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African Forests Struggle Under Demand For Bush Meat

As populations expand in West and Central Africa, the demand for affordable meat has steadily grown. The result has been a boom in the market for bush meat and an increased strain on the regional ecosystem.

In Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, a dozen or so vendors man stalls lining a dusty path near the city's central train station. They stand chatting,as they wait for customers, pausing occasionally to swat away the flies that settle on their merchandise.

Alain is a seller at one of the city's many markets for bush meat and gives a quick tour of his wares.

"We have small dried meat, like antelope, like porcupine," said Alain. "We have monkey."

According to the conservation group, The Jane Goodall Institute, more than one million metric tons of bush meat are removed annually from Central Africa's Congo Basin alone. Local populations across West and Central Africa have traditionally relied on the meat of wild animals as a chief source of protein.

"People come from all sides to come buy meat here for restaurants," explained Alain. "Another is for eating at the house with all the family. No, we don't have money to pay meat at the supermarket. We don't have money."

However, as regional populations grow and forests quickly disappear, the bush meat trade has had an increasingly harmful impact on local ecosystems. The project coordinator for the British-based conservation group Born Free Foundation, David Jay explains.

"There is also a big problem of forests that are essentially intact but are almost devoid of animal life," he said. "That could in turn damage the forests, because obviously there's a delicate ecological balance. And definitely its been shown that the forests start to change what plants that are actually in them, if you remove animals like elephants and gorillas."

Many protected species have suffered under the pressures of widespread poaching. Hunters regularly kill chimpanzees and large primates. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they've been known to use rocket launchers to bring down hippos. Elephants, once common throughout the region, have all but disappeared.

But experts say now, at least, some progress is being made to regulate the trade and help put a stop to the killing of protected species.

The project director for the Cameroon Environmental Watch, Jean-Sylvestre Makak says the level of involvement from civil society groups has grown greatly in the past 10 years.

During the same period of time, he says Cameroon's government has upped its efforts as well, creating two new agencies charged with keeping an eye on what goes on in Cameroon's forests.

However, Mr. Makak says, there is still much to be done. Populations continue to grow. Forest concessions can be as large as 70,000 hectares. And poor countries like Cameroon have neither the staff nor the financial means to adequately patrol them. He wants more international investment.

Some forestry agents, Mr. Makak says, don't even get a motorcycle and are expected to cover vast areas. "We can't blame them, " he says, "for not being able to do their jobs. "