The Great Ape Project and the bush meat trade by Karl Ammann

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1996:

I have investigated aspects of the
bush meat trade in Africa for the last six
years. I no longer have any doubt that the
increasing commercialisation of this trade is
today the biggest threat to the survival of
many species in West and Central Africa.
The great apes are no exception. Many parts
of their range are being logged. The construction
of logging roads has allowed the
bush meat trade to go commercial. In consequence,
entire gorilla and chimp populations
are eaten into extinction, at a rate of thousands
of animals a year.
Why, at this stage, are the scientific
and conservation communities concentrating
on rather theoretical issues, while the
very existence of the subjects under discussion
is under serious threat?

I have interviewed some 200 commercial
and subsistance hunters, and have
documentated an equal number of orphan ape
scenarios. This, combined with the research
data available on the quantities of bush meat
consumed, constitutes overwhelming evidence
that the bush meat trade is one of the
the biggest, if not the biggest, primate conservation
issues facing Africa today.
Two years ago I joined up with the
World Society for the Protection of Animals
(WSPA), with the view of publicizing the
increasing commercialisation of the bush
meat trade and its impact on chimpanzee,
bonobo and gorilla populations.
As a professsional photographer, I
had assumed it would be easy to get the
media interested and to get the conservation
community to come on board to verify the
facts. Far from it! The February 1996 issue
of American Outdoor Photographer includes
a feature outlining my frustrations in dealing
with the print media.
The electronic media were more
forthcoming. A television documentary I
convinced a South African network to produce
comes close to presenting the message I
feel needs to be told. (Copies are available to
readers who can bear footage of silverbacks
being cut up into manageable pieces and
chimpanzee mothers being smoked on the
same rack as their offspring.)
What I hope we established with
these productions is the fact that the killing of
gorillas and chimpanzees for their meat is a
daily occurrance and that we are no longer
dealing with isolated cases. Some members
of the conservation community termed the
inital news reports we released as sensationalizing
the issue. The evidence compiled
since makes it absolutely clear that thousands
of animals are involved every year. A point
in case is Joseph, a commercial hunter we
have interviewed on camera on three occassions.
He states that he and his two pygmy
assistants kill approximately 50 great apes
annually. The first time we talked to him,
his men were cutting up a silverback gorilla;
the second time he was smoking two chimps;
and this last time he was smoking a silverback
and a baby gorilla. He told us that for
the next two weeks he would stay in his forest
camp to try to supply the Christmas
demand for bush meat, which included
orders for gorillas, just like some people
order a turkey or goose for Christmas.
Some members of the conservation
community also called our approach counterproductive
because the African governments
concerned prefer quiet diplomacy..
Diplomacy has been tried––but has it succeeded?
Not based on our evidence! Not
even close! The slaughter of great apes and
other primates is today higher than ever, and
is no longer sustainable in many regions.
Correspondingly, the flow of orphans is
increasing, as well, except where population
densities have dropped to the point that commercial
hunting is no longer viable.
Elephant steaks
In the Congo Republique, where
many of the international conservation organisations
have their regional base and where
three great ape sanctuaries have been established,
the Prime Minister went on television
last year and announced that all school children
should spend their holidays hunting and
fishing. This was said outside of hunting season.
Elephant steaks were openly advertised
and sold in the country’s most upscale supermarket.
According to the bush meat traders in
the Cameroon, their parliament two years
ago officially abandoned a six-month season
closed to hunting. In this context, what hope
is there in the quiet diplomatic approach?
One established conservation
organisation with offices in the countries concerned
rejected my feature for their magazine
on the grounds that it might affect their representatives
in the field. Scientific research
often seems to take priority.
National Geographic relegated a
bush meat piece to their Earth Almanac column,
and then postponed it for several
months after one picture they planned to use
supposedly clashed with a chimpanzee-linked
story that ran in Decemer 1995.
Individual cases of smuggling of
great apes or other primates still seem to be
the main concern of most animal welfare and
conservation groups. The fact that we have
evidence that for each great ape who might
get smuggled, possibly a hundred die a miserable
death, tied to a post in some village,
gets little attention. None of the hunters I
interviewed indicated that capturing baby
apes was an issue. It is virtually impossible
to shotgun a mother and not injure the baby
as well. I have recorded several cases of
mothers being “prepared” at the same time as
their offspring. I photographed a frozen baby
chimp in a bush meat freezer in Yaounde.
There were no visible injuries and the trader
assumed she had been strangled. Orphaned
apes can be found everywhere, and generally
their price alive is only slightly higher than
their meat value.
Is it justifiable to turn the smuggling
of any orphaned great ape into headline
news, letting the world belive that the
demand for babies is a major concern while
the plight of the hundreds of unsmuggled
orphans is ignored?
Of course there are no easy solutions.
However, the ivory crises of the
late1980s proved that world opinion can
make a difference. International outcry is
needed. Many of the countries concerned––
Cameroon, the Congo Republique, the
Central African Republic and, to a lesser
extent, Zaire, Gabon and Equatorial
Guinea––badly need whatever international
aid they can get. Aid is now closely linked to
human rights issues––but what about the
rights of the great apes and other primates?
I am still looking for a single documented
case of a successful prosecution of an
individual for infringing upon an African
hunting law. Those laws that exist amount to
lip service. I strongly suspect that the recent
move to prosecute several Zairean mountain
gorilla poachers, who allegedly massacred an
Italian family that happened upon them, is
just an exercise in public relations. Often I
have recorded gorilla and chimpanzee skulls
worked into carved statues, offered for sale
in Goma and Bukavu. It would appear that
most chimpanzee orphans who arrived in the
last few years in Tanzania, Burundi and
Uganda came from Zaire and were mere
byproducts of the bush meat trade. I have not
heard of Zaire taking any measures except
where the international community has
applied pressure.
Good governance is supposedly a
criteria for the granting of foreign aid.
Looking after one’s natural and national
resources supposedly represents another such
criteria. During our latest documentary shoot
we interviewed one of Cameroon’s top
wildlife officials, who went on record stating
that the army and police were heavily
involved in the bush meat trade and could not
be called on to help enforce the laws.
A French logging company executive
went on record stating that the industry
had gone into a free for all approach to logging
and that nothing had been learned from
what happened in the Ivory Coast, Liberia,
etc. He predicted the total destruction of
wildlife within the next 20 years in all the
commercially logged areas.
Is there any time left for theoretical
debates on great ape rights? Would the chimpanzees,
bonobos and gorillas of Africa not
benefit more if the combined talent, energy
and influence of the scientific community
now engaged in the Great Ape Project took
some time to devise a strategy on how to best
keep these animals out of the cooking pots?
I trust that this essay will be accepted
in the spirit it is written. I accept that
debate over cultural sensitivity might result
from it.; I am convinced that the controversy
will help to get the facts out.
(Karl Ammann, of Nanyuki,
Kenya, may be contacted by telephone at
254-176-22448; by fax at 254-176-32407;
or by e-mail at

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