The hunting of wild animals for food – known as “bushmeat” – was once generally seen as sustainable subsistence living in developing countries, with people gathering only what they needed. But recently, in many parts of west and central Africa, the bushmeat trade has taken a worrying turn and become commercialized. It is now thought to represent the biggest threat to biodiversity in the region as professional hunters strip the forests bare of wildlife.
New research, conducted by the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, has shown how the trade in bushmeat fluctuates over time and in response to political, economic and legal changes. The data is the result of 13 years of daily visits to the bushmeat market in the town of Malabo, Bioko Island, which lies just off the coast of central Africa and is the northernmost part of Equatorial Guinea. Over that period of time, they recorded just under 200,000 animal carcasses for sale.
The top three types of animal found in the market were rodents (80,900 carcasses), antelope (59,000) and primates (35,200). This is worrying considering that Bioko is considered a biodiversity hotspot and is a critical site for many endangered species of monkey, such as the drill and Pennant’s red colobus. The results show how during the first five years of the study primate consumption was actually in decline, but then rose in tandem with economic growth.
Research staff member collecting a sample of primate tissue in the market for genetic analysis. Credit: Javier Rivas/BBPP.
“This bushmeat trade is largely being driven by urban consumers in Malabo who don't need to eat wildlife to survive,” explained Drew Cronin, lead author of the new study published in PLOS ONE. “There has been a considerable amount of economic development on Bioko, which has resulted in readily accessible alternative protein sources, such as chicken, fish and pork, throughout much of the island, but especially in Malabo. Despite this, most of the valuable bushmeat is being brought to the city and sold.”
A number of factors no doubt contribute to this trend, but it seems likely that there are three major causes. The first is simply that as more people have the money, demand increases, as when given a choice people generally tend to choose bushmeat over domestic meats such as chicken. This therefore pushes up the profitability of hunting, even if the hunters have to travel further to get the rewards. Finally, the spread of shotguns through the island is considered a major cause of the increase in the hunting of monkeys.
They also found something else quite worrying. The attempt in 2007 to limit the hunting and sale of primates on the island not only had a limited impact at the time, but has actually backfired as bushmeat hunting following the attempt has actually increased. The researchers suspect that after the ban was put in place there was a rush to hunt as many primates as possible before the ban was enforced, but when this enforcement didn't come, the hunting rates remained up.
They note that when it comes to legislation and laws, while they are vital for the protection of species, strong governmental support is required to back them up, otherwise they could inflict more damage.