Humankind’s closest relatives, the African Great Apes, may have vanished from the wild by the end of this century. The combined pressures of habitat loss and bushmeat hunting are driving them towards extinction. Unless these pressures are curbed, soon, there seems little hope that the dwindling populations of forest-dwelling mountain gorilla, lowland gorilla, chimpanzee and bonobo can sustain themselves for long.
African forest-dwelling peoples have lived close to, hunted and eaten these animals for thousands of years. Apes are considered to be powerful beings in these peoples’ religious and cultural systems and, according to many who live in the Congo basin, some of this power passes to those who eat them. Bushmeat, including the meat of wild apes, is thus highly prized and has long been locally traded. However, since the 1950s, this trade has been increasing exponentially. The widespread availability of shotguns and heavy calibre lead slugs, rising urban populations, new roads and vehicles, river transportation and above all the penetration of forests by logging have intensified hunting pressures on wildlife, especially apes.
Smuggled in logging trucks and timber barges, freezers and even aeroplanes, bushmeat now travels hundreds even thousands of miles from forest to market where it can command prices significantly higher than less culturally valued meats like beef, chicken and pork. Powerful syndicates, often connected to politicians and government officials, have emerged to control and profit from this lucrative trade, snaring marginal rural communities and isolated hunters into webs of patron-client relations and tempting them into robbing their forests of their game for short-term gain - forests in which they no longer have recognised rights and which are being relentlessly pillaged, often by European-owned logging companies. Logging, in itself rarely legal and almost always unsustainable, is a major cause for the intensification of the bushmeat trade. Logging roads bring communications to previously isolated regions. Logging camps bring in new workers and cash incomes to forest areas creating a heavy demand for more bushmeat. Logging networks link the forests to new and distant markets, for bushmeat as well as timber.
The main response of conservationists to this threat has been to establish protected areas, where they hope to conserve small pockets of undisturbed habitat, home to some of the last populations of these animals. To secure these areas, conservation agencies have had to work closely with local loggers, neighbouring communities and other interests. They have been obliged to fit their schemes into prevailing power structures and development plans, sometimes making compromises and even forging alliances with uncomfortable bedfellows.
In the Republic of Congo, one of the best known conservation projects is the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of New York. The Park, which lies in the extreme north of the country bordering Cameroon and the Central African Republic, is run out of the nearby town of Ouesso. Ouesso is a major logging town, just upstream from the base of a German-owned company, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB) which employs some 1,200 people and has forest concessions three times the size of the Park. About a quarter of a million cubic metres of timber are hauled out of the concession every year – equivalent to one giant truckload of timber every fifteen minutes of the working day. This industrial boom has brought in some 16,000 people as workers, dependents and in service industries, who have almost overwhelmed the previous, sparse population of BaBenjelle ‘Pygmies’ and neighbouring Bantu. Feeding this population has been a problem for the company and there is evidence that – at least in the past if not today – CIB logging teams were encouraged to hunt for bushmeat within the concession. Video documentaries and subsequent research has also implicated CIB trucks in transporting chimpanzee and other forms of bushmeat along the logging roads that lead down to the coast of Cameroon.
The WCS has long known of CIB’s impact on wildlife and its involvement in the extraction of bushmeat but has done little to give these findings prominence. In 1995, the WCS and a team of IUCN assessors even co-signed a Protocol with CIB which repudiated ‘unjustified attacks’ made on CIB - the evidence in the video documentaries. CIB, which has been unwilling to submit its forestry operation to scrutiny by independent certification processes like FSC, has been able to vaunt its close relations with WCS to fend off criticism of its operations: ‘I have opened my concession for research… for forestry and wildlife studies’, claims CIB owner Hinrich Stoll, my company is ‘working very closely with the Congolese National Park, Nouabale Ndoki, which is managed by Mr JM Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), (the oldest non-governmental ecological organisation in the world).’
These allegations are set out in detail in a powerful new book, ‘Eating Apes’, written by Dale Peterson. Peterson admits that WCS has since embarked on a joint project with CIB to limit the bushmeat trade in the area surrounding the Park, but argues that such partnerships between loggers and the conservationists, who rely on logging company infrastructures to gain access to their parks, are perpetuating the main threat to Africa’s forests. By offering green cover for loggers, he argues, conservationists are legitimising forest destruction and so putting further pressure on wildlife and local communities. Since CIB signed its Protocol it has been able to more than double the size of its concession and Stoll has been invited to join the World Bank’s prestigious CEO’s Forum, which aims to promote further partnerships between leading forest industrialists and conservation bigwigs.
There is much more in this very readable book which is shocking and thought provoking. It is also quite evidently the record of a personal quest for the sacred in nature, written by a thoughtful, compassionate and committed environmentalist. Dale Peterson’s moment of epiphany came to him when he heard forest apes laughing. He has since become convinced that apes have consciousness, a mind, a ‘legitimate mental existence’. The fact that they have been found to share about 98% of their genetic make-up with humans for him adds scientific weight to his conviction that, however much we may respect the right of other societies to their own ways of life, the killing of apes is immoral. It may also be unwise. He has painstakingly assembled all the information available on the origins and spread of HIV/AIDS and shows convincingly that the two kinds of HIV viruses entered human populations through the butchering and eating of apes and monkeys. ‘Eating Apes’ is an important book that will challenge many to rethink their place in the world.
Source: Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme reviewing ‘Eating Apes’ by Dale Peterson, University of California Press, Berkeley, 290pp, 16 colour plates, ISBN 0-520-23090-6. £17.95 see also www.greatapeproject.org