Free-for-all bush-meat trade adds pressure to wildlife conservation efforts

Sunday October 23 2022
A man walks past bushmeat on sale in Bata, Equatorial Guinea

A man walks past bushmeat including pangolins, bush rats and tiger cats on sale on a roadside in Bata, Equatorial Guinea. Wildlife conservationists now say they are worried about the rise in poaching for bushmeat in the East African region. PHOTO | FILE | AFP


In June last year, over 180 slaughtered dikdiks were seized by authorities in Akales, Galana Ranch, Kilifi County in Kenya. Five people were arrested in association with the crime.

A few weeks later, three people were arrested at Didima Bula in Tana Delta sub-county, Kenya, with the carcasses of more than 140 dikdiks.

Earlier in May, at least 88 kilogrammes of bushmeat was confiscated between Tsavo East and Tsavo West in Kenya. The meat was likely headed for the capital Nairobi or nearby Voi town, where it would be mixed in with livestock meat as has become custom.

This — killing wildlife for meat — is not confined to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the region in general are in on it.

Wildlife conservationists now say they are worried about the rise in poaching for bushmeat in the region and the imminent destabilisation of wildlife resources. They blame it all on legal and administrative loopholes.

Annual seizure


In Tanzania, official data estimates that more than 2,000 tonnes of illegal game meat is seized annually in the country.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, an estimated one million tonnes of bushmeat flows to urban markets each year, according to a recent survey by wildlife conservation bodies.

While in Central and West Africa as much as five million tonnes of bushmeat is consumed every year, according to the study “Bushmeat trade in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda,” unsustainable hunting for bushmeat is among the important threats to East Africa’s wildlife.

But the illicit trade in bushmeat — and its commercialisation — which seems to have exploded in recent years, with traders found to earn between $300 and $500 per month, has drawn renewed fears of a sector in peril.

During the period of the study (between November 2020 and May 2021) it was found that 81 percent of the bushmeat catches consisted of ungulates, seven percent primates, five percent rodents, three percent birds, three percent carnivores, and one percent pangolins.

A market in Libreville where bushmeat is sold

A market in Libreville where bushmeat, including pangolin, is sold. PHOTO | STEEVE JORDAN | AFP

Most hunted ungulates

Of the ungulates, dikdiks, buffalos, impalas, wildebeests, bush pigs, warthogs, zebras, gazelles, elands and hartebeests, were among the most hunted ungulate species for bushmeat exploitation.

According to Kenneth Kimitei, landscape ecologist for the Tsavo-Mkomazi Landscape at the African Wildlife Foundation, “Most of the bush meat poachers in Tsavo are targeting the giraffes to supply Nairobi, Voi, towns in Taveta, and  Tarakea and Rombo areas in Tanzania. Hence the Maasai giraffes in Tsavo are facing a slight decline.”

The Maasai giraffe is listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN.

“It may be that right now the other ungulates seem to be in abundance, but if unsustainably hunted like this... other ungulates may be headed down the same road if nothing is done.”

“During the rainy season most of the poaching dies down as most of the people move to farms to prepare for the planting season,” noted Kimitei who operates on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, “but immediately after that there’s a resurgence…. the snares come back in their multitudes mostly July to December when people are idle, not preparing land for planting.”

Triggered by poverty

Although he describes cartel-like syndicates in the trade complete with a chain style business operation from village-based poachers, brokers, transporters and wholesalers, according to Kimitei, poverty is one of the drivers for both commercial and subsistence-driven poaching for bushmeat, as mostly poverty stricken residents seek household income.

“The three main drivers for bushmeat poaching are poverty, unemployment and the impacts of climate change. The climatic conditions in this region are not very favourable for agriculture. And sometimes when they plant crops they end up drying up midway through the season. So food security here is a big problem.”

“But there also exists a class of poachers who do it as a second source of income. For this category this is a quick money-making enterprise.  For instance, a giraffe is also equated to a motorbike in terms of value. It is said that if you want to buy a motorbike all you need to do is to kill and sell the meat of a giraffe.”

Primary source of income

The multi-agency study found that for an estimated 20 per cent of bushmeat traders this is their primary source of income.

“There is a huge problem of lack of awareness of the laws and regulations in relation to bushmeat,” he added. “Others have got cultural beliefs that they have to depend on bushmeat.”

Closely behind, the eland and zebras too are victims to the bush meat poachers.

“The giraffes and elands are the most poached in terms of total body weight, but in terms of numbers, the dik-diks and impalas and small game are the biggest causalities probably because they’re all over and are easy to catch and kill with the snares.”

Kimitei says he is worried the poaching is leading to an ecosystem imbalance that has also been amplifying human-wildlife conflict as carnivores now go after livestock.

“The numbers of herbivores are going down at an alarming rate and sometimes carnivores will go for the docile livestock.”

A man from the Bagyeli Pygmy community in Kribi, Cameroon

A man from the Bagyeli Pygmy community in the Kribi region of Cameroon displays captured rats for sale. PHOTO | NABILA EL HADAD | AFP

Bushmeat consumption

Tanzania leads in bushmeat consumption with 83 percent of those interviewed in the survey confirming that they regularly consume bushmeat. In Kenya, the number is 82 percent and in Uganda the number is 78 percent. The survey was carried out in Uganda (in Murchison National Park, Masindi, Kasese, Kampala, Lake Mburo National Park , Queen Elizabeth National Park); in Tanzania (in Kigoma, Musoma, Mkomazi, Dar es Salaam, Mikumi National Park, and Katavi) and in Kenya (in Laikipia Conservancies, Narok, Nairobi, Maasai Mara, Voi and Tsavo National Park ).

In these sites surveyed in the three East African countries, 823 traders of bushmeat were counted.

Traffic — under the Usaid funded project, Connect (Conserving Natural Capital and Enhancing Collaborative Management of Transboundary Resources in East Africa) has been working with Usaid and WWF to collect data on the trends in bushmeat consumption in East Africa, to guide management of wildlife.


According to Kimitei, there has been an upsurge in bushmeat consumption since the onset of Covid-19.

“The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated poaching of wildlife for bushmeat due to reduced presence of law enforcement and worsened economic conditions for communities living next to or adjacent to national parks and high food prices,” he noted during a recent seminar “The Story Behind Bushmeat” that discussed and highlighted the relationship between rising viral diseases and diminishing animal communities.

“At the height of Covid-19 in 2020, increased cases of bushmeat hunting were recorded. Even though this hunting is illegal in many African countries, including Kenya, killing wildlife for recreation and for food remains common in places such as Tanzania, Uganda and places such as DRC….. there was a marked increase especially during the pandemic, when many lost their tourism income.”

Export connection

Yet, according to Wildlife and Protected areas manager—WWF Uganda, Daniel Ndizihiwe, the threat does not stop at the roaring domestic market for wildlife meat and body parts for traditional medicine.

“Even though a significant amount of this meat is consumed locally, a good chunk also finds its way abroad, especially to Asian countries,” said Ndizihiwe.

He says many communities consume bushmeat because they believe it cures various diseases.

According to the study, while 85 percent of those who consume meat do it as food, 10 percent consume it as medicine and five percent as both food and medicine.

International trade pangolin

“Pangolins in Africa, and in Uganda, specifically, have been traditionally hunted for bushmeat and traditional African medicine. However, there is growing evidence of international trade taking place with Asia as the main destination. Both the legal trade data from the CITES Trade Database and the recent seizure data from within Uganda show an increasing demand for pangolin scales,” he said.

The Ugandan NGO NRCN and UWA report 20 seizures of pangolin scales from 2012 to 2016. In 2015, about 2,000kg of pangolin scales was seized in Entebbe International Airport together with 700 kg of ivory destined for Amsterdam.

“As a region, we’re looking at mitigating the problem using national bans in bushmeat trade and consumption,” he said noting that Uganda with the help of WWF was supporting ex-poachers under the Reformed Poacher Groups associations to undertake appropriate entrepreneurial projects of their choice in exchange of poaching for bushmeat.

“The projects include commercial beekeeping and resource use agreements to be able to exploit certain resources within the parks in a more sustainable manner under collaborative management partnerships to reduce dependence on wildlife for meat.”

“But the limitation is in scaling up to other places where the crime is also high,” explained Ndizihiwe.

Inadequate research

Although he said investigations had not established association to bushmeat yet, Ndizihiwe, said “the (initial) Ebola case in Uganda could have originated from the consumption of bushmeat. We know that originally this disease came from primates and we know that most of the communities in Uganda eat primates.”

This April, the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged countries to suspend the sale of live wild animals at food markets – saying it was the source of more than 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans, and the suspected culprit behind the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed over 6.54 million people worldwide, and counting.

A joint report by the WHO and Chinese authorities last year demonstrated the Covid-19 pandemic was caused by the spillover of disease from animals to humans.

“And the more humans and animals come into contact with each other, especially when humans eat infected animals, the more likely it is that additional diseases will emerge. Currently, diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Covid-19, Marburg, Swine Fever, Monkeypox, Simian Foamy and other forms of Covid such as SARS-CoV-1 and now SARS-CoV-2 are all disease that whose transmission to humans was believed to be from wild animals,” said senior project manager, wildlife and trade, Dr Daniel Mdetele, a scientist who works for Traffic International East Africa, while addressing consumption of bushmeat and its association with zoonotic diseases.

“We need to have an alternative source of protein for communities that mostly rely on bushmeat. As well as alternative livelihoods for those relying on it for income.”

He explained that the high incidences of the viral and zoonotic diseases emerging from Asian countries can be attributed to the high consumption of bushmeat, noting that Asia and Africa are all regions along the Equator and are hotspots for pathogens as the climatic conditions favour and survival multiplication of these zoonotic pathogens.