In Congo, bush­meat trade threat­ens Pyg­mies

An­te­lope pop­u­la­tions are down as hunters sell more and more

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Todd Pit­man

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.”

re­becca Black­well

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.

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