It’s hard to think of an animal protein more essentially local than bush meat.
Once solely hunted for subsistence and consumed within the community, the porcupines, monkeys, and duikers of the Congo Basin now travel to dinner plates hundreds of miles away.
Driving the trend are population growth, the lack of protein alternatives, more efficient hunting, and better access to remote areas, according to a new study mapping Congo Basin hunting pressures.
But taste also plays a role.
Bernard Kalume, 55, says his family prefers wild meat to beef, but living in Goma, it can be hard to come by. The city in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo lies just south of Africa’s oldest protectorate, Virunga National Park, where poaching is illegal.
“We don’t take bushmeat here because park rangers are always keeping a close eye on it, but, sometimes, a hunter can secretly get out with some bushmeat. That meat is more expensive than usual, but we buy it from time to time,” says Kalume's wife, Marie Musigwa Binta, 30, who misses the wild meat she grew up eating in the remote Shabunda territory.
Flying in from their hometown, her sister has just delivered a few kilograms of monkey for the family. She snuck the carcasses into her children’s suitcases to get them past airport authorities.
“The monkey meat is so sweet,” Kalume laughs.
The Poaching Problem
His isn't the only family willing to pay a premium for bushmeat. Analysis of food markets across the six Congo Basin countries—Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Republic of the Congo—provides evidence that wild mammals are increasingly transported long distances for sale in urban areas, according to the study, led by Goethe University Frankfurt.
While this may mean increased availability and variety of meat choices for families like Kalume’s, hunting to sate wider markets is bad news for conservation.
The team behind the study predicts “severe to very severe hunting pressures across 39 percent of the Congo Basin” as infrastructure improvements make it easier to kill and transport wildlife.
Protected areas flanked by growing road networks are at particular risk, the authors warn.
“Our analyses indicated that hunting burden was unequally distributed throughout the region, with clear hot spots of greater pressure found in those areas with more roads,” says Stefan Ziegler, a World Wildlife Fund conservation advisor and one of the study authors. “However, we also anticipate that hunters enter protected areas if law enforcement is virtually absent or when hunting zones outside of protected areas have depleted.”
The map, they hope, will be used to identify hot spots where conservation resources and enforcement should be increased.
Chief Virunga park warden Emmanuel de Merode says poachers have decimated the hippo population in the park, killing more than 26,000, or almost 99 percent, since the 1970s. He also values the fishing industry on Lake Edward at $40 million (U.S.) annually, most of it illegal and protected by armed groups in the park. Threats from these militant groups, which exploit the protectorate for charcoal, ivory, and land and use it as a kidnapping haven, take precedence over the poachers and farmers who hunt small game.
“It has to be said we’re overwhelmed by [the illegal exploitation of natural resources],” de Merode says. “We don’t have the resources to tackle it and so we select our priorities, and really it’s to try and address the security threat that the armed groups represent, but it’s a problem that’s going to take many years to resolve.”
While higher profile problems like elephant and big game poaching often take the spotlight, organizations such as the Bushmeat Crisis Taskforce, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Jane Goodall Institute raise awareness about the implications of overharvesting bushmeat and try to present remote communities with economic alternatives.
A Major Hurdle
Conservation experts estimate that five to six million tons of bushmeat are harvested in the Congo Basin each year. In the absence of a sizeable domestic meat industry the creation of which would carry its own environmental consequences—hunting and trapping provide an important source of protein and rural food security.
Replacing bushmeat consumption in the Congo Basin with cattle would require converting up to 25 million hectares of land into pastures, according to a study by the Center for International Forestry Research.
Most of the mammal species hunted in the Congo Basin are not listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but even those that aren’t endangered—particularly primates, large carnivores, and other species with low reproduction rates—can be extremely vulnerable to overhunting.
The lack of data in central Africa is a major hurdle to assessing the scale and impact of bushmeat harvesting, researchers lament.
“There is still a long way from science to policy,” Ziegler acknowledges. “However, the map has already received some attention … and we particularly target donors, such as German and European organizations, to at least look at the map before awarding grants to poorly designed infrastructure projects.”
Ziegler also notes that conservation organizations tend to focus on endangered and big game species like elephants, ignoring the smaller mammals that make up the bulk of bushmeat.
“As a general pattern we can conclude that hunters first go for the big game," he says, "and once these are wiped out, the focus is on medium and small ungulates, and if those are gone, the hunt is on for rodents."
Lindsey Parietti is a 2016 fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Reporting for this story was supported by the IWMF’s African Great Lakes Initiative.