From Cameroon’s hinterlands to the urban centers, vendors openly display smoked monkeys, gorillas, snakes, antelopes, crocodiles and more from the country’s receding forests. For several years, the lucrative trade in meat from wild animals has thrived, despite anti-poaching laws.
Conservation groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Society warn that at the current rate, critically endangered species will be completely wiped out over the next two decades.
Elvis Ngolle Ngolle, Cameroon’s Minister of Forests and Wildlife, says the situation is outrageous: "We see people selling bushmeat everywhere, anywhere, in public places, along the roadsides. And it’s more or less putting a shame on our dignity and our commitment to fight illegal poaching."
Boy holds an antelope in Bertuoua, southeastern Cameroon
The government has worked aggressively to stop poachers. The Ministry of Forests and Wildlife has been working with the police, the army and conservation organizations to crack down on the trade.
The government has prohibited the transport of bushmeat to markets on trains, timber trucks and pubic transportation. Also, a number of radio campaigns have been conducted to try to sensitize people to the importance of the issue. But observers say the campaigns have failed to stop the high demand for the meat.
Tons of it continue to reach the markets and enrich traders, who take advantage of the absence of security patrols in remote areas or bribe their ways through checkpoints.
Wildlife meat traders say the trade cannot be curbed until the government provides traders with other ways to earn a living.
One woman, who did not wish to be identified, said she is quite aware that bushmeat trade severely endangers protected animals. But she said that she needs the money from the business to send her children to school and buy medication. She has been the sole income earner in the family since her husband lost his job with a logging company last year, the result of the global economic crisis.
A conservation group, The Last Great Apes, or LAGA, says hunters armed with illegally owned high caliber rifles have formed networks to kill 3,000 gorillas, 400 chimpanzees and 4,000 elephants yearly for meat and ivory in Cameroon and neighboring countries.
Boy holding bush meat (squirrel) in Bertoua in southeastern Cameroon
Cameroon’s wildlife law dates back to 1994. It strictly prohibits the sale and trafficking of endangered species, with penalties ranging from fines of half a billion francs [about one million US dollars] to life imprisonment. But administrative red tape delayed the implementation of the law until six years ago, when the first violator was prosecuted and jailed.
Ever since, LAGA has been helping the government enforce the legislation. It uses undercover agents to track down illegal wildlife dealers and hand them over to prosecutors. Gradually, things are changing: an average two persons are arrested, fined or jailed every month for breaking the wildlife law.
The clampdown against unauthorized bushmeat trade has entered another phase. Elvis Ngolle Ngolle says the government introduced a new program at the beginning of the year: "Bushmeat should only be sold in Cameroon in markets or public places that have been designated by local authorities. That way our eco-guards will be able to move around to ensure that any meat which is not sold in designated markets will be considered illegal," he says.
Two women vendors sell bush meat stews at market near Yaounde, Cameroon
The bushmeat that will be legal to sell includes species that are not endangered including cane rats. The government will penalize anyone who sells meats from elephants, monkeys and other protected animals.
Other idea being considered by the government and partner conservation organizations include the creation of farms to breed wild animals, like cane rats and porcupines, for sale. They also propose working with traditional chiefs and their subjects to protect threatened flora and fauna.
The government is also recruiting, training and better arming forest guards to make them more effective. And it’s working to provide other jobs for bushmeat traders in farming, including in the development of cocoa and coffee plantations.