"Bush Meat" Crisis Needs Urgent Action, Group Warns

by Aliette Frank
for National Geographic News
May 22, 2001
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.

Broad-based Concern

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.

"Lack of public awareness is a driving force behind the bush meat crisis," actress Stephanie Powers, president of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, said at a news conference organized in conjunction with the meeting. "Many people have never even heard the word 'bush meat.'"

According to a preliminary study conducted by Zoo Atlanta, nearly 90 percent of the U.S. public has no knowledge of the bush meat problem.

Eaves said most people have little understanding of the serious implications of not curbing the present illegal commercial hunting of wildlife for meat. "The need for the development of more formalized education and information regarding the bush meat crisis is urgent," she said.

Multi-level Education

"Educating people about the bush meat problem will require action at all levels—local, regional, national, and international," said Anthony Rose, executive director of the California-based Gorilla Foundation.

The conference participants focused on ways of developing greater awareness of the bush meat crisis through community-based education, curriculum development for Africa's regional wildlife colleges, and U.S.-based educational efforts. "We want to help provide everyone from local people to wildlife professionals with the skills and knowledge to address the bush meat issue," said Eaves.

The task force consortium believes the development and dissemination of community-oriented educational materials about bush meat could provide employment opportunities for Africans by training them as community education officers associated with sanctuaries, zoos, and other institutions.

"One of the most underutilized resources in Africa for wildlife conservation efforts is the formal education sector," said Eaves. Africa has three wildlife colleges, in Cameroon, Tanzania, and South Africa. Establishing formal degree programs and including education about bush meat in the required curriculum would ensure the training of much needed professionals, she explained.

At the same time, educational materials about the problem are also needed in the United States. "It is critical that Americans be involved in solving the bush meat crisis," said Christina Ellis, director of Africa Programs for the Jane Goodall Institute. "We must be able to understand the issue in the appropriate cultural and environmental contexts if we are to assist communities with infrastructure and development."

The task force plans to expand and coordinate efforts by schools, zoos, aquariums, and other institutions to raise awareness of the bush meat problem through public displays, posters, interactive computer sites, and teaching modules for the classroom.

"Awareness of the bush meat crisis must permeate the globe," said actress Powers. "It must become part of the everyday global consciousness."

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