The Next Threat

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It's not all elephants. while most of the attention at this week's CITES meeting will concentrate on arguments over the ivory trade, the 2,000 delegates will also consider proposals covering more than 60 groups of species, including the great white shark, the Malagasy poison frog and the South American monkey puzzle tree. One of the most interesting papers up for debate concerns the trade in what is known as bushmeat. Tribes in Africa, Latin America and Asia have long depended on what CITES defines as "meat for human consumption derived from wild animals" as a source of food and a commodity to trade. Some local economies in central Africa, for instance, rely on bushmeat for up to a third of village income. For many isolated communities bushmeat commonly provides the only source of animal protein.

But scientists and conservationists are concerned that bushmeat harvesting has reached unsustainable levels and now threatens endangered primate species like central Africa's eastern lowland gorilla, as well as a menagerie of other mammals. Human population growth, loss of habitat and the switch from subsistence consumption to commercial hunting have hurt animal populations. Logging companies are also under fire as the bushmeat trade booms along roads built into previously untouched forests. Add to that the flood of weapons in war-stricken areas like central Africa and you have a recipe for extinction. "Purely traditional use of bushmeat is probably sustainable," says conservationist Kes Hillman Smith, who has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo's northeastern Garamba National Park since 1980. She links the nearby war in southern Sudan with a rise in poaching of the park's buffalo and antelope. "When you have poachers with AK-47s and grenades it just gets out of control."

Though the problem has largely been associated with forest countries like Cameroon and the D.C.R., recent studies have shown that bushmeat consumption is growing in plains countries like Kenya and Tanzania. "They take zebra, eland, wildebeest," says Kenya Wildlife Service director Nehemiah Rotich. "A lot of minced meat you buy locally has wildlife meat mixed in." Authorities in Germany and Belgium recently seized bushmeat shipments destined for restaurants popular among African migrants.

The CITES discussion paper suggests managing and controlling trade, reducing the impact of external pressures (logging roads, availability of guns), and addressing the demand for protein. Though admirable, such sentiments will surely prove hard to implement.