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Science & Ideas 10/9/00

Hunting to extinction
A wildlife crisis is forcing conservationists to rethink their tactics

By Michael Satchell

Wildlife biologist John Robinson is in his element. In the shadows of the rain forest, he spots a group of red river hogs rooting alongside a muddy wallow. Nearby are a pair of okapis, a sort of minigiraffe as handsome as the wild pigs are ugly. Gorillas forage near a fallen tree that provides a lofty throne for a powerful silverback. With a background cacophony of screeching monkeys and calling birds, the scene is sublime.

But this is no Eden. It is instead a brilliantly executed $43 million, 6.5-acre habitat that is home to 23 gorillas and 54 other exotic species at the Bronx Zoo. For Robinson, a senior vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, it is a reminder of how things used to be in the world's wild places that he has studied with growing dismay for more than two decades. "Many of the forests are now being strip-mined of wildlife," he says. "They are empty and eerily silent."

The latest global conservation crisis is the result of massive, unregulated hunting of mammals, birds, and reptiles for human consumption–the so-called bushmeat trade. Vast areas of virgin forest have been penetrated by logging roads and laid to waste by giant timber companies. Hunters travel these once inaccessible areas, snare or shoot everything from rodents to elephants, and transport the meat to market. The process began some 20 years ago in Asia, giving rise to a new conservation term: empty-forest syndrome. Today, the logging juggernaut is rolling through West and Central Africa's rain forests and through South and Central America. Burgeoning human populations, rising living standards, and conflict are also driving the demand for bushmeat. Annual consumption by 25 million people has reached more than 1 million metric tons in the Congo Basin alone–the equivalent of 4 million cattle–and wildlife is now the primary source of protein for increasing numbers of people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Worldwide trade. While most of the game feeds subsistence villagers and urban dwellers, bushmeat is also finding its way to ethnic restaurants in Europe and even to the United States. Federal inspectors in August seized luggage from a Ghana Airways flight arriving at New York's Kennedy Airport and found the smoked limbs and torsos of 60 red, white, and black colobus monkeys, apparently bound for a meat market near Yankee Stadium. Soon after that gruesome discovery, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced that after a seven-year search one variety of red colobus monkey native to Ghana and the Ivory Coast had been declared extinct, only the second permanent loss of a primate since the early 1700s. Unsustainable hunting and habitat fragmented by logging are blamed for the extinction of Miss Waldron's red colobus and for dramatic reductions in populations of Asia's orangutans and Africa's gorillas and chimpanzees. Last week, the World Conservation Union issued its quadrennial Red List survey of threatened wildlife and concluded that "the global extinction crisis is as bad or worse than believed with dramatic declines . . . of many species." It found that the number of critically endangered primates increased from 13 to 19 in the past four years, spurring the newest save-the-species crisis as the great apes join tigers, whales, pandas, and rhinos among the world's most threatened animal icons.

The bushmeat calamity is also a watershed for the global conservation community, which has watched the problem develop for a decade or longer but has until recently been slow to respond. Today wildlife organizations acknowledge that years of internecine jealousy, competition for money, reluctant collaboration, piecemeal approaches, and unimaginative solutions to increasingly complex problems–save a species instead of protect an ecosystem–have failed to safeguard the world's biodiversity. Battles have been won–Brazil's threatened Atlantic coastal rain forest is flourishing once again, and Africa's elephants are rebounding from the ivory trade–but the overall war is being lost. Despite some $4 billion spent on conservation over the past decade by governments, private groups, the United Nations, and the World Bank, 12 percent of mammals and 11 percent of birds and plants are facing extinction. "Conservation is in crisis," says world-renowned field biologist George Schaller. "Conventional approaches have not worked."

One new strategy is to bury the old scattershot, go-it-alone approach. Alliances are being created not only within the conservation community but with the logging, energy, mining, and construction giants operating in–and sometimes despoiling–unprotected regions in the developing world. These extractive industries, long regarded as adversaries, are now being cultivated as potential allies–and as potential donors, since many have bigger budgets than the nations they work in. The empty-forest syndrome was the catalyst for last year's formation of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force that brought together 30 international wildlife organizations to battle forest poaching. CIB, a large German timber company in Congo, for example, has agreed to confiscate guns from its workers who previously hunted their own food. The company will import meat to feed them and crack down on poachers.

Protecting hot spots. When energy giants Enron and Shell began building a natural-gas pipeline in Bolivia, conservation groups persuaded the companies to commit $10 million for Bolivian conservation, a huge sum for a small country. The World Wildlife Fund brokered a $270 million deal with the United Nations and the World Bank to preserve 91 million acres, or about 10 percent of Brazil's Amazon ecosystem. Conservation International negotiated with Mobil and a group of energy companies to minimize industrial impact on lands being explored for oil and gas before they were set aside in Peru, safeguarding a so-called biological "hot spot." There are 25 such hot spots around the globe; they cover just 1.4 percent of the world's land surface but contain 60 percent of the animal and plant species.

To meet complex threats like the bushmeat crisis and the triple challenge of rising population, poverty, and consumption that are hastening the destruction of wildlife, conservation leaders are looking to big business for new talent and a vast infusion of money. In a field dominated by biologists, there's a need to recruit economists, social scientists, food specialists, and management experts. How, for example, do you produce and distribute alternative sources of protein to feed more than 25 million Africans if you are trying to get them to quit eating wildlife? Heather Eves, who heads the bushmeat task force, is pondering how to persuade the Fortune 500 companies to each donate $5 million to establish an endowment to tackle such problems.

In August, Conservation International staged a five-day conference at the California Institute of Technology that brought together conservation and corporate luminaries like famed Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson and Intel cofounder Gordon Moore. The goal: Lay out an agenda to preserve biodiversity and estimate the cost. Preliminary calculations from the gathering call for $4 billion to adequately protect the world's parks, wilderness preserves, and indigenous areas and $40 billion to safeguard the biologically priceless hot spots that are 60 percent unprotected. Conservation International President Russell Mittermeier is confident a quarter of that sum can be raised over the next 10 years from private sources and the remainder leveraged through the world's public institutions–if the conservation community makes a compelling case. "The industrial barons of the past gave great sums for great causes," he says. "With the Internet, we're on the edge of a new era of wealth and philanthropy. Hopefully, this will be our time."

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