Bush-Meat Ban Would Devastate Africa's Animals, Poor?

James Owen
for National Geographic News
September 16, 2008
A blanket ban on hunting in tropical forests won't protect animals threatened by Africa's escalating bush-meat crisis, a new report warns.

What's more, a total crackdown on the trade could prove disastrous for local communities who have few alternative sources of protein and income, the study authors warn.

The report, led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, assessed the latest research on bush meat—wild animals killed for food—from the world's rain forest regions.

If current hunting levels persist in Central Africa, endangered mammals such as forest elephants and gorillas will become extinct, the study suggests.

Researchers estimated the region's current wild-meat harvest at more than a million tons annually—the equivalent of almost four million cattle.

(Related: "African Refugees Spurring Bush-Meat Trade" [January 22, 2008].)

Instead of banning the practice, the report recommends that hunting for non-threatened species be legalized and regulated to protect the food supply and livelihoods of forest people.

"If local people are guaranteed the benefits of sustainable land use and hunting practices, they will be willing to invest in sound management and negotiate selective hunting regimes," Frances Seymour, director general of CIFOR, said in a statement.

"Sustainable management of bush meat resources requires bringing the sector out into the open, removing the stigma of illegality, and including wild-meat consumption in national statistics and planning."

Poor Hunters

Making some bush meat legal would undermine the traders and exporters of illegal bush meat rather than poor subsistence hunters, the report says.

The study findings argue for legalized hunting for more abundant, fast-growing mammals such as duikers—a type of antelope—and rodents.

"Duikers in general can sustain high levels of hunting, as can rodents like porcupines or cane rats," said Nathalie Van Vliet, an associate expert for CIFOR in Cameroon.

Large-bodied animals are most at risk from the bush meat trade because they're found at lower densities than other species, experts say. And because bigger species tend to live in groups, it's easier for hunters to track them down.

Regulated hunting would also aid researchers' efforts to monitor bush meat harvests, Van Vliet added.

"People involved in hunting and selling bush meat currently hide most of the data because they know it's forbidden," she said.

Early Success

Successful schemes are already in place, including an agreement in southwestern Cameroon that allows local people to hunt non-threatened mammals and spare endangered Cross River gorillas.

(See a photo of a gorilla killed as bush meat in Cameroon. Warning: graphic photo.)

"There are no longer reports of hunting for this species," Van Vliet said.

Bush meat makes up 30 to 80 percent of the overall protein intake of rural communities in Central Africa, according to the new research.

Even so, various conservation groups have called for an all-out ban on bush meat.

"This has been the usual way of looking at the bush meat issue," Van Vliet said.

Noelle Kumpel, bush meat and forest-conservation program manager for the Zoological Society of London, agreed that this is the case "with certain more vocal wildlife groups, but it's not all of us."

Protein Shortage

"There's been increasing awareness of the fact that the reason why the level of bush meat has increased, and why wildlife species are threatened, is because there are more people but fewer alternative sources of protein available," Kumpel said.

Africa's growing population, coupled with reduced livestock availability and overexploitation of marine and freshwater fish stocks, means that "per capita, the bush meat protein supply is increasing," she said.

Kumpel agrees with the report's call for regulated hunting and improved land use rights for indigenous forest communities, but she says more incentives are needed to conserve wildlife.

Around 50 percent of Africa's remaining forests are now under timber concessions, she noted.

Internationally recognized timber certification awarded for sustainable logging practices can help counter illegal logging, Kumpel said, which reduces wildlife habitat.

"Tourism and things like carbon payments and payments for ecological services could bring in money for local communities," she added.

"We're looking at different ways of bringing finance into the forest to help communities work out ways of managing the wildlife, because the forest won't be sustained if there aren't animals in it."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.