In addition to constituting a serious conservation risk, the multi-million dollar trade in bushmeat has wide ranging socio-political and health impacts
At local markets in provincial centres across Central and East Africa, bushmeat is traded in copious quantities. A vast array of wild meat, including those of protected species – elephants, hippos, and chimpanzees – are traded in open markets. The substantial trade in bushmeat has resulted in overexploitation and defaunation, representing the leading cause of wildlife depletion in tropical forests. With estimates of six million tonnes of bushmeat extracted from forests annually, the prolonged hunting of bushmeat at alarming levels across Africa has lead to sharp declines and, in some instances, the localised extinction of wildlife species.
The trade in ‘bushmeat,’ or meat from wild animals, has long been recognised as the primary threat to the biodiversity of tropical forests. In addition to constituting an imminent conservation risk, the multi-million dollar trade in bushmeat has wide ranging socio-political effects, implicated in illegal commercialised hunting, armed conflict, and with allegations that it may also be responsible for the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda.
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. Nonetheless, in cities it is somewhat easier to find other sources of protein than in a village in the middle of the forest.’
In remote rural communities, bushmeat consumption is often linked to issues of food security and economic viability. Perceived as an ‘easy’ source of food and revenue, bushmeat assumes both a subsistence and commercial dimension, supplementing diets as a cheap source of food, as well as retaining a market value that contributes to short-term economic security. Studies have suggested that bushmeat consumption in rural Central African households can provide 100 per cent of animal protein intake. In addition, a study in the Cameroon identified that up to 33 per cent of village income was derived from the sale of bushmeat.
The relationship between consumption and economic security however, is more complex. In large cities across Central and West Africa, a growing trade in ‘luxury’ bushmeat is driven by urban elites, whereby the exotic nature of bushmeat is prized as a symbol of privilege, beyond that of domesticated animals. It has been documented that firearms are supplied to local hunters by wealthy urban consumers, a demographic likely to be familiar with the illegality of hunting protected species.
There are 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.
Growing rural-urban migration has contributed to the commoditisation of bushmeat, proving a source of cultural familiarity for newly settled urban dwellers, as well as providing access to a nuanced index of bushmeat economic value. Interaction between different ethnic groups can transform beliefs over the ‘taboo’ nature of certain species into recognition of their tradeable market value elsewhere. Indeed, the highly fluid ‘hidden’ economies of the bushmeat trade defy a straightforward reading of marketisation, and point to the dynamic meanings of bushmeat in different communities.
The unsustainable hunting of bushmeat is further facilitated through the creation of roads into remote rainforest territory. In particular logging companies, usually accompanied by large workforces, characterise an accelerating network of roads into previously untouched wildlife territories. A report from the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York comments: ‘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. Sudden hunting surges are associated with ‘boom and bust’ patterns; 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,’ in which key ecological species responsible for fundamental environmental processes, have become locally extinct. Invariably these cascading consequences disrupt key ecological and evolutionary processes, altering species composition and reducing biological diversity.
The impact such harvesting pressures are having on animal populations is beyond question. Primate populations in certain areas of Equatorial Guinea have fallen by 90 per cent, and disappeared altogether in other areas. In parts of Cameroon, large mammal species including elephants and lions have become extinct through hunting in the last 50 years and in the Congo Basin, 60 per cent of 57 mammal, bird, and reptile species are harvested unsustainably.
Beyond the ecological and environmental crisis, the trade intersects with poor civic governance and local conflict. In fieldwork conducted at a national park in the DRC 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.’ Military officials tasked with patrolling protected areas have facilitated the illegal hunting of protected species, as a means of gaining access to informal economies and privileging clientele systems of governance. Furthermore it has been found that during wartime, when even the transient authority induced by complex local conflict is absent, breakdowns in the commodity chain permit the open-access exploitation of local wildlife.
In a similar manner, policy initiatives have proven inefficient and subject to corruption elsewhere in Africa. A recent report from Mozambique, conducted by the wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, found government officials and police officers purchasing illegal bushmeat. The implications for the effective policing of illegal hunting are clear, and the report points 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 among urban dwellers. Reducing illegal hunting requires the rigorous enforcement of deterrents whilst offering alternative livelihoods for those engaged in the trade.
As the bushmeat crisis continues along its inexorable course, there is little doubt that it presents a serious and terminal impediment to the viability of tropical ecosystems.
Image from: http://greenhomeauthority.com/the-global-impact-of-coltan-mining-for-cell-phones-electronics-and-games/
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