Dr Paula Kahumbu interviewed Dr Terese Hart, a friend of Dr Richard Leakey, who has been on expedition in the forests around the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (TL2) in the Democratic Republic of Congo since May 2007 in search of bonobos. Paula asked her about her experience with the bushmeat trade in the Central African Rainforest.
Bringing home the bacon (picture (c) bonoboincongo.com)
1. In your opinion, what are the three greatest threats to forest wildlife in the Central African Rainforest?
The three threats that I think outweigh others are:
a. bushmeat hunting
b. ivory hunting
c. loss of habitat
In the area where we are working, loss of habitat is not yet an issue, only hunting. Habitat loss is associated with high human population and increasingly with logging and agricultural expansion. These have not yet reached the forested swath explored by our TL2 project of more than 60,000 sq. km running south-north through central D.R. Congo. This forest area follows the Lomami watershed but reaches into the valleys of the Congo on the east and the upper Tshuapa on the west. Through the entire area there is no road that can support even four-wheel drive vehicles. Bushmeat hunting for distant markets has nevertheless become the main revenue source in isolated villages. Trade in bushmeat is lucrative enough to bring buyers long distances to these outposts. The wild meat they buy is smoked and dried. The profit they gain is from markets hundreds of km distant to which they send their meat by foot, bicycle, and dugout.
2. How serious are these threats – are any species in danger of extinction?
Yes, there is an increasing danger. Where snare trapping is used, bushmeat hunting empties these forests of antelope, pig, okapi and buffalo. Where shotguns are used, the primates are principal targets. Frequently both methods are used. Were the abundance of these animals to be mapped, large halos of empty forest would become visible around market centers such as Kisangani, Ikela, Lomela and Kindu. These rings of silence are growing. When the areas of local extinction coalesce, the process becomes difficult if not impossible to reverse. In the TL2 area, bonobos are endangered. In the east, Grauer’s gorillas are endangered. Both are endemic to D.R. Congo.
Elephant hunting occurs separately from bushmeat commerce. Forest elephants have been decimated with military arms, mainly AK 47s that became abundant in D.R. Congo during the war period of the 1990s and early 2000s. Ivory hunting has occurred in waves. The result is that thousands of elephants were slaughtered in the Lomami watershed alone. Their remains are piles of large slow-decaying bones scattered throughout the forest. The living population is concentrated around a single tributary of the Lomami midway between the major export markets of Kindu and Kisangani. Similar Elephant decimation happened during the war period in all Congo’s major wilderness forests: the Ituri, Maiko, Uele, ….
3. How much bushmeat is being harvested from these forests annually (can you estimate the gross amount, number of animals and number of species?)
We cannot now make an estimate but should have good evaluations of offtake from a number of areas next year. At this point our information is from measures of hunting effort rather than hunting success and bushmeat transport to market. It is important to point out, however, that all areas with consistent hunting for the bushmeat trade have decreasing, often rapidly decreasing, populations of wild animals.
In interviews with villagers it is clear that areas around even the smallest settlements have been largely hunted out. In villages more than 200 km south of Opala (remote!) people are already saying that the animals are no longer close to the village. They must walk several days into the forest to hunt successfully. There is no forest so remote in Central Africa that it has not been subject to at least some bushmeat hunting.
4. Could bushmeat harvesting be conducted on a sustainable basis? Why?
Some species would survive continuous hunting but only with enforced regulation (hunting seasons, no – hunting areas, tax on bushmeat transport and sale) before commercial hunting can exist in a “sustainable” manner. Sustainable here means without local extinction. Regulation does of course have to accept a certain level of depletion. If hunting regulation is too difficult to enforce then the best single option is to create a no-hunting zone or protected area. This has rather simple and absolute restrictions but would best be policed in collaboration with local people.
Controlling the people who actually profit most from the bushmeat trade will be difficult. The profit is minimal for the villagers who are the hunters that actually kill the animals, butcher and dry the carcasses. The real profit is at the next level up, the buyers. They buy for little and resell at a large mark up. They have no attachment to the forest. The result is that the forests are emptied with no improvement in local living conditions. Villages that have long depended on hunting for protein in their own diets are left impoverished. Bushmeat hunting has become a large industry in the wake of Congo’s war and in response to the concomitant loss of jobs. However this form of commerce is mining a temporary resource and will bring only a transitory source of wealth to a middle-income group while impoverishing the poorest. The result is food insecurity for those rural communities most dependent on hunting.
5. What do you think would be the most appropriate way to manage human need for protein and still assure conservation of wild species?
There needs to be large scale animal husbandry and pisciculture projects close to all centers of population. Domestic meat needs to cost significantly less than bushmeat, which is not now the case. In Kindu beef sells for 4000 to 4500 FC the kilo (about 8.5 dollars/kg). A dried monkey sells for significantly less per kilo. A dried bonobo is only 50$.
There needs to be a variety of domestic meats: pork, beef, chicken, and possibly other small animals such as rabbit. The domestic meat industry, particularly beef, was seriously compromised by the war and it still has not recovered.
Urban people will move away from bushmeat as a subsistence item if it begins to cost significantly more than domestic meat. Bushmeat may still be a prized food item, but levels of demand will decrease.
Follow Dr Hart’s expedition here