- Hunting for bushmeat can impact the populations of rare and threatened wildlife in forests around the world.
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo, subsistence hunting is often intertwined with the trade of bushmeat and in some cases live animals to sate the demand from larger markets, which can increase the pressure on wildlife populations.
- The trade of bushmeat provides one of the few sources of income for hunters, porters and traders, as well as a source of protein for families, in the town of Lodja, which sits close to forests that are home to unique species.
- Activists in Lodja and the DRC are working to save live animals from entering the illicit trade of endangered species and encourage alternative sources of income to the commercial trade of wild meat and animals.
READER ADVISORY: This story contains images of dead animals that some viewers may find disturbing.
LODJA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Disaster struck Héritier Mpo’s tiny NGO in the central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Aug. 8, 2022. In a single night, a fire destroyed years of judicial documents and computers with digital records he hoped might one day bring illegal hunters to justice.
The instant someone sparked that blaze in the offices of APPACOL-PRN in the town of Lodja, the threats Mpo and his family had faced for his work rescuing live primates metastasized from the hypothetical to the real. Mpo said he’s sure the fire was arson. Though authorities have yet to muster an official investigation, he sees no other way it could have started.
Part of the trouble in Lodja is that the illegal trade in the meat and body parts of protected species intertwines with legal hunting. The rows of meat stalls in the central market provide ready protein in a town where other sources are scarce.
In debates about the regulation of hunting and the wildlife trade and ending poaching in government agencies, academic papers and scientific conferences, it’s often a struggle to account fully for the motivations of, and impacts on, the people who live closest to where it starts.
But in places like Lodja, the manner in which people provide for their families and the protection of the country’s vibrant array of unique and threatened wildlife are sometimes pitted against one another, leading to violent collisions. Those involved in the hunting and trading of wild animals say it’s one of the few avenues for earning hard currency available to them, cut off as they are from much of the rest of the country. The changing global economics and their impact on day-to-day expenses mean that even in remote parts of the DRC, cash has become an axis around which daily life increasingly orbits. While subsistence agriculture and trade-and-barter systems once provided the bulk of what a household needed, paying for a smartphone and credit to connect to a network, or a solar panel and battery to provide light in the home requires money.
In the background, the DRC’s growing population and the influence of distant wild animal markets also invisibly shape the context.
If the loss of the NGO’s office was a message for Mpo and his team to stop interfering with the trade of wild animals in the region, it’s one they haven’t heeded.
He said he and his team remain undaunted by what he calls “an act of barbarism.” Still lacking an office, he now works “under a tree” out in the open when he’s at home in Lodja and not in the field to follow up on the latest reports of baby monkeys or the occasional bonobo separated from their families. It’s not unusual for him to make days-long treks back to Lodja with several of them on his motorbike before shipping on to one of the sanctuaries in the DRC that specializes in looking after these “orphans.”
Mpo remembers first seeing in the town market stalls the body parts of monkeys, of bonobos, which is a great ape like us — the images, he said, grabbed hold of his heart.
“I can’t stand it,” he told Mongabay via voice message.
A disconnected epicenter
Perched on the sprawling grassland just beyond the Congo Basin rainforest in the central DRC, Lodja is mostly disconnected from the DRC’s larger cities.
The narrow Lukenie River skirting the southern boundary of the town and snaking into the forests to the west is only navigable from Lodja in the wet season. A few unpaved roads converge in the town, but they degrade quickly the further they spider out from the center and are often only passable by a combination of motorbike, canoe shuttles and determination, particularly in the wet season. A small dirt airstrip sits about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the town center. It’s long enough to land a small commercial airliner, but too much rain renders it too dangerous to use.
The town sits close to the forests of the world’s second-largest rainforest, which are still home to sought-after wildlife species. In spite of its isolation — or perhaps because of it — Lodja has become a vital node for a network of traders, transporters and market vendors, as well as the shadier elements of the trade that seek to get smoked game and Instagram-worthy pets to more lucrative markets in the capital Kinshasa and deep-pocketed collectors abroad.
An orphaned bonobo (Pan paniscus), an endangered great ape that lives only in the DRC, can be an especially lucrative find for traders looking to meet the demand from countries like China, Libya and the United Arab Emirates to see these animals up close and perhaps to snap a selfie with them. Each has become a major transit point, a destination, or both, for illegally trafficked great apes, according to an April 2023 report from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).
In Lodja, a town of about 70,000 people according to 2016 figures, a bustling section of its market teems with bushmeat. Over three long rows with at least 30 different stalls in all, there’s an eye-stinging pungency of animals killed, butchered and smoked in the forest and then carried on foot or by bicycle for days or weeks to market.
“Here, tons and tons enter the market per week,” Mpo said, and from a variety of different animals.
Louise Mpala said she sells the meat of wild boar, buffalo, antelope and gazelle from her stall. And then there are the primates, monkeys mostly. Stacks of the meat, burnt and twisted around the sticks used to spread the carcasses open for smoking and drying, sit waiting to be sold. Much of it has decayed to the point that it all looks eerily similar, though the occasional anatomical structure remains intact: The distinctive pinched nose of a duiker, a singed porcupine carcass clinging to a small branch, the vaguely humanoid face of a primate fixed in a permanent scowl — all serve as macabre reminders of the bounty’s mortal cost.
Mpala said she has no option other than to sell the meat the hunters bring her in Lodja. It’s what pays for her children’s education and their food and clothes.
A 2014 publication by the World Food Programme found that nearly 70% of people living in the territory of Lodja, comprising the town and surrounding area, were either severely or moderately food insecure. Many young children around town have distended bellies, often a symptom of too little dietary protein.
Most of the town’s residents live in thatched or earthen homes; few can afford homes made of brick or with tin roofs. Most residents farm crops like cassava, maize and rice. Surplus rice and maize might fetch a few hundred francs in the market, but most of what’s grown goes to feeding the family that cultivated it.
A few households raise goats, sheep and pigs. Mpo said the surrounding savannas could pasture cattle and thus provide an alternative source of protein. But herds and flocks are often seen as a form of savings, making it difficult to justify slaughtering an animal for meat unless there’s an economic need. What’s more, scant access to electricity means refrigerating any surplus meat isn’t usually an option.
Plus, starting a cattle operation takes upfront capital that most people don’t have, Mpo added. Those factors conspire to make hunting wildlife a quicker way to meet the need for both protein and cash.
“The activities are very intense to meet the demand created by the consumption in Lodja, which is the largest [population center] in Sankuru province,” Gaspard Shekomba, the province’s environment coordinator, told Mongabay.
The potential for cash income, even a meager amount, leads some to trek for days or weeks to the far-flung areas with higher concentrations of wildlife. Hunters and transporters travel to the territory of Kole east of Lodja, or north to the territory of Lomela, adjacent to Salonga National Park.
Salonga is one of the largest and remotest tropical forest parks in the world. It’s home to forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), bonobos and myriad other species, and the southeastern edge sits about 200 km (124 miles) from Lodja.
Yolo Ombonga Emmanuel, a bushmeat porter, initially told Mongabay that the meat he brings to town sometimes comes from inside Salonga National Park. The trip takes about 11 days. Ombonga and other transporters fill baskets they carry on their backs, or strap makeshift crates of meat to bicycles and push them along the province’s degraded roads.
Ombonga later changed his statement, saying that the meat wasn’t sourced from Salonga because guards maintain strict controls on access. “The hunters do not enter the park, but rather they hunt in the surrounding forests,” he said.
Still, they have to watch out for security guards, Ombonga said. Hunters also use weapons that don’t make noise, like arrows and twists of wire fashioned into snares, to catch game, suggesting that they may operate within the park’s boundaries.
Ombonga said that over time, they’ve had to push deeper into the forests around the park as the areas closer to Lodja were cleaned out of their wildlife. Today, the volume of bushmeat passing through Lodja is more than what’s needed to meet local demand, say people like Mpo and Shekomba who know the community.
Far from home, hunters set up base camps in the forest, from which they can go on forays into the forest and where they can smoke large amounts of meat to preserve it, at least well enough for the trip to Lodja. These camps are evidence that a hunter is not just going into the forest to procure meat for his own family’s table or even just those in Lodja, Shekomba said.
“He is not going to procure game for his subsistence.”
Commercial markets exert their pull
Kinshasa is a bustling megapolis of some 17 million people situated just below a wide maw in the course of the Congo River. Though poverty in the city abounds, it’s home to growing wealth, that, if massively unequal in distribution, shapes the city’s economy. That wealth also helps drive the demand for wild meat from the country’s forests, said Franck Chantereau, who runs a rescue center for primates called the J.A.C.K. sanctuary in the southern DRC.
Chantereau, who is French and first came to the DRC in the early 1990s, said he’s sympathetic to the struggles that people in communities like Lodja face.
“They don’t have anything to eat,” he said. “They need to eat. They need to hunt, of course.”
The problem now is the messy braiding together of hunting for daily survival and the influence of the dozens of markets in Kinshasa that exact a much stiffer toll on wildlife populations near Lodja and other remote outposts.
“Today, it is really a commercial business,” Chantereau said. “What is happening is completely different, and the forest is empty very quickly.”
It’s next to impossible, researchers say, to know exactly how many apes go missing from Congolese forests every year. Killing or kidnapping any ape in the DRC is illegal, encouraging participants to maintain a clandestine trade in live apes and ape meat. The authors of the April 2023 GI-TOC report counted only nine bonobos reported as illegally traded in the DRC and abroad between 2016 and 2022. But that figure doesn’t include rescues by people like Mpo and their handoffs to sanctuaries like J.A.C.K. Iris Ho, campaigns and policy head at the U.S.-based Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), said seizures of more than 100 great apes had occurred between 2020 and early 2022, according to the GI-TOC report.
Meanwhile, the IUCN and the ICCN, the DRC’s nature conservation authority, estimated in 2012 that between 15,000 and 20,000 bonobos remained in the wild. Though the data are spotty, Pan paniscus is endangered, according to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, and its numbers declining. WWF DRC figures around 12,600 live in Salonga National Park, making it a key refuge.
Hunters are an often-unseen part of the machinery that supplies the near-bottomless demand for bushmeat that Kinshasa — as well as markets catering to the Central African diaspora in Paris, Brussels and beyond — and they’re quick to take anything in the forest that moves, Chantereau said. Sometimes, their efforts yield more than just meat. But taking a baby chimpanzee or bonobo is more significant to wild populations than the loss of a single animal. Mothers and other family members will often unwaveringly defend babies to the death, Chantereau said. It also typically takes a rare combination of skill, experience and resources to keep an orphaned baby primate alive after tearing it away from its mother.
A 2013 report on the illegal ape trade concluded that five to 10 animals die for every one taken from the wild.
Statistics also suggest the trade may be expanding, according to the GI-TOC report, and with it the pressure of those trying to protect the DRC’s wildlife. Chantereau and his family have also been the target of threats, and the demand for live great apes may have played a role in the kidnapping of three of J.A.C.K’s chimpanzees in September 2022.
Hunting and transporting game is hard work and can be dangerous. But it can yield a meaningful payday in a country where the World Bank estimates almost two-thirds of the population live on less than $2.15 per day. A 2022 study in The African Journal of Ecology sought to gauge recent trends in the bushmeat trade in neighboring Maniema province, which is home to Lomami National Park. Home to bonobos and other wildlife, Lomami is north of the provincial capital Kindu, a large town about 270 km (168 miles) east of Lodja.
The study’s authors found that a porter typically paid a hunter the equivalent of about $4.70 for the carcass of a small monkey and $4 for a duiker from the forests around Lomami National Park in 2020. In turn, he might net $25 for carrying a 25- to 35-kilogram (55- to 77-pound) load into Kindu.
But the stakes, both risk and reward, increase considerably if a hunter or porter in the DRC is willing and able to capture a baby bonobo. They might make $200 for a single live animal, according to the GI-TOC report. A “rural middleman” in a place like Lodja could make as much as $450 for their role. (Fees further downstream in the supply chain are exponentially higher: An exporter, whose job it is to ease the exit of apes out of airports in the DRC with doctored CITES permits, could make $40,000 on a bonobo, which in turn might sell for $300,000 in Dubai.)
The far-off forces of rising demand ratchet up the pressure on wildlife in places like Lodja. Gaspard Shekomba said the pace at which his office must respond to incidents involving partially or fully protected species is hard to keep up with. He doesn’t have enough agents, they aren’t well paid, and travel throughout Sankuru province is difficult, if not entirely impossible at times during the year.
In the week prior to Mongabay’s visit to Lodja in February, he said, his team had at least four cases involving protected turtles, monkeys and parrots. Shekomba has also come across the meat of endangered forest elephants and hippopotamuses, which are protected in the DRC and thus illegal to kill, as well as monkeys called guenons from the genus Cercopithecus, some of which are also protected. He also said hunters try to take live gray parrots (Psittacus erithacus) because of the high price they can fetch from collectors besotted with their ability to “speak.”
Hunters caught with meat from protected animals will often say they aren’t aware which species are protected by the DRC, Shekomba said. That makes it important to get the word out about these animals and how to identify them, he added.
Indeed, an important aspect of Héritier’s Mpo’s work, when he’s not ferrying captured animals to sanctuaries like Lola Ya Bonobo just outside of Kinshasa, is imparting that information to the people who live in and around Lodja.
“Héritier is really focused on communities because they are the key,” Chantereau said.
“I have to raise awareness,” Mpo said, “so that the community can understand that animals also need to live.”
Mpo said he and his colleagues do collect information and investigate illegal hunting and kidnapping of live primates. But he said the judges and prosecutors he’s approached seem to have little appetite for holding potential offenders to account.
As recently as March, Mpo and his team helped rescue a baby bonobo named Ikoto by motorbike from Kole to Lodja. They then put Ikoto on a flight to Kinshasa, and the animal is now at Lola Ya Bonobo.
Mpo and Shekomba both acknowledged the importance of finding different sources of income and protein for the people of Lodja. Scaling up coffee growing in the region has potential, Shekomba said, adding, “It is a real source of income.”
Fish farming also provides both protein and the potential for cash, he said. Even now, tilapia ponds tended by several families lie in the valleys just beyond the center of Lodja.
Indeed, the 2022 African Journal of Ecology study suggests that domestic meat could supplant game and reduce the pressure on wildlife as a result. Like Lodja, Kindu had become a focal point in the wild animal trade.
“When we started, the bushmeat market was huge,” Terese Hart, one of the study’s co-authors and a biologist with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, told Mongabay.
Beginning in 2017, park managers instituted a voucher system to track the flow of wild meat from the surroundings, where hunting of unprotected animals is allowed. The vouchers allowed rangers to count and check the species composition of porters’ loads. Between 2017 and 2021, the analysis found that the overall numbers in these counts were declining, but the proportion of large animals remained about the same. That led the authors to conclude that the forests weren’t empty but that some other factor must be at play.
The authors suggest the risk and cost of bringing meat to Kindu have diminished the trade, especially as domestic meat has become more common and affordable in the town’s markets. Cattle and fish farms in particular have become more prevalent, Hart said. Of course, she noted, draining savanna lands and turning them over to pastureland for cattle is “a double-edged sword” due to the environmental issues that can result. Overgrazing by cattle can lead to desertification, alter naturally occurring plant communities and displace wildlife species from these ecosystems.
At present, Lodja lacks the economic support that Kindu has had recently from the gold and cobalt mines along the banks of the Lualaba River. That boost has allowed at least some residents to invest in cattle.
Still, the influence of outside markets for meat and for the live animal trade presents a knottier problem. A more stable source of protein may sate the needs of local communities, but outside demand may keep the gears of the trade turning, leading to continued losses of the DRC’s wildlife.
Despite such global challenges, Mpo says he remains committed to his work to ensure that bonobos and other animals can “live in their natural environment.”
“The big reason that pushed me to do this work is the love I have for animals,” he added. “I’m not going to see animals suffer.” So, he said, he will continue to respond to calls about orphaned monkeys and bonobos, to share his belief that these animals must remain part of the natural environment to maintain ecological balance, and to weather the threats to his safety while working to find alternative livelihoods for the people involved in the trade.
“He is more than a hero,” Chantereau said, though for Mpo, it seems to be a calling he can’t avoid.
“If we give in,” Mpo said, “we open the door to anyone to do anything to these animals.”
Banner image: More than two dozen stalls in three rows of Lodja’s market offer bushmeat for sale. Image by Didier Makal for Mongabay.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
Akakpo, K., Randriamamonjy, J., & Ulimwengu, J. M. (2014). Comprehensive food security and vulnerability analysis (CFSVA): Democratic Republic of Congo. WFP, IFPRI. Retrieved from https://ebrary.ifpri.org/digital/collection/p15738coll2/id/128957
Hart, J. A., Omene, O., & Hart, T. B. (2022). Vouchers control for illegal bushmeat transport and reveal dynamics of authorised wild meat trade in central Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). African Journal of Ecology, 60(2), 222-228. doi:10.1111/aje.12965
Spee, L. B., Hazel, S. J., Dal Grande, E., Boardman, W. S. J., & Chaber, A. L. (2019). Endangered exotic pets on social media in the Middle East: Presence and impact. Animals, 9(8). doi:10.3390/ani9080480
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