Bushmeat Investigation Trip
Republic of Congo: in March 2009 I made a tour of the various markets in Ouesso, and for the first time realized the real ubiquity of bushmeat in that town. There is a night market which comes alive as dark begins to fall and bushmeat is sold. There is also the morning market, which around 9:30 h is bustling with bushmeat being chopped up, sold, and replaced as soon as it is finished by boys carting in wheelbarrows of carcasses. I was able to see the more common species in the market, such as guenons, blue duikers, Peter's duikers, porcupines, and dwarf crocodiles; as well as protected species such as sitatunga, yellow-backed duiker, black and white colobus, red river hog, and rock python. I also heard consistently that, albeit hidden, gorilla meat, chimpanzee meat, and elephant meat enters the market as well. It seems that a lot of the meat comes from the nearby forested areas.
I went into an ammunition shop where I was shown two types of cartridges: one regular red cartridge for a 12-gauge made in Pointe-Noire, and another one which was longer and gold-colored. This was described as ammunition for bringing down big game, even elephants.
In April, I went to Pokola (this region is under concession of CIB = Congolaise Industrielle de Bois). I had the impression that the immediate area had been cleared of wildlife, but people are actively pushing further out into the forest to hunt. In Kabo, a logging concession close to Pokola, I learned that a relatively high-ranking Congolese CIB employee was working together with local hunters to obtain bushmeat to sell, despite it being the off-season. He and the hunters would row in pirogues up the Sangha River, towards the area where Lobéké National Park begins on the Cameroonian (west) side of the river. They would then enter Cameroon and hunt the forest in and around Lobéké National Park. This of course presents potential problems with CITES infractions in addition to the violation of national laws.
Eco-guards were not really a problem because, as much as they may be feared for their ability to catch people hunting illegally in the forest, it appears that once the meat is in the village they do not do anything; once on the market, the meat was not concealed, even though its very presence there must have been the result of breaking the law. The eco-guards' work is restricted to catching people in the forest with guns and meat and snares. The Pygmies seem to fear the eco-guards, but have a network of providing each other with information to evade them in the forest.
Hunting in Kabo is certainly a concern. For a few dollars, an eco-guard offered to show me an elephant carcass only about 1.5 km away from the mill and the village's center of activity! This particular carcass was from a case where they caught the poachers, but he specifically said there were many carcasses like this around, which is to say that poachers must still feel there is an incentive to kill elephants, despite their super-elevated conservation status in the Republic of Congo.
Workers who have guns often loan them to Mbenjele Pygmies to go hunting; this is quite clear. As far as snares go, the Bakwele still frequently use them, despite the risk of the large fine. I did not hear about any snares or bullets manufactured in CIB buildings.
On the road to Loundoungou the forest was thick and vast. Yellow-backed duikers crossed the road in front of us, and an elephant was nearby. One passes the CIB villages of Ndoki I and Ndoki II along this road; this is where the road supposedly gets rather close to Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, and there are plenty of eco-guard posts, alternating along the road between villages, to make sure that no bushmeat heads south in the direction of Pokola.
When I arrived in Loundoungou, it was clear that the financial crisis was having a serious impact there, and this was already visible in Pokola and Kabo, where activity was at 50%. But here in Loundoungou, there were people who had not really worked for some 3 months. There were people getting salaries of 9,000 CFA (US$ 18) per month, relying very much on bushmeat, a cheap form of feeding the family, just to get by. The only restaurant in town was serving duiker, even though we were still in the off-season where hunting is illegal (for reference, the hunting season is May 1 to November 1).
As a result of the financial crisis, Loundoungou's sawmill had not yet begun operating. In the past, Loundoungou wood was carried down to Kabo and Pokola, but at the time of my visit much of that traffic had come to a halt as well. The hope seemed to be that the sawmill would open and start running within a couple of months.
CIB would like to get Loundoungou certified (important for maintaining the standard which allows them to sell their wood for higher prices) and then start the sawmill. This tiny enclave in the middle of the forest will certainly grow as Pokola did, and as Kabo did. The demand for bushmeat will rise beyond the traditional pressures on the zone. In a financially turbulent time, the rise in bushmeat consumption is clear, but even in good times, a rising population means that the zone will be exposed to a hunting pressure which it has never before witnessed, and CIB will have to defend this as people's "traditional rights" because as one head figure at Loundoungou told me, if he tried to stop people from eating bushmeat, the villagers would castrate him.
Of course, it is true that the villagers must eat and hunt to feed their families, but it is the responsibility of CIB, who brought them there when they opened up the forest and built this village in the middle of the jungle, to think about that. If they do not think about that, and can still get internationally-recognized certification, I had to ask myself: how valuable is the certification process?
In any case, the situation at Loundoungou is at a full-stop for the moment. There are no expatriate staff currently based there, neither is there telephone communication.
In the Ipendja concession, operated by Societé Thanry Congo (STC), there is no cutting of wood at the moment because they have thousands of cubic meters of stock. Like Loundoungou, this area is very wild, with lots of wildlife, even relatively close to the village. I even saw wild, un-habituated gorillas not very deep into the forest. I was there with a Pygmy hunter who was hunting for a Bantu man. I am told that the system of servitude, bordering on slavery, with Pygmies working for Bantu people, is still prevalent in the area. People are aware, even all the way up here, of the species that are not supposed to be hunted, like elephants and gorillas. Afterwards, I passed through the Lopola concession, operated by a Lebanese company. I heard one disturbing story of a gorilla that was coming too close for comfort to the village. Unfortunately, in Congo, given the right authorization, the animal can be shot, which is exactly what happened. I have not seen any legislation regarding what should be done with the carcass, unlike in Kenya where KWS handles carcasses so that no one can profit from the death of a wild animal.
The region Suanké-Sembe-Ouesso proved to be very interesting as the northern limit of Odzala National Park and a definitive source of bushmeat for Ouesso. Despite the eco-guard post outside Mokeko (the village before Ouesso), I saw many motorcycles bringing bushmeat out of the forest towards Ouesso. I also rode with two vehicles carrying officials, both loaded down with a lot of bushmeat. Duiker corpses were lying all over the beds of the pickups, and smoked carcasses of various animals. The worst was clearly two enormous sacks full of smoked meat; I was unable to peer inside the sacks to see which species were included. In any event, that much bushmeat ready for export was really impressive - yet it represented just the few villages we stopped in; every village we passed had villagers standing alongside the road holding up smoked meat for sale.
The market in Ouesso, now in open hunting season, seemed to be handling the same volume of bushmeat, which makes me wonder what the efficacy of a closed hunting season is. Animal populations, even the common species like the guenons and duikers, will certainly be hurt from such persistent pressure.
In the Central African Republic I looked around the border region for any evidence of the ivory trade. I am convinced there is no market for it around the border so whatever comes out would go on to Berberati or Bangui. The area was a diamond-mining region and has been quite hunted out already (this is the Ngoulo area in between Nola and Bayanga, 30 km south of Nola). The bushmeat in the markets, which is readily available (monkeys, duikers), comes from the direction of the forests in the region of the reserve (further south). In Bayanga a known elephant hunter showed me a path by which hunters can also just go to hunt in Congo; there were risks to hunting in Congo though, because the eco-guards may even torture people they catch. This was common knowledge, and a hunter told me that many of the Baka did not even dare to go into Congo any more to hunt.
It was good to hear the reinforcement of the idea that the eco-guards are actually defending the area around Nouabalé-Ndoki (which down at the Bayanga level, is only a matter of a day's walk away).
I saw hunters bringing out antelopes from Congo, and again, this raises issues for CITES depending on which species are being taken across the border. The hunter said that off-season in Congo was not a terribly important consideration for the people here, and they would just go in anyhow to hunt. Congo provides many duikers for the hunters, and if possible even animals like elephant can be hunted in secret.
In Dzanga Bai I got the sense that the level of protection in Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve and even in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park is of a much lower standard than in northern Congo, and that things have not changed very much in the last years. It is good to see that Congo's conservation is better established, respected, and feared by poachers. It makes one think, though, that where the conservation effort is lacking, it must mean WCS is financially constrained; and where is the forest-friendly CIB to help when it comes to laying down funds for the effort they claim to support?