Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Tuesday, 3 August 2010 12:19 UK

Is Africa's wildlife being eaten to extinction?

Mark Jones
Mark Jones

The rapid growth in the global demand for bushmeat is leaving many African species facing the possibility of being eaten out of existence, says Mark Jones. In this week's Green Room, he calls for western nations to do more to tackle the problem of illegal imports of bushmeat.

Primate bushmeat (Image: Anne-Lise Chaber)
The increasing value of bushmeat has attracted criminal syndicates, with sophisticated and efficient logistical capabilities

We've all heard how the illegal trade in elephant ivory, rhino horn and other high value products is threatening Africa's wildlife.

However, the impact of these products is dwarfed by the trade in bushmeat, defined as meat from Africa's wild animals traded for human consumption.

According to the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, the hunting of and trade in bushmeat represents "the most significant immediate threat to the future of wildlife in Africa".

Traditionally, bushmeat hunting was a subsistence activity.

It is now a multi-billion dollar international trade involving hundreds of species, from forest herbivores such as duikers and other antelopes to wild pigs, rodents, elephants and primates.

The exponential increase in the trade over recent years is being driven by demand from the exploding and ever more urbanised human population in Africa, and the increasing international value and demand for bushmeat products.

Commercial logging and the associated infrastructure development and expansion have given hunters easy access to previously impenetrable African forests, and ready-made transport routes to towns and cities.

Unsustainable consumption

The term bushmeat is normally used in reference to the illegal trade.

The trade may be illegal because the species concerned is protected under national or international laws, the method of killing is prohibited, or because the animal is taken from a protected area.

The food source was originally exploited because of its low cost, lack of ownership issues, weak law enforcement and the lack of alternatives.

Library picture of a bushmeat market stall in Africa
Bush pigs, duikers, and monkeys for sale at a market in Gabon

Now, the increasing value of bushmeat has attracted criminal syndicates, with sophisticated and efficient logistical capabilities.

Law enforcement agencies in many African countries do not have the resources to keep up, and in some cases high level involvement in the trade may protect it from official interference.

This makes accurate estimates of the trade difficult to obtain, although Central African consumers alone may be eating more than 2.5m tonnes each year.

Many target species have already been extirpated from parts of West Africa. Wildlife in Eastern and Southern African countries is increasingly being targeted, and Kenya is estimated to have experienced a loss of about 50% in its wildlife in recent decades, largely as a result of the bushmeat trade.

A recent study, involving researchers from the Zoological Society of London, estimated that as much as 270 tonnes of bushmeat might be coming through a single airport in Paris annually, destined both for personal consumption and to supply the lucrative trade in high value products.

It is also estimated that more than a quarter of all mammal species hunted for bushmeat are threatened with extinction.

Feeling the loss

Widespread hunting of animals for bushmeat depletes populations of affected species, and can lead to local population crashes or extirpation.

There are, however, much wider potential impacts.

Species have functions: as prey for other species, seed dispersers or forest rebuilders. So reductions in certain species can have far reaching impacts on others, causing a loss of biodiversity and a crisis within ecosystems.

Grasscutter in a cage
Ghanaians started breeding their own bushmeat rather than hunting it

The loss of biodiversity leaves us with a predominance of a few so-called "weedy species", such as those that thrive in continually disturbed, human-dominated environments.

Small populations of highly endangered animals can be disproportionately affected.

Although the number of Great Apes involved in the bushmeat trade is small, their removal can have devastating impacts on populations, and Great Ape species in Africa are thought to be at risk of extinction over the next two decades if the trade continues at its current rate.

The commercial bushmeat trade also threatens the livelihoods and food security of indigenous rural people, which can result in social and political instability.

Bushmeat can also carry potentially devastating diseases - from anthrax to ebola, monkey pox to retroviruses - that may have disastrous impacts on livestock and far-reaching consequences for human health.

Food for thought

For the bushmeat trade to be controlled so that it does not cause further decimation of Africa's wildlife, multi-faceted solutions need urgently to be put in place.

As renowned conservationist Ian Redmond suggests, we need to aim for the trade to be Legal, Sustainable, and Disease Free.

Until recently, most conservation projects concerned with bushmeat have tended to focus on research, education, and enforcement, with few attempts to provide alternative livelihoods or food sources.

Many of the countries central to the trade are poor and suffer from corruption.

Chimpanzees carry viruses which can jump to humans

These countries need resources, incentives and training if they are to apply and enforce national and international regulations.

Prosecution of illegal traders often fail because of inadequate availability of resources to identify the type of meat concerned, so laboratories need to be set up to enable simple and inexpensive forensic services.

In importing countries, bushmeat is often not considered a high priority by customs authorities when compared with, for example, drugs or arms; so the profile of bushmeat in the international enforcement arena needs to be raised.

Extensive public awareness programmes are required, aimed at educating people at all levels of the trade.

A number of umbrella organisations have been established in recent years to try and improve local education, such as the Bushmeat-free Eastern Africa Network (BEAN) initiative. Some have been very successful.

However, far more effort is needed, with co-ordination at an international level.

Perhaps most importantly, people who currently rely on the illegal bushmeat trade for their livelihood or as an essential protein source need to be given alternative options; and herein lies arguably the greatest challenge.

Some good initiatives exist, including the development of fish farms, apiaries, and arable agriculture projects. Many more are required if the trade is to be significantly reduced.

Local actions to curb the bushmeat trade need to be resourced through global responses, requiring significant investment at a time of international financial instability and introspection.

If Africa's unique wildlife, and its rural communities, are to survive the impacts of the bushmeat trade, continued well-directed development aid for the poor countries of Africa throughout this period of global financial uncertainty is essential.

Mark Jones is programmes and fundraising director of Care for the Wild International, a UK-based conservation charity

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Mark Jones? Are a growing number of African species facing the possibility of being eaten out of existence? Do Western nations need to do more to tackle the problem of illegal bushmeat imports? Or are there more pressing issues that are threatening global biodiversity?

I am completely agreed with Mark Jones. The bushmeat trade could eliminate all viable populations of African apes within the next 5-15 years. It is not just confined to Africa, the bushmeat trade is global phenomenon. The demand for bushmeat will continue to rise with the ever increasing populatations. Besides, people have been infected with HIV viruses from consuming primates. So, it is the time to tackle this vulnerable crisis for saving biodiversity.
Engr Salam, LGED,Bangladesh

The 'bushmeat' industry is out of hand. It also spreads to such things as unsustainable extraction of prawns from Lake St. Lucia by overseas syndicates.
Rosanne Clark, Himeville, South Africa

I quite dispute that the term "bush meat" is usually used in reference to the illegal trade of wild animals in Africa. Africa also has a significant number of game reserves to protect and serve as a sanctuary for animals in the wild. Bush meat is rather a common term amongst africans, refering to wild animals typical to some but not all those species mentioned.I would clearly attribute the phrase as wild meat specific for the purpose of consumption eg "game". However a large number are not protected species due to the fact that most of these African countries are truly faced with more pressing issues than passing legislation to protect grass cutters,antelopes including some breed of apes. Even in Africa, protection of wildlife exists prohibiting the sale and export of tigers, elephants, lions and rhino. The exploitation of these animals i have just mentioned is not neccessary for food but are widely sought for their ornamental, symbolic and medicinal value on an international large scale. we should be able to distinguish between "bush meat" and those animal species requiring protection.
Mark Adedeji, London

Yes i agree with Jones report,but what the government and the international community needs to understands is that as long as poverty keeps on increasing this hunting of endangered species will not stopt because as you already know it is a lifly hood for many families in the rural areas especially in Cameroon, Garbon, CAR, Ghana ctc. Beside that government strategy and policies to combate this activities are to weak or insufficient to meet any progress, for example in Cameroon to get a licence and to own a gun its very expensive and difficult as such the hunters or local people prefered to go underground to buy illegal guns to carry on thier illegal activities. A articipatory approach is needed were the hunters or local people are allow to take part in disscussions and meetings concerning the importance of the protection of endangered speciers and they should be given some incentives and motivation if not then give them Jobs so that they can be able to feed thier families.
Tanke Samson, Finland

A sustainable diverse ecology is of paramount importance not only for the mere survival of species but for the next generation to enjoy them as well. It is a legacy that must be preserved as a prosterity. How selfish it is to eat out animals to extintion whilst succeeding generations can only see them in photographs. The athourities should manage the life stock inventory and monitor their hunting or harvesting to curtail animal meat commercialisation.
Mr. Steven Marcial, Arima, Trinidad.

"..the trade in bushmeat, defined as meat from Africa's wild animals traded for human consumption. The term bushmeat is normally used in reference to the illegal trade." Bushmeat is simply meat from wild animals. Aleksandr Orlov would say. The article provided a good insight and made a good read. For majority of the people though, it is still a subsistence activity.
JO, Tooting, London

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