for National Geographic News
Conservationists say illegal commercial hunting of African wildlife for sale as "bush meat" has reached alarming levels and immediate action is needed to address the problem before it's too late to save some seriously threatened species.
Every year as much as 1 million metric tons of wildlife (the equivalent of 4 million cattle) is killed for food in Central Africa alone, according to the Bush meat Crisis Task Force, a consortium of more than two dozen groups working to change the situation.
Many of Africa's poor regularly hunt animals such as elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, and crocodiles to help meet their economic and nutritional needs. The task force says the problem has become magnified because of growing population and poverty in Africa. "The illegal, commercial bush meat trade is the most significant current threat to wildlife populations in Africa," said Michael Hutchins, director of conservation science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and chair of the task force's Steering Committee.
Hunting has put a considerable number of animals at serious risk of extinction. One example of an animal that has already disappeared from West Africa is Miss Waldron's colobus monkey.
The increasing exploitation of wildlife is occurring at rates that experts say is unsustainable, threatening not only the existence of the species themselves but also the health of the people who depend on wildlife as part of their daily diet. According to Hutchins, bush meat currently meets about 60 percent of the protein needs of rural Africans. "This unmanaged and unsustainable hunting could lead to a human tragedy of immense proportions," he said.
Last week, the Maryland-based task force sponsored a major meeting in Washington, D.C., to catalyze concern about the bush meat crisis and develop strategies to deal with the problem. Nearly two dozen countries were represented by a broad range of concerned people who included policy and economic analysts, veterinarians, teachers, zoo and aquarium managers, and cultural anthropologists.
Heather Eaves, director of the task force, said the wide range of participation reflects the complexity of the problem, which has socioeconomic, nutritional, educational, and cultural dimensions. "Addressing the bush meat issue and finding effective solutions will have to accommodate broad, cross-sectoral concerns," she said.
One target of conservation initiatives is logging communities in the Congo Basin and other areas, where hunting and per capita consumption of bush meat is much higher than in many other rural areas.
With steady income, loggers and their families can better afford the cost of meat, as well as the purchase of guns and motorized transportation that aids commercial trade in game. Moreover, the building of logging roads into the forest improves hunters' access to wildlife and makes it easier to reach distant markets.
Among the actions seen as required to curb the rampant illegal harvesting of wildlife is better management and monitoring of protected areas, providing people with alternative sources of protein and income, and long-term financing of conservation measures that promote sustainable use of wildlife.
A recurrent message that surfaced in discussions about these and other topics at the meeting in Washington was the pressing need to educate people about the nature of the crisis and what could be done to improve the situation.
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