates there."

Until these changes become widespread, though, sections of the Congo Basin continue to be identified as suffering from "Empty Forest Syndrome"—filled with trees, but devoid of large animals. It’s a new situation, but one that h

as become disturbingly familiar. "It’s a really odd feeling to walk through a forest that’s literally silent," says Eves.