In Congo, bushmeat trade threatens Pygmies
Antelope populations are down as hunters sell more and more
THE ITURI FOREST, Congo — They emerge from the stillness of the rainforest like a lost tribe of prehistoric warriors forgotten by time — a barefoot band of Mbuti Pygmies wielding iron-tipped spears.
The men come first, cloaked head to toe in coiled hunting nets made from liana vines. Then the women, lugging hand-woven baskets filled with antelope meat.
And waiting in the middle of their hunting camp: a horde of traders who’ve come to buy as much bushmeat as the Mbuti can bring.
Time has long stood still in the innermost reaches of northeast Congo’s Ituri forest — a world so isolated, the Pygmies living here have never heard of Barack Obama or the Internet or the war in Afghanistan. But the future is coming, on a tidal wave of demand for game meat that’s pushing an army of tall Bantu traders ever deeper into Africa’s jungles.
It’s a demand so voracious, experts warn it could drive some of Africa’s last hunter-gatherers to eradicate the very wildlife that sustains them, and with it, their own forest-dwelling existence.
One place — Congo’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve — was supposed to be a bulwark against the onslaught, a place where commercial hunting is banned. But an Associated Press team that hiked two days to join one Pygmy band found the thriving bushmeat trade penetrating even into the protected zone.
The rain forest is home to Africa’s estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Pygmies. But every year, it grows smaller.
According to the United Nations, Africa annually loses 10 million acres of trees — an area the size of Switzerland — because of uncontrolled logging, mining and waves of migrants desperate for land.
Congo’s population — 70 million people and counting — is about three times what it was 30 years ago. By 2020, it could hit 120 million. And it needs to eat.
Bushmeat — animals like monkeys and especially antelope — has been a dietary staple in Africa for millennia. But it has never been consumed as much as now: at least 1.1 million tons each year in the Congo basin alone, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Other estimates put the figure at five times that.
Some areas have suffered 90 percent drops in wildlife, stripped so bare hunters have been reduced to eating their own hunting dogs, says John Hart, an American conservationist who first lived among the Mbuti in the 1970s.
The shortage of game elsewhere is part of what makes the Okapi Reserve so valuable and attractive to traders looking for bushmeat.
Carved out of a swath of the Ituri forest in 1992, it is unique among most wildlife parks in Africa because the people living inside it — 20,000 Pygmies and Bantus — weren’t kicked out and were allowed to keep hunting non-endangered species for subsistence.
Only the Pygmies do so with masterful efficiency, however, giving them a near monopoly on selling off the reserve’s dwindling fauna.
Master of hunting
Zaire Njikali, an elderly Pygmy clan leader, is kneeling bare-chested in silence, staring into the kaleidoscopic wall of forest beyond.
To his rear, 15 men have carefully laid a waisthigh net in a long arc through the shrubbery. To his front, a surreal wall of sound is approaching: a polyphonic deluge that sounds a bit like water dripping from a faucet. The noise is coming from the female hunters in his clan, who are driving animals toward the net, where they’ll get tangled and speared.
Nets are cast like this almost every hour for a working day. On a good day, Njikali’s clan will return to camp with as many as 15 antelope.
There, traders buy the meat, preserving it on smoking racks until they can ship it out of the forest where it’s consumed as a delicacy.
When Njikali was a boy, Bantu traders never stayed overnight in his clan’s camps. Their numbers have risen steadily over time, though, and now they are a permanent presence. Besides the 20 Pygmy couples and a smattering of children, the AP counted 14 traders — nearly a quarter of Njikali’s camp.
Decades ago, the Mbuti sold about half the meat they captured; now they sell nearly every carcass, saving only the entrails and heads for themselves. The hunt, in essence, has devolved into an all-out commercial endeavor, staged not for subsistence, but to feed growing regional markets. And the impact is clear. Surveys conducted within the Okapi for the Wildlife Conservation Society from 1995 to 2006 showed major drops in all populations of antelope, the most commonly hunted bushmeat animal. The number of blue duikers dropped 26 percent; larger red duikers 42 percent; the even larger yellow-backed duikers 59 percent.
Conrad Aveling, a British environmental consultant, said, “the forest just doesn’t produce enough to meet the demand.” And by depleting their most precious resource for short-term gain, he said, the Pygmies “are sawing off the branch on which they’re sitting.”
Or, as Congo expert Terese Hart said, “They’re overexploiting the forest in a way that’s making their own way of living impossible.”
Disbelief in the jungle
The sun has set, and Njikali is standing on the orange ribbon of tree-lined road that cuts through the Okapi.
Somewhere at the other end of the rural highway, millions of Africans are tapping out e-mails on smartphones and shuttling up and down elevators in the bowels of skyscrapers.
The clan leader doesn’t want to talk about the change sweeping the continent, or the dangers of over-hunting.
“The forest will always be there,” he says. “For the forest to disappear, for the animals to disappear, the world would have to end first.”
Mbuti Pygmies, from left, Faizi Malambi, Kawaya Situka, Besei and Kange Ambali don hunting nets and await the start of the day’s hunt outside the town of Epulu, Congo.