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African great ape bushmeat crisis intensifies; few solutions in sight

  • Gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are all Critically Endangered or Endangered, and continue to decline toward extinction due to habitat loss and degradation, disease, and illegal hunting.
  • Great ape poaching, which supplies growing urban and rural bushmeat markets, is now at crisis levels across Central Africa, and despite conservationists’ efforts, is showing no sign of slowing down.
  • Vast networks of logging roads, modern weapons, cell phones, cheap motorized transportation, and high demand for wild meat in urban centers is driving the booming bushmeat market.
  • Africa’s great ape sanctuaries rescue some survivors, and active outreach to local communities offer a partial solution. Educational programs for children and adults, teaching the value of great apes, are seen as essential.
A rescued chimp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Laura Darby

The word came in that a small chimp was for sale up the road near Aketi, a town in remote, northernmost Democratic Republic of the Congo. The seller: a policeman who had taken the baby from SIFORCO, a massive logging concession some 60 miles away.

Laura Darby, an American primate researcher working in the area, went to investigate.

The officer asked her how much she’d pay for the animal. She explained that keeping chimps was illegal — her team’s policy was to pay only a $1 reward. She told him she’d find out by morning whether there was room at one of the country’s two chimp sanctuaries.

The next day, her colleagues Djodjo and Richard went to retrieve the orphan. They returned quickly — in shock. “He told us they ate him,” Richard said.

Shorty thereafter, they were summoned to the police station. The baby chimp was there, screaming and very much alive, tied to the door of the jail.

The station’s lieutenant brushed off the lie that the baby had been killed. He told Darby that the men who had “saved” the chimp had spent money on gas and food “rescuing” it, so she should give them a bunch of cash.

Even if they were honorable men, she said, if she did as he asked, soon the entire town would know that white people would pay big money for a chimpanzee — then more people would try to catch and sell them.

He unhappily relented. One of his officers cut the rope tied to the baby’s ankle, releasing “Souza” into their custody. No one was charged for possession of endangered wildlife, a crime in the DRC that can bring three to five years in prison and a fine up to $8,200.

A chimpanzee troop in Budongo, Uganda. Just 340,000 chimps are thought to be left in the wild. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/WCS
A young orphaned chimp. For every young chimp rescued, likely ten members of its troop died to supply the illegal bushmeat market in towns and cities across central Africa, and as far away as Europe. Photo by Laura Darby in the DRC

In all, Darby and her team came across 44 orphan chimps during a year-long primate study in 2009, but there was only one arrest. The orphans’ mothers had likely been killed for the illegal bushmeat trade. The researchers found the young chimps in mining and logging camps, towns and villages; one was delivered to their door, half-dead, in a tiny basket. All were dehydrated, hungry, terrified. “Some didn’t make it. Most of them don’t,” she said — including Souza.

While it wasn’t their role to rescue survivors, Darby and her research team managed to save five chimps and fly them to Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center in Bukavu, eastern DR Congo.

But for every infant trafficked or saved, many members of the original wild chimpanzee troop were killed and likely sold as bushmeat, explains Doug Cress, former coordinator for the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), a United Nations-based consortium for which Darby now works. “Every time you confiscate a chimpanzee, you can ring up about 10 that aren’t in the picture anymore. That gives you a sense of the destruction,” he says. Using those estimates, that means that for the 44 orphans identified by Darby’s team, roughly 440 chimps were killed and eaten.

“We described it as a chimpanzee genocide,” Darby remembers.

A swift decline

Poaching to supply the illegal bushmeat trade poses the greatest threat to the survival of Africa’s five great apes: two species of gorilla (the western, Gorilla gorilla and eastern, Gorilla beringei); the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and bonobo (Pan paniscus). Six out of Africa’s nine subspecies are just one small step from extinction, including all five types of gorilla.

The demise of African great apes has been swift. At the turn of the 20th century, about one million chimpanzees lived in the wild. Since then, two-thirds of our closest living relatives have been wiped out: about 340,000 are left, according to the Jane Goodall Institute.

A Critically Endangered Western lowland Gorilla. If immediate decisive action isn’t taken against poaching, the only place Africa’s great apes may be found in a few years may be in places like this one — the Bronx Zoo. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

In 1994, just before the DRC erupted into a catastrophic, decade-long civil war, a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) census counted 17,000 Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). Two decades later, 3,800 remain: 77 percent are gone, with many hunted and eaten or sold as bushmeat by various armed militias.

Perhaps 250-300 Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli ) hang on in scraps of highland forest between Nigeria and Cameroon. No one knows exactly how many bonobos remain in four disconnected parks in the DRC — an intensely hunted conflict zone.

Poaching poses the greatest threat, even though all African great apes are protected by national and international laws in every country they inhabit, making it illegal to kill, capture or trade in live great apes or their body parts.

There are a litany of reasons for their decline, including loss of habitat to deforestation, industrial agriculture and burgeoning settlements. Some are captured for the live pet trade or for sale to tourist venues in the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia; a few are killed for traditional medicine or as magical charms.

Another threat is human disease: because of our nearly identical genetics, great apes can die from the common cold, influenza, Ebola and other communicable diseases. Butchering and eating ape meat can also transmit virulent disease to people.

How tenuous is ape survival? “It’s not good news most places you turn,” Cress says. With numbers so low, species could disappear in a blink. “One tourist comes to Virunga National Park and sneezes in the wrong place, and suddenly you have an epidemic that wipes out the last 880 mountain gorillas. And western chimpanzees are getting hit hard in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia — very difficult places to police properly.”

Bushmeat traditions

Then there is the bushmeat threat. For millennia, wild meat was a valuable source of protein for people living in forests across equatorial Africa. But whether rural Africans eat apes is largely a cultural phenomenon. There is a tradition of eating great apes in central and West Africa; in Tanzania, Uganda and other parts of East Africa, there is not.

In over 300 interviews on dietary habits in north-central Congo, Darby found that while most people did eat apes, certain groups had strict prohibitions. One tribe, for example, considers chimps to be relatives because of a legendary marriage between an ancestor and his chimpanzee bride — and you don’t eat family. Other groups have taboos against eating young animals that are still nursing.

A poached gorilla. Photo by J.E.Fa

There are a few great ape bushmeat niche markets. Serving certain “delicacies” — including apes — at dinners, banquets and other formal gatherings signifies prestige among the continent’s wealthy elite. As a result, there are high financial incentives for poachers: the rich pay premium prices.

There is also a small traditional medicine demand. It’s believed that consuming great ape parts will make you stronger or more virile, says Darby. “They’re not marketed to ladies,” she adds. The hands, feet and heads can fetch a good price for use in black magic — bought by witch doctors, particularly in Cameroon, Senegal and Guinea.

Industrial logging and mining bring a bushmeat explosion

In the 1980s, primates and other wildlife began disappearing at an alarming rate from Central and West African forests. In 1989, photojournalist Karl Amman and tropical field biologist Ian Redmond independently investigated the situation and discover a skyrocketing market for wild-caught meat that coincided with the spread of industrial-scale logging and mining.

Big logging concessions offered jobs, and people poured into the forest. In DR Congo, abundant gold, diamonds and coltan (used in electronic devices) attracted corporations, artisanal miners, corrupt military and government officials, and members of more than 70 militias, all cashing in on mineral riches.

These huge workforces needed to be fed. Camp workers were out in the middle of the forest with no source of food and no agriculture, explains Marc Fourrier, director of species conservation for the Jane Goodall Institute.

That situation sparked a booming, indiscriminate bushmeat trade, with commercial hunters following the camps or living in nearby villages. They slaughtered animals in huge numbers, including apes and other endangered species. To feed all those miners and loggers, says Cress, “you have to kill, and kill a lot.”

Africa’s killing fields

The IUCN notes that rebel factions and poorly-paid government soldiers add to the demand — and also facilitate a flow of guns, ammunition, trafficked bushmeat and live animals that intensifies the poaching problem.

Hunters, sometimes aided by military and local officials, are active even in national parks and World Heritage Sites, posing a particular threat to bonobos, Grauer’s gorillas and Cross River gorillas, which live in very limited ranges.

Part of a poached gorilla, Kogo, Equatorial Guinea. Great ape body parts, including feet, hands and skulls are easy to transport, so are often illegally trafficked and sold as trophies in Europe, the U.S. and around the world. Photo by Lise Albretchsen

And the animals aren’t the only species at risk — protecting wildlife has become an extremely dangerous job. Around the globe, two to three rangers die weekly, with more than 1,000 murdered in the last decade, according to the Thin Green Line Foundation.

Many die guarding African wildlife, including apes. Three park guards fell to poacher’s bullets in recent months. On May 5, bandits ambushed a convoy of rangers, killing one and abducting two conservation workers in the Congo’s Itombwe Reserve. In April, two rangers were killed in Garamba National Park.

Logging roads offer access

Loggers across the Congo basin have made access to wildlife easy. They cut hundreds of miles of survey trails and haul roads to harvest valuable timber, opening forests to poachers. “You can get to the most primeval forest in Africa now fairly easily,” says Cress.

Various nonprofits, including WCS, have struck deals with various logging companies to prohibit workers from hunting within concessions or from using logging vehicles to transport bushmeat to market.

However, says David Wilkie, executive director at WCS, that doesn’t solve the problem. “It’s very difficult to prevent commercial hunters from hunting illegally within logging concessions and shipping the meat out via the rivers.”

Industrial-scale slaughter has turned some habitat into “silent forests” with almost no large animal left alive. Experts predict that at the present rate, the continent’s wild apes could be hunted to extinction within 15 to 50 years.

New markets for wild meat

The demand for bushmeat continues to grow and change, says WCS’s Wilkie, due to soaring human population and demographic shifts that created new wild meat markets.

In 1980, Africa had 477 million people; now there are 1.2 billion and population growth will accelerate for the immediate future, according to the United Nations Population Division. Also, over the last three decades, civil unrest and urban opportunities have sparked a mass exodus from rural areas to African population centers.

Today, poaching is a high-volume business that supplies rapidly expanding towns and cities — a trade facilitated by modern firearms, cellphones, a vast network of logging roads, and cheap transportation, including inexpensive Chinese-made motorbikes.

Laura Darby: “A photographer came to my house to offer me a photo he’d taken that hadn’t been paid for. Basically, photographers take people’s pictures and then you give them $1 to get the print whenever they’re ready (usually weeks to months later). These guys had killed a family of chimpanzees and wanted it to be immortalized, but I never paid him for the print.” Photo by Laura Darby in the DRC

“Bushmeat trading points exist in almost every town and village throughout West and Central Africa,” says John Fa, a professor of biodiversity at the UK’s Manchester Metropolitan University.

The northern Congolese logging village of Pokola offers a peek into Africa’s exponential growth. It grew from a few hundred to about 25,000 people in just a generation — and its residents survive partly on wild-caught fish and animals.

“Livestock production has never caught up with the growth of these towns,” says Wilkie. “Frankly, it’s a disaster.” Many who once raised livestock gave up when, during periods of civil unrest, armed groups came through and commandeered their herds. “Even today, few will put in the investment to take up animal husbandry again, says Fourrier. “So bushmeat pressure has increased rather than gone down.”

How many lost?

More than 22,000 apes were “lost to the wild” (either killed or captured) between 2005 and 2011, according to the UN’s GRASP. But accurately estimating how many were eaten is impossible because of what Darby calls “a gross lack of data.”

Once an ape is killed, it’s often butchered and eaten onsite — or smoked and transported to markets near and far. Existing data on confiscations is hard to interpret: bushmeat is generally reported in parts, sometimes in kilos, but rarely by species, as it’s difficult to identify what animal charred meat came from. DNA testing, though inexpensive, is rarely available where bushmeat is seized, and the meat is usually disposed of quickly to prevent disease.

Darby notes that measuring bushmeat by weight gives little indication of the harm to great ape species. “[F]ive kilos (2.2 pounds) of hands represent a large constituent of [endangered] chimps or gorillas — but five kilos… [of bushmeat] is not a whole lot,” says Darby.

Great apes rarely constitute more than one percent of the carcasses brought into markets, says Wilkie. In Africa, that’s because duikers, Gambian rats, porcupines and other animals are far more abundant, while apes are rare. But unscrupulous hunters have good reason to kill them: a single ape provides a huge amount of meat for the cost of a single shotgun shell, with a small bonobo weighing 31 kilos (70 pounds) and a large Grauer’s gorilla a hefty 270 kilos (400 pounds).

While it’s not mass slaughter, even one percent loss could be enough to annihilate the great apes. That’s because they reproduce slowly, so almost any off-take is unsustainable for their long-term survival, says Darby. If an adult chimp is killed, it takes more than a dozen years to replace him or her as an actively breeding family member; most females birth no more than six offspring in a lifetime. Female gorillas produce a mere two to six offspring over a 40-year lifespan.

Laura Darby: “Lao di ka, an orphan chimp we weren’t able to take in so, current whereabouts unknown.” Photo by Laura Darby in the DRC

Saving the babies

There is some good news for great apes. There are several chimpanzee rescue centers in Africa, including the Jane Goodall Institute’s (JGI) Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre, which cares for about 160 orphans. A new Humane Society chimp sanctuary in Liberia is already almost full. The five chimps that Darby sent to the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center are part of a community of 73 chimps, the DRC’s only chimp sanctuary.

All of these rescued animals have lost their mothers and families; some were snatched young for the trade in pets and performing animals, and then confiscated. Last year saw the largest influx at Lwiro since the center opened in 2002, with 10 new arrivals. So far this year, there have been five newcomers.

“We don’t know why we’re getting so many,” says the center’s Itsaso Velez del Burgo: perhaps the sanctuary is more widely known, collaborations with protected area staff is paying off, or maybe poaching is up. But the facility is at capacity, both in terms of space and budget: operating costs run $12,000 per month.

There are too few places for rescued apes to go. “If you’re in a country that doesn’t have a sanctuary, or it’s at capacity, and there’s a chimp tied to a chair outside a café, where does it go?” asks Darby.

Rescued chimps at play. Photo by Itsaso Velez del Burgo / Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center 

Orphaned chimps are strong, says del Burgo: given quality food and love, they recover quickly. Orphaned gorillas, however, are fragile. They sometimes succumb simply from the emotional trauma of losing their mothers; only about one in five even survives to the point where it can be taken to a sanctuary, says Darby. Fourteen Grauer’s gorillas have been rescued by the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center — Africa’s only gorilla sanctuary.

Lwiro’s priority now is to find a safe place to reintroduce a large chimpanzee family, says del Burgo, adding that it’s difficult to find a place without rebels or poachers, a process that could take years. In the meantime, the center is creating relationships with local people by building schools and clinics with the agreement that residents won’t kill chimps — or Lwiro support will end.

This and other outreach programs are making a difference. JGI’s sanctuary, for example, is working with communities in eastern DRC, employing local monitoring teams to patrol forests in two-week rotations; local councils then address threats. Likewise, the African Wildlife Foundation has worked with a mosaic of communities in the Congo’s Maringa-Lopori basin, a critical bonobo area.

Young rescued chimps are often able to form new bonds with others of their kind and eventually can establish new troops which can be returned to the wild, though the recovery process is a slow one, taking years within sanctuaries. Photo by Itsaso Velez del Burgo / Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center 

African governments are beginning to work together to fight poaching and improve enforcement, and some are drafting tougher laws against poachers and wildlife traffickers. Resourceful NGOs are also assisting law enforcement to curb the trade. But convictions for wildlife crimes remain rare.

According to one of the continent’s most effective undercover wildlife investigators, Ofir Drori, who heads the nonprofit Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement (the Eagle Network), “the first obstacle [in the fight against trafficking] is corruption, the second obstacle is corruption and the third obstacle is corruption. Unless we deal with that, we are going nowhere.”

Not eating apes

There have been many unsuccessful attempts to curb consumption of bushmeat. But it’s hard to tell people not to eat, says Darby. “Many people you meet in Central Congo are starving to death, so for them, killing a chimp, even if it’s illegal, is basic survival.”

A common thread Darby found among Congo basin communities that don’t eat great apes is a sacred reverence for these animals — respect that she views as the most effective poaching deterrent. School programs that teach the importance of great apes from an early age impart a similar reverence, she adds. “Trying to impart that kind of philosophy [to children and adults] may be more effective than trying to strong-arm people into not eating apes.”

Darby shares one conversion story: a top tracker that she worked with once hunted with poison arrows, and on a particularly successful foray, killed a small family of chimps. When he came upon a dying mother holding her infant, it reminded him so strongly of his own wife hugging their daughter that he never hunted chimpanzees again, and began working on conservation projects.

Cress sees the development of empathy and compassion as crucial. He likens the trade in chimps and gorillas to “human trafficking with [body] hair,” he says. “Apes have always been in the crosshairs, [but] they are just like us. To me, the biggest worry is that if we can’t save the species that look just like us — or are one genetic tick away — what hope do we have for ourselves?”

Jane Goodall sums up the situation succinctly: “If we don’t respond to the bushmeat crisis, we may well lose chimpanzees and other endangered species in Africa and around the world in the next 20 years.”

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Conservationists haven’t lost hope for Africa’s great apes. But time is running out to protect them in the wild. Photo by Laura Darby in the DRC
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