Humans have always hunted wild animals for food, commonly known as bush meat. For many people living in the forests of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, hunting remains a way of life. However during the 1990s bush meat harvesting, particularly in Africa, was transformed from a local subsistence activity into a profitable commercial enterprise. In 2001, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that over-hunting in many parts of the world threatened the survival of some animal species and the food security of human forest-dwellers.
Although the killing of endangered species is illegal, such laws are rarely enforced across much of Africa. Bush meat harvesting is threatening the survival of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes ), gorillas (Gorilla gorilla ), and bonobos (pygmy chimps) (P. paniscus ), as well as some species of smaller monkeys and duikers (small antelope). Colobus monkeys and baboons, including drills and mandrills, are highly-prized as bush meat. In 2000, Miss Waldron's red colobus monkey (Procolobus badius waldroni ) was declared extinct from over-hunting. Protected elephants and wild boar, gazelle, impala, crocodile, lizards, insects, bats , birds, snails, porcupine, and squirrel are all killed for bush meat. The chameleons and radiated tortoises of Madagascar are threatened with extinction from over-hunting.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, particularly on Borneo, orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus ) are hunted despite their full legal protection. In Southeast Asia, freshwater turtles, harvested for food and medicine, are critically endangered.
Large animals and those that travel in groups are easy targets for hunters whose traditional spears, snares, and nets have been replaced with shotguns and even semi-automatic weapons. Since large animals reproduce slowly, the FAO is encouraging the hunting of smaller animals whose populations are more likely to be able to sustain the harvesting.
With populations of buffalo and other popular African game declining, hunters are beginning to stalk animals such as zebra and hippo that had been protected by local custom and taboos. Hunters also are turning to rodents and reptiles—animals that were previously shunned as food. Local customs against hunting bonobos are collapsing as more humans move into bonobo habitat .
Logging in the Congo Basin, the world's second-largest tropical forest, has contributed to the dramatic rise in bush meat harvesting. Logging companies are bringing thousands of workers into sparsely populated areas and feeding them with bush meat. Logging roads open up new areas to hunters and logging trucks carry bush meat to market and into neighboring countries. It has been estimated that about 2,000 bush meat hunters, supported by the logging industry, will kill more than 3,000 gorillas and 4,000 chimpanzees in 2002. Mining and wars also contribute to the increased harvesting of bush meat. Conservationists warn that by 2012 the large mammals of the Congo Basin will be gone.
The expanding market for African bush meat is fueled by human population growth and increasing poverty. In rural areas and among the poor, bush meat is often the only source of meat protein, particularly in times of drought or famine . It also may be the only source of cash income for the rural impoverished. With the urbanization of Africa, the taste for bush meat has moved to the cities. Bush meat is readily available in urban markets, where it is considered superior to domesticated meat. Primate meat is sold fresh, smoked, or dried. Bush meat is on restaurant menus throughout Africa and Europe. Monkey meat is smuggled into the United Kingdom where it is surreptitiously sold in butcher shops. It has been estimated that over one million tons of bush meat is harvested in the Congo Basin every year and that the bush meat trade in central and western Africa is worth more than one billion dollars annually.
Primate meat may contain viruses that are responsible for several emerging human diseases. Scientists believe that humans can contract the deadly Ebola virus from infected chimpanzees and gorillas. Furthermore, killing and dressing chimpanzee meat in the wild may contribute to the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS .
The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF) is working with logging companies in the Congo Basin and West Africa to prevent illegal hunting and the use of company roads for the bush meat trade. The BCTF also works with governments and local communities to develop investment and foreign-aid policies that promote sustainable development and wildlife protection. Other organizations try to turn hunters into conservationists and educate bush meat consumers. TRAFFIC, which monitors wildlife trade for the World Wildlife Fund , and the World Conservation Union are urging that wildlife ownership be transferred from ineffectual African governments to landowners and local communities who have a vested interest in sustaining wildlife populations.
[Margaret Alic Ph.D. ]
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The Bushmeat Research Programme, Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, Regents Park, London, UK NW1 4RY 44-207-449-6601, Fax: 44-207-586-2870, Email: [email protected], <http://www.zoo.cam.ac.uk/ioz/projects/bushmeat.htm>