Logging Business Means Death
for Thousands of Gorillas and Chimpanzees
At The World Congress for Animals in Washington on June 22, 1996, photojournalist and campaigner Karl Ammann gave a talk on West and Central Africa's 'bush meat trade': the illegal killing of gorillas, chimpanzees and other forest residents to be sold as meat. This trade has expanded rapidly in recent years, in step with the spread of logging operations to previously unexploited forests.
Ammann began by showing a photograph of a gorilla's head in a cooking pot. The story behind this picture is symptomatic of what is happening in the Congo Republic, The Cameroon, The Central African Republic, Gabon, and to a lesser extent in Zaire.
The hunter who shot this female gorilla did so at the request of the police chief of a town in the south of the Cameroon. The policeman sent the gun and the cartridges on a 'bush taxi'. It was returned the same way, together with most of the gorilla's carcass. The hunter was allowed to keep the head and one arm.
Karl Ammann first recognized the scale of the bush meat trade in 1988, while traveling on one of the legendary Zaire River boats. Hunters and fisherman bring their produce to these boats in dug-out canoes. Some of the meat is consumed on the journey, most is stored by on-board traders for resale in the towns. At the end of the journey, Ammann counted some 2000 smoked primate carcasses and about 1000 fresh ones, stored in special bush meat freezers.
Ammann has made several subsequent trips to the region to investigate the bush meat trade, its impact on wildlife in general, and on chimpanzees and gorillas in particular. He discovered a tradition of consuming bush meat, although for many tribal groupings there was a taboo on eating great apes.
Traditional hunting methods included bows and arrows, while hunting nets are still occasionally employed. Most of this hunting was done for subsistence needs, with occasional surplus carcasses being sold in the village market.
Now, rapid commercialization has expanded the trade to crisis proportions. In a Kinshasa restaurant, protected species like elephant and chimpanzee are official menu items. Most of the meat arrives on river boats.
There are bush meat markets in Brazzaville and Pointe Noire in the Congo, Libreville in Gabon, in Yaounde in the Cameroon, and elsewhere.
Elephant steak is sold in the region's most up-market supermarket chain. At USD 12 per kilo, bush meat is not poor man's fare. It is generally two to three times as expensive as beef or pork.
For the causes of the increased commercialization of the trade in bush meat, Ammann points to the forests. Recent years have seen a rapid rise in commercial exploitation, mostly by foreign-owned logging companies. The new roads are the main problem. They provide easy access to many previously untouched areas.
Hunters are now carried into what used to be remote forests on trucks in the service of the logging companies. They return by the same means at the end of the day, now with their backpacks full.
Hunting techniques have also changed drastically since the days of bows and arrows. Now, the guns are out shooting day and night. A wide range of cartridges are available almost everywhere, and nearly all of them come from a small French-owned factory in Pointe Noire, which produces 10 million rounds a year.
Shotgun cartridges as well as rifle bullets used to hunt elephants can be bought over the counter. The nine-ball Chevrotine cartridge is used to kill gorillas. Despite the fact that this particular cartridge is only used to kill protected species, it was widely available until earlier this year.
Campaigning as an Advisory Director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, Ammann managed to gain the support of the European Parliament. The result was a two-year moratorium on production of the Chevrotine.
In many parts of the Congo Republic, Cameroon, The Central African Republic, Gabon and to a lesser extent in Zaire, the logging culture has now replaced traditional village life.
Because logging companies frequently fail to supply their workers with food, loggers represent a captive market for hunters and bush meat traders. Meat arrives in the logging towns on the back of logging lorries. It is then redistributed by traders. In the Cameroon, tons of it also end up on the daily train service from the interior to the towns of Yaounde and Douala.
With their parents shot, orphaned animals are another by-product of the meat trade. Gorilla orphans do not usually survive. They simply seem to give up. Chimpanzee babies apparently have a greater will to live. Perhaps one in a hundred such orphans is traded across the border, the other 99 die miserably, tied to a post in some local village. It is often the older ones, who can no longer be treated as 'pets', who are the worst off.
The orphan problem is being addressed to some extent, and orphanages do exist. But practically all these sanctuaries are full, and they no longer actively try to get illegally held animals confiscated.
In the Congo Republic, there are three such sanctuaries. One is run by Madame Jamart, who at present has some 50 chimpanzees living on three islands at Conkouati, near the Gabonese border. The Jane Goodall Institute runs another, also home to more than 50 chimps. The English millionaire and wildlife park owner John Aspinall has set up an orphanage for gorillas in the Congo's capital, Brazzaville. The first teenage group from here has now been taken to a rehabilitation site in a protected region at L'Efine, and the indications are that it will be possible to rehabilitate some of the orphaned gorillas.
The Wildlife Rescue Centre at Limbe in the Cameroon is full to bursting. While the orphanage run by a farming couple, the Siddles, near the Zairean border in Zambia is probably the most idyllic. This farm is also home to some 50 chimpanzees.
What's the answer?
Clearly, there are no easy answers to this problem. That might explain why conservation organizations with projects in the area have largely restricted their activities to setting up reserves and national parks.
Orphanages only deal with a by-product of the bush meat trade, and many primatologists and conservationists even argue that they are a waste of money. The orphaned animals are classified as no longer being part of the wild gene pool, and so are biologically defunct.
It is also argued that the funding needed to look after a chimp for 50 years could save far more animals by saving their habitat. But little progress has been made on that front, either. In many of the reserves and national parks poaching is now a serious problem. And it is probably only a matter of time before the increased demand for bush meat leads to protected areas being used as the last remaining sources of a guaranteed supply.
But Ammann believes that orphanages could play a very important role in conservation. He thinks they should be set up near urban centers, to serve as education facilities. School classes could visit, with children being allowed to interact with baby chimps or gorillas. From personal experience, he says that few humans who have had physical contact with an orphaned great ape will be comfortable eating one of them.
On one trip to the South East of the Cameroon, Ammann and his party stayed in a pygmy camp. They had with them a baby gorilla they had just rescued. The first evening, his hosts asked if they could have her for dinner. On the second day, Ammann and his companions attempted to introduce the orphan to the villagers. By the second evening, THEY were feeding HER.
Other potential solutions present themselves. Some would require a long-term, community-based approach, involving the hunters, the loggers and the local people in finding alternative food sources and employment. More immediate, short-term measures include improving law enforcement. The killing of gorillas and chimpanzees is against local law everywhere it is practiced.
Checkpoints at major road junctions could inspect perhaps 80% of the lorries traveling between the main logging regions and the Atlantic.
A reintroduction of the closed season in the Cameroon, and enforcing it in the Congo and Gabon, would help. Traditional hunters say they used to observe a closed season, being fully aware that if they took species like duikers before their young were born, there would not be one but two less the next time around.
Tightening of licensing procedures for guns, cartridges and meat trading would also ultimately be in the interests of the countries concerned.
The only active conservation project that goes beyond studying the problem is a cane-rat breeding facility in Gabon. The aim is to provide domestically raised bush meat. This is partly funded by the European Union.
In 1994, Karl Ammann teamed up with the World Society for the Protection of Animals. On the basis of Ammann's data, WSPA launched their own campaign, with Ammann as advisory director. The first step was to increase public awareness, not just in the western world, but also in the countries where the problem existed.
This meant providing the printed and electronic media with picture and video material. The initial interest was very encouraging, and proved that even some long-serving Africa correspondents had little idea of what was happening in the forests.
Garry Strieker of CNN watched some 12 hours of video footage, and called the bush meat trade "the biggest conservation issue facing Africa since the Ivory Crisis."
What was less encouraging was the fact that some of the conservation community saw the media campaign as sensationalizing the issue. Some also felt it lacked cultural sensitivity, as one could not and should not pass judgment on any group of people because of what they ate. It was also said that rocking the boat is not the way to go, and that only quiet diplomacy would work.
Ammann says that he is not trying to criticize anybody or any organization, but he does believe that western inconsistency in dealing with African conservation issues is a major liability when it comes to getting things done.
A letter from one of the most prominent conservation organizations working in the region illustrates the point. Ammann had offered them a well-researched article on the bush meat trade for their magazine. They responded by saying:
"The chief drawback to this of course was the firm conviction that publishing the article would have wide repercussions that almost certainly would adversely impact our scientists in the field. An essential and exhausting part of their job is to maintain good relations with the African governments and indigenous people so that the Society's projects will be permitted to continue."
Despite this organization spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on projects in the region, it would appear that they constantly make, and have to make, compromises, even on very basic principles. This seems to be a common story on the conservation front.
Meanwhile, on the economic front, the supply of aid donors has altered drastically over the last decade. Nowadays, cutting off of aid, withdrawal from certain countries, and in extreme cases even the breaking of diplomatic ties, is an almost weekly occurrence in Africa.
It is no longer a question of being permitted to assist. There is now a demand for clear-cut targets to be set and met before new assistance is provided. Not surprisingly, Ammann has never heard of a single conservation organization that has pulled out and admitted they have not succeeded. Failure appears to be an unacceptable option for most Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) involved in conservation projects.
Amman argues that the time has come to set specific targets for conservation. As an example, he mentions asking on many occasions, but never having come across a single case of the relevant authorities providing evidence that even a single poacher has been arrested and prosecuted.
In the Congo Republic last year, the Prime Minister officially announced that all school children should spend their holidays hunting and fishing. This announcement was made during the closed season, in effect encouraging school children to go poaching.
The Congo Republic's Washington embassy wrote a letter to somebody who reacted to the campaign. It said: "There is no poaching problem in the Congo."
Ammann advocates taking a leaf out of the IMF and the World Bank's book, and setting specific targets for conservation. He says lip service and window dressing will certainly not solve the bush meat problem.
He reacts to charges that he is sensationalizing the issue by telling the story of Joseph, whom he has visited on four different occasions. Joseph is a typical commercial hunter. Although a newcomer to the area and to the profession, he says that since he started some three years ago he has killed approximately 150 gorillas and chimpanzees.
On Ammann's first visit, Joseph's helpers were butchering a silverback gorilla. The second time, they were smoking a female chimpanzee and her offspring. The third time he displayed a silverback gorilla -- smoked. On the last visit, Amman and his party arrived to hear that he had shipped out three gorilla carcasses on the previous day.
Having conducted two dozen interviews with commercial hunters based in a 10 000 square kilometer area in the far South of the Cameroon, Ammann estimates that they kill about 800 gorillas annually.
Based on a density estimate of some 3000, it is obvious that this rate of killing will wipe out entire local ape communities, and their distinctive cultures, within a very few years..
In the light of theses figures, highlighting the situation by showing the world a gorilla head in a cooking pot is not sensationalizing the issue!
But what about cultural sensitivity?
Ammann argues that camouflage gear, torches and shot guns are a far cry from traditional hunting methods.
Guns, ammunition, wire snares, logging roads, lorries and migration to the forests are certainly not part of any traditional culture. One German logger operating in the Northern Congo confirmed that when he arrived there were 200 people living in the region. Now there are some 7000, all claiming the traditional right to hunt bushmeat.
Ammann interviewed an old hunter who said with disgust that there was now a snare outside every rat hole. He complained bitterly about the arrival of all the newcomers with whom he now has to compete for his livelihood.
Ammann also raises another cultural aspect of the argument. He says that: "Voicing this one generally gives the cultural sensitivity advocates the ammunition they are looking for."
There are tribes like the Fang in Gabon who practiced cannibalism until a few decades ago. It was the missionaries and colonial powers that eradicated it.
He then goes on to point out that chimps share 98.6% of the human genetic code, and asks whether shooting them is not 98.6% murder and eating them 98.6% cannibalism. If being culturally sensitive is the main criterion, should we not then recommend going back to cannibalism?
Ammann refers to another, very different species and conservation problem.
"The other day I read an article about the efforts being made to protect the remaining population of some 24 rhinos in one of Zimbabwe's National parks.
"It explained how they are all dehorned, and radio tracked from the air every day. A number of army and air force personnel have been brought in to fight the poachers. Specialized military equipment has been introduced. This includes helicopters, speed boats, the latest Land Rovers, and automatic rifles. The Rangers are under orders to shoot to kill.
His message to the 'culturally sensitive' is: "Zimbabwe is in Africa, too."
During a conference on the bushmeat crisis held recently in the Cameroon, financed by WSPA and sponsored by the Cameron Ministry of Environment and Forests (MINEF), government officials said that local people only respected officials in uniforms. However, only about 5% of their rangers had even one uniform.
It would appear that once a population of a large mammal declines to absolutely critical levels, almost any sums of money become available. But as long as there is no threat of imminent extinction - nothing happens.
At least four conservation groups keep the plight of the 650 remaining mountain gorillas in the public eye. If one gorilla gets killed, it is headline news around the world. The fact that on that same day perhaps a dozen western lowland gorillas end up on a dinner plate is completely ignored. And some years ago, the rangers in Rwanda were all equipped with the latest "Burberry" rain gear!
Ammann says he has another such paradox that he would like to get off his chest::
"I believe San Diego Zoo spent some USD 10 million on a new enclosure for some 7 Bonobos, i.e. about USD 1.5 million each. I keep joking that for that amount you could probably have acquired legal title to half the bonobo habitat in Zaire."
"Perhaps these zoos could raise matching funds with future captive enclosure-building projects, to be sent to the countries of origin to help with conservation on the ground?"
Another, more hypothetical question is: "Are we doing these countries a favor by looking the other way and avoiding confrontation."
Let's take the Cameroon, where some officials have said that conservation issues, and the bush meat trade in particular, cannot be a priority considering the countries economic plight. This sounds fair enough.
But the question which then arises, of course, is: What is going to happen if you openly tolerate certain laws being ignored? Once an area is hunted out, will the hunter then have an excuse to use his gun to rob and murder? Is tolerating the lawlessness that is almost endemic to the remote forest areas not the start of the kind of breakdown of society that we have seen in places like Liberia, Somalia and Rwanda?
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