Gorilla meat remains a delicacy in Cameroon, even though hunting great apes is illegal in the country. And while the existence of a market for the illicit game has been no secret, until recently, little was known about the buyers and sellers.
A new study lifts the curtain on the great ape meat trade around the Dja Biosphere Reserve in southeastern Cameroon, revealing a chain of hunters, traders, transportation workers and consumers in rural and urban areas.
“There is a functioning, aggressive ape meat commercial chain in the area,” says John Fa, Senior Research Associate at the Center for International Research (CIFOR) and a co-author of the study, which was published in the International Zoo Yearbook.
Uncontrolled hunting has contributed to plummeting primate populations, and understanding how the trade works is important for designing and enforcing efforts to stop the trade in great ape meat, say the authors of the study, which was led by Nikki Tagg of the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp and sponsored by a consortium of zoos.
Many people living in rural communities around the Dja Biosphere Reserve depend on bushmeat to feed their families, some killing gorillas or chimpanzees from time to time. Great ape body parts are sometimes used in traditional medicine.
But the greatest threat to great apes’ survival is the hunting that feeds the supply for the luxury meat market in cities, Tagg says, where certain bushmeats such as ape – along with elephant, pangolin, large cats and others – have acquired high-end status, and high price points, for their prized flavors.
Breaking the chain that supplies meat to urban consumers and ensuring that subsistence hunters target other more plentiful animal species would reduce the pressure on great apes.
“Certain species of animals can be taken sustainably because they are much more resilient to hunting pressure,” says Fa. “If you do this, you should be able to have meat coming from the forest without any problem.”
HUNTERS AND INFO GATHERERS
Because local people would be suspicious of foreigners asking questions about the illegal trade of great ape meat, the researchers depended on local assistants to gather data. These assistants interviewed hunters, wholesale and retail sellers, drivers, and consumers in 13 villages and three bushmeat markets on the eastern and western edges of the reserve. The picture that emerged shows a complex web of relationships extending from the rural reserve to the capital city Yaoundé.
“You need to spend a lot of time with the communities to gain their confidence, so you can ask the right questions,” says Fa. “You don’t go in with a questionnaire and a clipboard. You talk about other things and gradually get to the questions you want to ask.” Even so, Tagg cautioned, some interviewees may give incomplete or inaccurate information to protect themselves.
Only seven of the 51 hunters interviewed admitted to specializing in hunting great apes. The remainder said they were subsistence hunters, hunting mainly to feed their families, though selling surplus bushmeat in the local market. As such, they are considered “opportunistic” hunters, who kill great apes if they encounter them but do not necessarily search them out.
Most of the hunters also farmed, fished, worked in forestry or had some other source of income. About half said they would give up hunting if they had regular employment or government assistance for agriculture, though most of the specialized hunters said they would continue hunting, as they can oftentimes make more money on the black market than through legal work.
Getting great ape meat from the forest to the market involves various actors, ranging from porters, drivers and traders to restaurant owners, individual consumers, and the “middlemen” who form a crucial link between rural and urban areas. Typically, when specialist hunters go into forests and kill an animal, they butcher and smoke the meat on the spot. Accompanying porters then carry out the meat for delivery to a customer, trader or middleman.
Sometimes hunters sell directly to consumers in their own or neighboring villages. Others sell to retailers, who deal in parts of animals, or wholesalers, who sell the entire carcass. Some traders specialize in selling to restaurants, and almost all traders also farm or have some other business.
Drivers are a key link in the chain, smuggling contraband meat in buses, logging trucks or the side panels of cars. The researchers heard stories of smugglers using cars belonging to government offices or international agencies, which police cannot stop and search.
Gorilla and chimpanzee meat bought by restaurants or wealthy individuals in cities often goes through middlemen, many of whom are part of the upper echelons of society, but Tagg says that detailed investigation of that part of the market chain was too dangerous to conduct.
PAYING THE PRICE
The study found that a subsistence hunter who kills a great ape sells the meat quickly, to avoid being caught with illegal game, receives only about USD 36. Because subsistence hunters receive little income and run considerable risk of injury or prosecution, providing them with other ways of making a living could reduce poaching says Fa.
Meanwhile, a specialist hunter receives about USD 140 for a gorilla carcass; a wholesale trader about USD 118; and a middleman about USD 228, in addition to taking some of the meat for their family. Other efforts to stop or interrupt the trade should target these actors who are profiting most – namely the middlemen – through law enforcement.
Overall, eliminating the sale of great ape meat is crucial to ensuring the survival of gorillas and chimpanzees, says Tagg, but that does not mean putting a stop to all bushmeat hunting, particularly for people who depend on it to feed their families. Instead, efforts should be made to protect the hunting territories of rural communities around the edges of the reserve that are truly dependent on forest resources. Monitoring is further needed, to determine if their hunting is remaining sustainable.
“Moreover, encouraging people in cities not to eat bushmeat is fundamental because they generally have enough money and have the option of buying domestic meats in order to survive,” adds Fa. “They don’t need bushmeat to ensure their food security.
“We need to stop the consumption of endangered species such as great apes,” he concludes, “because they’re not going to survive if we continue these levels of hunting.”
This research forms part of CIFOR’s Bushmeat Research Initiative.
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