Why the African bushmeat traffic goes on by Karl Amman

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2000:

(Guest essay reprinted from SWARA, journal of the East Africa Wildlife Society, P.O. Box 20110, Nairobi, Kenya.)

What would happen if we got Bill Gates––who once took his executives to see the gorillas at Kahuzi Biega and later took his honeymoon among the chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains––to sit down with Ted Turner, Richard Leakey, and Richard Bronson to talk conservation?

We could give them the status of conservation in Central Africa in general, and the bushmeat issue in particular, as a case study, and ask them to draw up a business-like master plan.

I would like to predict that the resulting document would describe a drastically different approach from current attempts to deal with what is now recognized as a major conservation crisis. And that is what is needed. A drastic new approach might very well represent the last chance for most of Central Africa’s primates and other wildlife.

Let me establish my credentials for commenting on wildlife conservation and business practices in this part of the world. My educational background is in business. I have degrees in economics and hotel management. I have lived in Africa for over 20 years. During this period, I have twice held Africawide positions for a large international hotel management company.

Twelve years ago I started looking at wildlife photography as a new career option. Today, though I am still a consultant to the tourist industry, I spend most of my time on photography. Taking pictures, in turn, led me to conservation. For the past eight years I have been researching the commercialization of the bushmeat trade and visiting various Central African countries on a regular basis.

Today I see the bushmeat crisis as more than just another story. I am convinced that what I happening on the bushmeat front is symptomatic of events and trends in the region in general. The unsustainable utilisation of wildlife and other resources, such as forests, will sooner rather than later mean shortages and famine, which in turn will lead to migration, to social unrest, to war, to starving children on TV screens in the West, and then to millions of dollars being spent on trying to do something about it, so that we Westerners can feel better.

I have had the opportunity to discuss bushmeat-related topics with many conservation executives. Coming from a business background, what has surprised me more than anything else is the lack of ways of measuring results on the conservation front; no attempt is made to establish criteria against which performance can be assessed.

In my hotelier days I was responsible for properties in several of the countries concerned. All general managers worked to specific targets and budgets. Independent quality assessors would visit unannounced. Guests would be encouraged to send their comments to the head office. If the management did not live up to expectations, their Africa tours were often short-lived. In countries where even good managers could not produce acceptable results, management contracts were terminated. This is the way business works worldwide.

Many conservation organizations operating in the countries concerned have budgets similar to those of large hotels, but there seem to be no real targets against which to evaluate the performance of either the managers in capital cities or the field workers out in the provinces.

The Congo

Take, for instance, the Congo Republic before it degenerated into its present state. It used to be one of the more organized countries in Central Africa, and several large conservation organizations had offices, even head offices, in the capital, Brazzaville.

I started visiting the Congo regularly in the early 1990s, mainly to document the operations of the three great ape sanctuaries there. Two cater to chimpanzees, the other to gorillas. All of them care for dozens of bushmeat orphans. Here are some of the facts I compiled on these trips:

• Bushmeat from a wide variety of species was available for sale in all the major markets, irrespective of it being closed or open hunting season.

• While the meat of protected species was disguised in some markets, it was openly on display in others.

• For a while, elephant steaks, frozen and vaccum-packed, were on sale in the capital’s most upscale supermarket chain. When I questioned the French manager, he told me it had been imported from Chad. He thought that solved the problem. He had never heard of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

• The Prime Minister went on television, during the closed hunting season, to encourage all school children to spend their holidays hunting and fishing.

• When some concerned individuals in the West responded to the initial publicity by writing letters to the Congo Embassy in Washington D.C., they got a reply stating: “There is no poaching problem in the Congo.”

• At the Conkouati Wildlife Reserve, we filmed a lorry being loaded with bushmeat, beside an International Union for the Conservation of Nature vehicle. When we interviewed one of the traders and asked why the cost of the meat doubled by the time it reached the coastal town of Pointe Noire, we were told that the government rangers manning the road blocks would need to be paid off. When we asked how much, we were told that the more protected the species, the higher the price.

• On our first and only evening in Ouesso, the gateway to the renowned Nouable Ndolki National Park, we filmed a truck carrying tons of bushmeat, including the carcass of a silverback gorilla. A Western researcher was dutifully recording yet another dead gorilla in his bushmeat book. This was seen as a question of assessing the sustainability of the trade, and not of reporting it to the authorities and doing something about it.

• The next day the police chief kicked us out of town, asking us to charter a small boat to take us to neighboring Cameroon. He gave us an armed escort which we assumed was for our own protection. But in the first village out of town, we stopped to take on board a large bag of ivory to be “escorted” into Cameroon.

• Two years later, an ABC crew counted 280 elephant carcasses halfway between the Nouable Ndoki National Park and the Odzala National Park.

• The Reserve de la Chasse de la Lefni is the largest protected reserve in the Congo. It is also where a group of orphaned gorillas was rehabilitated. I visited twice, and walked for hours without seeing a trace of wildlife. The local trackers informed me that there were only two hippos left. The last chimpanzees and gorillas were shot in the 1960s. In this region it is not a question of population pressure or habitat loss. There is no encroachment. Market hunting for the capital city, Brazzaville, some two hours away, wiped out the wildlife. With regular flights from Ouesso hauling bags of meat dripping blood as a major cargo, it is easy to guess what supply and demand will do to the Congo’s wildlife in the long term, even to the more remote parks and reserves. I started wondering if there was any kind of law enforcement with regard to poaching and wildlife. I asked to see records that any poacher had ever been arrested. There were none.

Goals

This brings me back to objectives and targets. Where is the hope for conservation when poachers are not arrested, loggers who break the law do not lose their licenses, and ministry officials ask you: what is the point when the minister of the environment himself eats bushmeat at every function, and ministry officials rent out guns to poachers to supply the restaurants they own in logging concessions? (This happened in Cameroon, but I am sure the story is not so very different in Congo.)

What do you tell a villager who suggests that you first go to the capital and tell off the big guys who loot the national resources and economy in a big way, before you come back to him and tell him not to cut this tree or shoot that gorilla? What hope is there for conservation under these circumstances? Are all of us who care about the future of the wildlife and habitats in these parts simply wasting our time and a lot of someone else’s money?

A prominent conservation organization, to which I offered a bushmeat expose, wrote back saying, “The chief drawback, of course, was our firm conviction that publishing your article with your compelling photographs would have wide repercussions that certainly would adversely impact our scientists in Africa. An essential and exhaustive part of their job is to maintain good relations with the governments and indigenous people, so that the Society’s conservation projects will be permitted to continue.”

To me, this says it all. It is a license to look the other way. It is suicidal for conservation organizations to admit failure. Only success attracts donations. So, they tell the public about some of their very minor success stories, and ignore the mayhem around them. Field representatives are expected to toe the company line. It is a bad career move to make waves. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single conservation project––except for the maintenance of some parks––that is tackling the bushmeat issue head-on. The chance of failure is too high.

If a multinational corporation ran conservation in Africa, it would set targets first. It would measure results, and if targets could not be met, it would go somewhere else, where it could get a return on investment. This would be somewhere with political will, or where political will could be generated.

The International Monetary Fund and other donor organizations regularly pull out of countries, especially if there is no political will. And they no longer make any bones about it. Currencies collapse and politicians shout, but the tune is called by the people who pay the fiddler.

I have never heard of a conservation organization quitting a country in a storm of publicity.

No criticism

Conservation organizations do not criticize each other. This is another unwritten rule, and “the quiet diplomatic approach achieves more than shouting and screaming” is a slogan I have heard over and over again.

Is this not just another excuse for looking the other way? The rates of habitat, natural resource, and species loss in tropical Africa now are all higher than ever before. The quiet diplomatic approach has failed, and much money and time has been lost.

As for the bushmeat trade, it has now been commercialized to the point where it has become an integral part of the economy. The problem has gone beyond the scope of conservation organizations.

Even the loggers had to throw in the towel. One executive of a major French firm told CNN that they were now afraid of the poachers, who have automatic weapons. Some German loggers who are fed up with bad publicity recently asked the haulers of their timber to tell their drivers to stop carrying bushmeat. The drivers went on strike, and the loggers and transporters gave in.

The Congo Republic has now disintegrated; not surprising, considering the lack of law enforcement on the conservation front. In Gabon, a prominent German logging firm has just begun cutting in one of the national parks. In Cameroon, things are about as bad as they can get short of deteriorating into a scenario like that in the Congo Republic. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, loggers are frantically seeking $50 million to link the central Congo River basin to the logging roads of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Cameroon. We will then be able to buy bonobo meat in the markets of Doula.

Who will act? Who will create the political will to achieve results on the conservation front?

A very prominent French logger in Cameroon, Mr. Liboz, went on camera stating that what was happening now was “total destruction,” and that there was no point in counting on the government, the loggers, or the conservation community to effect any kind of change. He felt that only major international outcry could make a difference.

But as long as the conservation community needs to publicize its very limited success stories in order to survive, and as long as it insists on the quiet diplomatic approach, claiming that shocking bushmeat publicity is sensationalizing the issue, there will be no such outcry.

African politicians, as much as any govern by opinion poll. If the public speaks, they listen. Ivory, whaling, and seal-clubbing became hot topics through public concern. What will it take to turn the large-scale slaughter of chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos into a similarly emotional campaign? If we can do nothing for our closest animal relatives, what hope is there for the giant pangolin and the potto? And what does that say about mankind?

In tropical Africa, Western donors are taken seriously. If large sticks and carrots are our best hope, then our best bet is to link donor funding to environmental performance, just as human rights issues are linked to donor assistance.

When the Indonesian economy had to be bailed out with tens of billions of dollars in donor assistance, every human rights organiz ation a sked for severe pre s – sure to be put on the authorities to change. I saw no evidence of environmental groups taking up the issue and trying to link those huge loans to better environmental perfor – mance––and this was while the fires were still burning. No one took advantage of this opportunity to persuade the Indonesian government to cancel the Rice Bowl Project, in which 10,000 square kilome- ters of prime orangutan habitat are being cleared for rice-planting—using $150 mil – lion from the National Reforestation Fund! How come human rights groups got U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy to oppose the loan, while conservationists could not get U.S. vice president Albert Gore to add his piece on the environment?

The bushmeat question is clearly a question of supply and demand: the supply of great ape meat — and that of other species – – to satisfy the taste buds of a growing urban middle class willing to pay a premium for the product. The problem, from the conservation perspective, is that this practice is not sustainable, and has not been for some time. Plus, it carries a seri – ous health risk for humanity: note the ori – gin of Ebola, HIV, and HTLV.

Increasing demand and decre asing supply will inevitably result in prices going up. With a limited resource, this will go on until there is no more supply, which according to a Polish missionary will elicit the response, “Why has God done this to us?” Supply, demand, a n d pricing are the domain of econo mists a n d business people, so why not see what kind of solution they can find?

[Karl Amman, of Kenya, first publicized the bushmeat crisis to Americans in a March 1996 ANIMAL PEOPLE guest column. He was honored for his work against bushmeat at the March 18 Genesis Awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, California.]

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