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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Threat to Gorillas

Air Date: Week of

Our closest primate relatives the apes are headed for extinction -- and being hunted for their meat is the most immediate threat to ape survival. Conservation ecologist Dr. David Wilkie talks with host Laura Knoy about the “bush meat” trade.


KNOY: At the recent International Ape Conference held near Chicago, many speakers warn that our closest primate relatives are inching toward extinction. Apes are threatened by logging, mining, and burning of the forests where they live. But apes face an even more immediate threat than habitat loss. Across central Africa, chimpanzees, gorillas, and other wild animals continue to be hunted, often illegally, for their meat. Conference participant and conservation ecologist David Wilkie says reliance on this so-called bush meat is common in developing nations.

WILKIE: In North America about 120 years ago, we ate a lot of wild ducks. We ate passenger pigeons. We ate deer. And it wasn't until cattle production got really geared up that Americans began to shift from eating wildlife to eating the meat of domestic animals. Well, in many developing countries, in many poor countries, particularly in the tropics, there's not very much livestock raising. And people look to the forest, look to the savannahs, to the wildlife that live in those places as a source of meat. There are very, very few options for people to find alternate sources of protein. In Africa, sleeping sickness is really common, and cattle are very susceptible to sleeping sickness. Chickens tend to get these terrible infections, and they don't grow very quickly. And people are poor. And the forest is a free source of wildlife. You just, anybody can, walk into the forest and go hunting.

KNOY: Dr. Wilkie, give us an idea of how big the bush meat trade is.

WILKIE: It's far, far larger than I think most people ever imagine. When you think, at least for central Africa, there's probably 30 million people who live near or in the forest, who eat bush meat on a regular basis. In fact, I think about 80 percent of the meat that people eat comes from wildlife. And everybody eats about the same amount of meat that Europeans and North Americans eat. So, anything between 30 to 70 kilos of meat a year. If you do the math, that comes out to maybe a million metric tons of wildlife are hunted in the forest, shipped off to markets, and consumed by families. A million metric tons of bush meat is about the equivalent of maybe four million cattle. So if you can just imagine what four million cattle looks like, that gives you a really good sense of the scale of the bush meat question. This is not a small industry. This is a major industry for central Africa and is probably worth over a billion dollars per year.

KNOY: Have governments in central Africa made any kind of statement about the declining ape population and bush meat?

WILKIE: Yes. A group of African presidents got together and signed the Yaounde Declaration, which basically holds them to committing resources, both financial and personnel, to conserving wildlife within the forests of central Africa. And at the recent CITES meeting in Nairobi, all of the central African nations were exceedingly keen on establishing a bush meat committee within CITES and having regional representatives, national representatives, sit on those committees and establish much more clearly what is the status of the bush meat trade and laws against bush meat hunting within each nation in central Africa area.

KNOY: Do you think it's just talk, or do you think there will be some action?

WILKIE: Ten years ago I would have said that it would be exceedingly hard to get national governments to even think about the bush meat issue. But conditions have changed. Awareness has changed. People's concerns have changed. But I think most importantly, the thing to do is to work with the logging companies, and really encourage them to enforce the regulations that prohibit their drivers from carrying hunters into the forest and carrying bush meat back out again. And I think, also, people realize that there are solutions to the bush meat trade that wouldn't necessarily hurt the poor hunter or the poor family who eat the meat. If apes are only maybe one percent of the bush meat that people eat, asking people not to eat apes probably is not going to really impact their diet very much. And that's good for ape conservation, because if, for example, you really enforce the laws, and there are laws in all of the nations against hunting apes, that's not going to have a huge impact on hunters' salaries, hunters' profits. And it's not really going to have much of an impact on poor people in rural and urban areas' capacity to find a source of meat. So I think that, at least with the apes, because they're so scarce, because they turn up in markets very rarely, enforcement of the present regulations would probably not hurt the hunter or hurt the consumer, and it would certainly help the conservation of the apes.

KNOY: How does the bush meat problem fit into the overall picture of ape conservation?

WILKIE: Well, the bush meat issue is an immediate, intense threat. Because gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo populations are so small, relatively, unless we do something about the bush meat trade, then there's going to be no great apes to preserve. So, the question about whether there is enough forest for the apes to live in becomes moot, because there will be no apes to occupy the forest.

KNOY: Conservation ecologist David Wilkie is an adjunct professor at Boston College. Thanks for speaking with us, Dr. Wilkie.

WILKIE: It was my pleasure. Thank you.



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