African slender-snouted crocodile caught by hunters. Photo courtesy of ESI.
Although founded only four years ago, Endangered Species International-Congo, has ambitious plans to protect dwindling Western gorilla populations and aid local people in the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville). The organization, an offshoot of Endangered Species International (ESI), has been spending the last few years studying the bushmeat trade in Pointe-Noire, the country’s second largest city, and developing plans for turning hunters into conservationists.
“[We] conducted more than 140 surveys at the seven major markets in the city of Pointe-Noire, which represents around 1,000 bushmeat observations. A third of the observed species are protected under the Republic of the Congo,” Franck Makoundi, the project leader with ESI-Congo, told mongabay.com. Observers also counted seven instances of gorilla meat being sold.
Although Makoundi said, “This figure does not reflect the reality of the illegal trade because meat is also traded through other channels like direct sales to restaurants or individuals”
Hunter in the Republic of the Congo. Photo courtesy of ESI.
The Republic of the Congo is home to the world’s largest populations of Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), which is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Hunting and the Ebola virus has decimated the species, cutting some populations down by as much as 90 percent in just the last 25 years. In addition many gorilla populations, even remote ones, have faced pressure on their forest habitats from new roads, hunting, logging, mining, and oil exploitation.
Good news, however, came in 2007 when the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) discovered unknown populations in the remote northern reaches of the Republic of the Congo, totaling around 125,000 individuals.
The ESI is targeting the bushmeat trade in the country’s south where a single gorilla hand can sell for less than $6.00. While monitoring wild gorilla populations, the group plans to work also with local communities to stop the bushmeat trade of gorillas and other protected species. Developing alternative incomes for locals is one way to mitigate poaching, according to Makoundi.
“Most hunters are in this trade to support their families. Thus, it is possible to offer them a support to develop other activities via the establishment of a cooperative.”
Few large conservation groups work on the ground in the Republic of the Congo (with the notable exception of the WCS) even though the country retains vast forests and stunning wildlife. In addition, to Western lowland gorillas, the country is home to chimpanzees, elephants, leopards, and mandrill.
Makoundi says the largest barrier to successful conservation work in the country is simply a dearth in funding.
INTERVIEW WITH FRANCK MAKOUNDI
Gorillas are killed for their meat as well as body parts (head and hands) which are sold for fetishes or trophies. To see more photos of bushmeat. Photo courtesy of ESI.
Mongabay: You have been monitoring the trade in bushmeat in Pointe-Noire for several years. What have you found?
Franck Makoundi: Since 2008, Endangered Species International (ESI)-Congo has conducted more than 140 surveys at the seven major markets in the city of Pointe-Noire, which represents around 1,000 bushmeat observations. A third of the observed species are protected under the Republic of the Congo, which illustrates the importance of strengthening the collaboration between the different actors (governments, NGOs, civil society, etc.) in order to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity and to respect the existing laws on endangered species protection.
Mongabay: What are the animals most commonly seen in the markets?
Franck Makoundi: Over forty different species were identified during our surveys: antelopes (duikers), primates (monkeys and gorillas), reptiles (snakes, crocodiles, freshwater turtles, lizards), rodents (porcupines, cane rats), and forest buffalo.
The eight species that represent 50 percent of the observations on the markets in 2011 were: blue duiker (Cephalophus monticola), white-bellied duiker (Cephalophus leucogaster), African porcupine (Athrurus africanus), forest hinge-back tortoise (Kinixys erosa), African rock python (Python sebae), African slender-snouted crocodile (Crocodylus cataphractus), water chevrotain (Hyemoschus aquaticus) and mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx). Half of these species have protected status.
Mongabay: How many gorillas were identified on the bushmeat markets, and at what price?
Makoundi in a market with a blue duiker. Photo courtesy of ESI.
Franck Makoundi: In 2011, gorilla meat was identified seven times in the markets. This figure does not reflect the reality of the illegal trade because meat is also traded through other channels like direct sales to restaurants or individuals. Further, vendors are worried about our surveys and some of them tend to hide gorilla meat. Gorilla is usually sold as smoked meat. A piece of the size of a hand usually costs about 3,000 FCFA ($5.62) and a 50 kilogram bag (110 pounds) is sold for around 35,000 FCFA ($65.15). The head and hands are often subject to parallel trade for fetishism and trophies.
Unlike more common species, the gorilla meat is generally sold to merchants of Pointe-Noire, after being smoked in villages. This can be explained by the high price of this meat. A small portion of the meat is consumed by the hunter and some people around him, including men who are helping to cut down and transport the animal. Women generally do not eat gorilla.
Mongabay: Now that you have this data, what are your conservation plans?
Franck Makoundi: We are launching a project in a forested area, about 150 miles northeast of Pointe-Noire. This area is an ecological corridor between Conkouati-Douli National Park and the Dimonika Biosphere Reserve. The first step is to refine our knowledge on the status of large mammals, particularly the gorilla. Surveys will begin this month. We will also support local hunters in setting up sustainable hunting and alternative economic activities. Data collection will help us create monitoring for remaining gorillas and conduct patrols.
Mongabay: How will you convince the hunters to save the gorillas?
Franck Makoundi: We believe that conservation of biodiversity can not be sustainable without the involvement of local people including hunters. They must therefore be informed of their rights and responsibilities and aware of biodiversity issues. The collective awareness is an essential step for the community to take the lead in protecting its natural environment and its biodiversity, and to establish protective measures respected by all. But it is important to go beyond, by offering support to change economic activities harmful to endangered species while maintaining the same incomes. Most hunters are in this trade to support their families. Thus, it is possible to offer them a support to develop other activities via the establishment of a cooperative.
Mongabay: What is a hunter cooperative?
Franck Makoundi: The hunter cooperative is based on rational hunting and a total hunting ban on endangered and protected species like gorillas. The cooperative will delineate hunting area, hunting calendar, and identify alternative economic activities to be developed. ESI Congo will guide the creation of the cooperative and support its actions. The hunters will be gathering conservation data during hunting activities and will become gorilla protectors by conducting some monitoring as well.
Mongabay: Could you tell us about your education actions?
Franck Makoundi: The issue of endangered species awareness is critical, especially in the Congo Rainforest since it is home to endemic and rare biodiversity (the Congo Basin forest is the second largest rainforest after the Amazon). Biodiversity is severely threatened by logging, mining and hunting. Yet, new generations are poorly informed about environmental issues. Therefore, since the creation of ESI Congo our team has conducted educational activities in schools of Pointe-Noire to explain the importance of preserving biodiversity and the great apes. Our team will continue these actions in the Loaka village where gorillas are hunted by using several media such as animated presentations, movies, games, and field activities in the forest. We have a plan to set up new team activities between classes of Loaka and Pointe-Noire, in order to create another link between the place of hunting and consumption.
Mongabay: How can people help?
Franck Makoundi: It is crucial issue and the urgency is high. The main obstacle for those involved in conservation in the Republic of the Congo lies in the lack of funding. Any support is welcome! You can contact our team to learn more on how to support.
Monkey killed for bushmeat. To see more photos of bushmeat. Photo courtesy of ESI.
African rock pythons killed for bushmeat. Photo courtesy of ESI.
Local students after a presentation on gorillas by ESI. Photo courtesy of ESI.
Taking down data in the field. Photo courtesy of ESI.
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