African Refugees Spurring Bush-Meat Trade

Eliza Barclay
for National Geographic News
January 22, 2008
A booming illegal trade in wild animal meat inside refugee camps in Tanzania is putting wildlife populations and rural communities at risk, according to a new report.

The demand is driven partly by the absence of meat in rations provided by aid agencies, which some experts say represents a failure of relief organizations to meet the basic needs of their charges.

Many East African refugees are accustomed to regular consumption of meat as a source of protein, according to the report issued by TRAFFIC, the international wildlife-trade monitoring network.

"When the refugees are kept in camps without meat protein they tend to fend for themselves" by poaching local wildlife, said report lead author George Jambiya, of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

The massive flow of refugees who have sought shelter in Tanzania have caused habitat degradation and major wildlife losses in areas near the camps, where rare species such as chimpanzees are susceptible to poaching. Populations of buffalo, sable antelope, and other herbivores have also fallen off.

According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN)'s Red List of Threatened Species, many sub-Saharan wildlife species are in danger—and 20 percent are experiencing declining populations from the trade of wild meat, also called "bush meat."

(See photos of the African bush-meat trade. Warning: graphic content.)

The IUCN is also concerned that the depletion of wildlife may affect tourism—such as trophy hunting and wildlife viewing—in the region and may make many local people resentful of the refugees in their midst.

Safe Harbor

With its stable political climate, Tanzania has long been a place of refuge for beleaguered and persecuted citizens from the neighboring countries of Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Uganda. (See a map of the region.)

More than 800,000 refugees entered northwestern Tanzania from Rwanda in two waves between 1992 and 1997, near the time of Rwanda's mass genocide.

The majority of Rwandan refugees in Tanzania returned home in 1997. But Tanzania still hosts about 548,000 people—mainly from Burundi and the DRC—who make up the largest refugee population in a single country in Africa, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). More than 60 percent of those refugees live in formal camps.

(Related news: "World Refugees Number 35 Million" [June 16, 2003].)

Since 1961 more than 20 major refugee camps have been created close to game reserves, national parks, or other protected areas with easy access to wildlife. As of 2005, 13 of those camps remained.

Nutritionally Balanced?

In Swahili the word used for bush meat means "night-time spinach," because it's often cooked in the dark. The illegal trade peaked in the mid-1990s when the rush of Rwandans poured into Tanzania, according to the TRAFFIC report.

In that time, an estimated 7.5 tons of illegal bush meat were consumed per week in the two main refugee camps of Kagera and Kigoma.

(Related news: "'Bush Meat' Crisis Needs Urgent Action, Group Warns" [May 22, 2001].)

Wild meat is cheaper than local beef or goat and represents a more traditional food for some refugees, according to the report. Selling bush meat also provides refugees with an opportunity to generate income.

Refugee camp rations, as provided by groups such as the World Food Programme and UNHCR, typically consist of a blend of cereals, vegetable-based proteins such as beans, cooking oil, porridge mix, and sugar, which provide 2,100 calories a day per person.

The rations are designed to be "as nutritionally balanced as possible," according to Penny Ferguson, East Africa spokesperson for the World Food Programme.

In the past two years the program has often been able to supply 85 percent of the basic daily rations, Ferguson said.

"[The World Food Programme] is donor-funded, and when we're not able to provide the full food basket, it's because we haven't received full support from the donor," she said.

Ferguson added that the organization has never been able to supply meat as part of a refugee's daily ration.

"For reasons of storage and cost, meat is not included," she said. "Particularly in this part of the world, meat is prohibitively expensive."

Need for Meat

But some experts believe the absence of meat in refugee diets must be remedied by aid agencies.

"The scale of wild-meat consumption in refugee camps has helped the international community to conceal its failure of meeting basic refugee needs," Jambiya, the report's author, said in a statement.

In addition to ending ration shortages, part of the solution lies in a legal, sustainable trade in wild meat to feed refugees and the local communities, he added.

"Meat could be bought and sun-dried or smoked, and small amounts could be made available," Jambiya told National Geographic News.

"Right now it's driven underground, and that makes it more difficult to know what has been taken."

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).


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