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Roads tied to bushmeat hunting in Africa

Roads tied to bushmeat hunting in Africa

Roads tied to bushmeat hunting in Africa
Rhett A. Butler,
May 9, 2006

A new study ties the presence of roads to bushmeat hunting in the Congo rainforest and also raises important questions for global conservation.

The study, published in the current edition of Conservation Biology, found that roads and associated hunting pressure reduced the abundance of a number of mammal species including duikers, forest elephants, buffalo, red river hogs, lowland gorillas, and carnivores. The research suggests that even moderate hunting pressure can significantly affect the structure of mammal communities in central Africa.

The Conservation Biology study examined a 400-square-mile area of tropical rainforest in southwestern Gabon, of which 130 square kilometers was the Rabi oil concession operated by the Shell-Gabon Corporation since 1985.The area served as a good study site because Shell’s closely guarded and carefully regulated concession effectively protects the forest from hunters and incursion by outsiders. Such is not the case in the unprotected areas outside the concession, where road density is higher and hunting and development pressures are greater. By comparing mammal abundance and behavior between the two areas, the researchers found that roads had the greatest impact on large and small ungulates, causing important changes in mammal community structure. Further, say the researchers, hunting and roads may also alter the behavior of many species, with wildlife outside the concession area possibly showing a higher propensity to flee when confronted by humans.

The findings are significant because unlike previous studies in the region, which generally focused on only a single species, the researchers were able to “quantitatively assess the relative effects of roads and hunting (and their interaction) on different species and guilds of mammals.” More broadly, the scientists say that their work has “both general and key local relevance, because the study area is a potentially critical corridor between two recently designated national parks in Gabon, and its future is far from secure.” The scientists explain that because oil production in the Rabi concessions has dropped by nearly 80 percent since 1997, it is expected that Shell Oil will eventually abandon its concession which could result in “a dramatic increase in hunting, logging, and slash-and-burn farming, as well as continued oil production by smaller companies” less attuned to environmental concerns than the multinational giant. Since the Shell concession has essentially served as a wildlife refuge, its abandonment could have significant consequences for resident animal populations in this exceptionally biodiverse region.

Lowland gorilla. Photo by Rhett Butler

More than 70 percent of Africa’s remaining rainforests are located in Central Africa, covering about 720,000 square miles (1.875 million square km). The bulk of this region’s forests are found in the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Congo, and Gabon. The Congo is one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems. Commercial logging, clearing for subsistence agriculture, and widespread civil strife have devastated forests, displaced forest dwellers, and resulted in the expansion of the “bushmeat” trade. Scientists are concerned that Central Africa’s rainforests could meet the same fate as those of West Africa, which today cover less than 10 percent of the region (about 1.5 percent of West Africa has primary forest cover, a decline of 26 percent over the past 15 years). According to the United Nations, Africa as a whole lost the highest percentage of forests during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s of any region on Earth.


“Although the Rabi concession is being intensively managed for oil production, the prohibitions on hunting and nighttime driving, restricted access for nonemployees, and guidelines designed to minimize deforestation inside the oil concession are clearly having important benefits for wildlife,” write the researchers. “Among all of our study sites outside the concession, the one nearest the concession… had the highest mammal abundances, suggesting that the Rabi concession might be acting as a population source and outside areas as a population sink for wildlife. . . . Hence, the Rabi oil concession is probably better protected from poaching and illegal encroachment than are most national parks in Gabon.”

Global conversation implications

The researchers, led by William F. Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, raise an interesting point with considerably wider implications for global conservation efforts, arguing that “as a multinational conglomerate, Shell-Gabon’s interests in environmental management at Rabi… largely reflect their sensitivity to international opinion and pressures from consumers.” Drawing on their personal experiences in Africa and Latin America, the team writes that “smaller corporations based in developing nations are sometimes less interested and often less capable of financially investing in environmental protection.” This observation leads the researchers to ask, “As conservationists, do we pressure large, multinational corporations based in industrial nations to forgo major projects in developing countries in an effort to limit environmental degradation, or do we favor such firms over smaller, national companies in the hope that they will be more sensitive to international pressures?”

While their question us especially pertinent to Central Africa, it really applies to conservation on a worldwide scale. Multinational corporations can be particularly sensitive to criticism on their environmental policy and, as a result, can actually serve as competent stewards of the environment in some cases. Thus pressure exerted by green groups on large corporations may be an effective means for achieving conservation goals.

Nowhere is this more evident that sub-Saharan Africa where government conservation initiatives have often failed to protect land or wildlife. Despite decades of efforts to establish protected areas in some countries, Africa lost the highest percentage of rainforests during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s of any region on Earth, according to the United Nations. Poverty, civil strife, and commercial exploitation continue to inflict a heavy toll on Africa’s wildlife populations and rich ecosystems.


Goodbye to West Africa’s Rainforests West Africa’s once verdant and extensive rainforests are now a historical footnote. Gone to build ships and furniture, feed hungry mouths, and supply minerals and gems to the West, the band of tropical forests that once extended from Guinea to Cameroon is virtually a memory. The loss of West Africa’s rainforests has triggered a number of environmental problems that have contributed to social unrest and exacerbated poverty across the region.

Congo rainforest Known as the heart of darkness by Joseph Conrad, the Congo region has long conjured up thoughts of pygmies, mythical beasts, dreadful plagues, and cannibals. It is a land made famous by the adventures of Stanley and Livingstone and known as a place of brutality and violence for its past—the days of the Arab slave and ivory trade, its long history of tribal warfare—and its present, including ethnic violence and massacres.

Are rainforests still in need of saving? With Earth Day approaching it is appropriate to take another look at conservation efforts in the world’s tropical rainforests, which today are disappearing from the face of the globe. Despite growing international concern, rainforests continue to be destroyed at a pace exceeding 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) per day. World rainforest cover now stands at around 2.5 million square miles (6 million square kilometers), an area about the size of the contiguous 48 United States or Australia and representing around 5 percent of the world’s land surface. Much of this remaining area has been impacted by human activities and no longer retains its full original biodiversity.

Nigeria has worst deforestation rate, FAO revises figures Nigeria has the world’s highest deforestation rate of primary forests, according to revised deforestation figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Between 2000 and 2005 the country lost 55.7 percent of its primary forests — defined as forests with no visible signs of past or present human activities. Logging, subsistence agriculture, and the collection of fuelwood are cited as leading causes of forest clearing in the West African country.

This article used information and quotes from
“Impacts of Roads and Hunting on Central African Rainforest Mammals”
Conservation Biology