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Monkeys, Apes are Being Eaten to Extinction
July 25, 2000 08:31 CDT

From a report by Joseph B. Verrengia of the Associated Press

The first wild monkey Anthony Rose ever saw in Cameroon was dead gutshot and still next to a porcupine and a pair of tiny red antelope. "A poor day's catch," his host apologized, gesturing with his gun. In two weeks of barnstorming rain forest boomtowns in central Africa, Rose, a conservationist from Los Angeles, counted more primates dead than alive.

They were stacked, stiff like cordwood, on the beds of logging trucks bound for distant cities. Sinewy arms and legs were smoking over trailside fires. Their fresh red meat was piled in open-air market stalls as women listlessly fanned away the flies and questions.

Rare apes and monkeys are among the world's most fervently protected and extensively studied creatures. Yet they are being hunted into extinction by commercial poachers carrying automatic weapons.

Scientists fear these poachers will exterminate many of the world's 618 primate species including all the great apes from equatorial jungles in 10 years. In central Africa, more like five.

They are comparing the slaughter to that of the American bison in the 19th century.

"Facing that apes are on the menu is hard enough," said Rose. "Getting them off the menu and finding alternatives for millions of people is enormously difficult."

Biologists from several environmental groups, like Conservation International, are estimating that hunters are dragging 1 million metric tons of game from the forests every year, an amount equal to about 4 million cattle.

During the 20th century, chimpanzee numbers have declined 95 percent from an original population of 2 million. This descent has been seen more since the 1970s when Jane Goodall estimated that there were still approximately 1 million spread through 21 countries.

Gorillas most likely were never that plentiful, but their ranks have dwindled. Field counts from Nigeria to Rwanda since 1998 show at least three subspecies number only in the hundreds.

Things are just as bleak in Asia. The orangutan population there has been reduced to fewer than 20,000 in Borneo and Sumatra.

To the hunters, they are meat. And money.

To scientists, primates are the perfect models for our evolutionary past. They demonstrate many of the same qualities that we have combined to create culture, such as emotions, use of tools, communications and problem solving capabilities.

Also, biologically, they carry versions of human diseases such as AIDS, Ebola and other tropical diseases. These diseases have infected millions of humans, and primates may provide the cures.

Imagine a world where a person like Jane Goodall could study mankind's closest relatives only in a zoo's substitute rain forest or in a laboratory cage? It's closer to true than you think.

"Traditional conservation is failing on every front," said celebrated photographer Karl Ammann.

Ammann, who has been documenting the escalating hunt for a decade, sometimes with concealed cameras, considers primate-eaters as "98.5 percent cannibals" which is a direct reference to the percentage of DNA that humans share with chimpanzees.

"A drastic new approach might very well represent the last chance for most of the primates and other wildlife," Ammann said.

Conservationists might not agree with Ammann's finger-pointing but agree that their scattered protection efforts, hampered by infighting for donor dollars, are being overwhelmed by larger forces such as:

Overpopulation. Civil wars. Poverty. The fall of tribal traditions. And a voracious appetite for game, or "bush meat [ link: http://biosynergy.org/bushmeat/papers.htm ]." Antelope, elephant, wild pigs and, most worrisome to ecologists, primates, which breed too slowly to replenish their ranks.

In the heart of the African continent, tribes like the Baka pygmies have been hunting for eons, but their small villages only nibbled at the forest's bounty.

However, beginning in the 1980s, ancestral hunting ranges were mainly taken over by commercial hunters across Africa's equatorial belt, including Guinea, Liberia,the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Congo. Increasingly, the native hunters are abandoning their snares to join into the more lucrative commercial hunt.

Poachers can wipe out entire social groups of primates in single burst of automatic gunfire. If the infants are not killed, they are then captured for the illegal pet trade or even wind up in cramped orphanages, excluded from the natural gene pool.

Westerners admit they were dazed by how swiftly the hunt has spread.

"The crisis literally erupted as we were sitting there studying the species," said biologist Heather Eves, coordinator of the recently formed Bush Meat Crisis Task Force in Silver Spring, Md. "It was a shocking thing for all of us."

"What's been done in the past isn't going to work," Eves said. "We don't have time for each group to try its own project. We need an unprecedented collaborative effort."


So is the answer to pay off poachers? Are there different methods?

A recent meeting at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago between a growing chorus of primate specialists recommended urgent steps: Pay hunters not to pull the trigger. Compensate farmers for damages caused by crop-raiding species.

"We pay fishermen not to overfish the Georges Bank," said Boston College anthropologist David Wilkie. "In Yellowstone, we pay the rancher when wolves eat his sheep."

"Compensation is a necessary part of biodiversity conservation," Wilkie said. "If it's OK to do it here, then we've got to have the same attitude toward Africa. The international community has to shoulder most of the costs."

Already, a few small projects are setting the example. In eastern Cameroon, hunters shoot as many as 800 lowland gorillas annually. At that rate, the region's population of 3,000 will be wiped out quickly.

Therefore, two years ago, a group called the Bush Meat Project [ link: http://biosynergy.org/bushmeat/ ] in Los Angeles offered one hunter, Joseph Melloh, $200 per month to lay down his weapons. Melloh then recruited a few others who are now also subsidized by Western donors. The group's next step: establishing an ecotourism preserve that is strictly protected by the former hunters. They hope to demonstrate that living primates are worth more money than dead ones.

"It's a cash economy now and whoever has cash has the power," said Rose, a social psychologist who directs the Bush Meat Project. "One hundred bucks can have a big influence."

If money is not the answer for some, then what are the answers?

Punishing people is difficult in Africa. Central authority is frequently corrupt or weak. At least a dozen countries are beset by war, genocide and famine, causing economic struggle. The country's greatest wealth is locked into their natural resources. The petroleum market collapsed in the 1980s leaving two stable markets, forests and mines.

European logging consortiums sign 30-year contracts for huge tracts of virgin forests that yield wood veneers for furniture and luxury car interiors.

Rather than import food, these companies encourage hunters to sell bush meat to the thousands of loggers residing in muddy shantytowns. At times, the hunters even rent firearms from local police to do the job.

Others, like armies and refugees have also taken up residence in the forest. They rely on bush meat, as well.

Locals might eat the primates' hands, feet and entrails. Heads and genitals are sold as fetishes and folk medicines locally and abroad. The choice cuts are then loaded onto trucks, river ferries and trains destined for city markets hundreds of miles away. A chimp might bring $20; a gorilla, $60.

Because of these problems, conservationists are now asking lending agencies like the World Bank to attach wildlife protection standards to foreign aid and development packages.

They want to tax ammunition and prohibit the transport of bush meat on logging trucks crisscrossing what had been remote territory. In Congo, the Wildlife Conservation Society has convinced one large European logger, Congolais Industrielle de Bois, to cooperate.

However, despite their efforts, enforcement is difficult. Some countries, like Gabon, have no national parks. Even parks created a century ago are, in Ammann's words, "mere lines on a map." Park rangers are few, and rarely have weapons or even uniforms. Ammann and other longtime observers say they know of no primate hunters being prosecuted.

Other countries, like Cameroon, want development aid for village schools and water systems in exchange for conservation guarantees.

In Congress, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has introduced legislation that would provide $5 million a year for primate protection. The bill has been modeled after successful elephant and rhino measures.

The $5 million would be a down payment. Wilkie estimates that reversing the bush meat trade will cost at least $35 million annually - roughly equal to the operating budget of a single large national park in the United States, such as Yellowstone.

To help raise money, environmental groups would like to entice a technology tycoon to underwrite the effort, or perhaps snare admissions paid by the estimated 134 million visitors to American zoos yearly. The Bronx Zoo has already raised $1.5 million for its Africa programs with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"There's a lot of disposable income in this country and we need to tap into it," said Conservation International's Russell Mittermier.

Price is another way to control the trade and reduce demand. But westerners cannot agree on the cost of bush meat costs or how much to tax it.

For years, affluent Africans have paid $40 for a single plate of monkey or elephant symbolizing a cultural link to their ancestral villages. Often the meat is heavily smoked and dishes are cloaked in wine-based or peanut sauces. Rose says in Cameroon he declined a bowl of monkey stew; it smelled like a sour mutton dish that his grandmother used to make.

But in frontier towns, the meat sells for a fraction of the cost of beef and chicken. It's protein that poor people can afford.

"We're not sure what's driving the trade," Wilkie said. "If we don't know that, we're not going to be sure of the approaches to minimize it."

Conservationists, most of whom are white, wince at allegations that they want to cut off food to fast-growing black nations.

"How do you replace a billion-dollar industry?" Eves said. "How do you replace one million metric tons of protein? You could save hundreds of animals in a single area if you could ensure a system of properly feeding the people."

It's beyond the expertise of most conservationists. That's the irony of the bush meat crisis.

To end the hunting and protect primates for future study, the Jane Goodalls might have to be forsaken for new leaders ranchers, engineers, meatpackers and supermarket executives.

"These aren't the things we learn in biology or forestry," Rose said. "Conservation needs a new vision and new players to get new kinds of results."

Staff Writer

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