By Jori Lewis.
If you’re looking for bushmeat in Cameroon’s capital city Yaounde, head for the busy Nkolndongo Market. Vendors there sell snakes as tall as a person, striped civets, antelopes and porcupines with spiky fur, and lots of different kinds of monkeys.
But if you want to know where the meat comes from, and whether it’s legal or illegal, you might be out of luck.
“There are people who come and sell it to us,” said a woman named Natasha, who sells smoked antelope by the piece. “I don’t know where they come from. They just come from the bush.”
Natasha doesn’t even always know if the animals she sells are protected species. But she’s not in a position to judge. Because whatever the legality of the bushmeat itself, her little stand itself is illegal.
“I am waiting for the day when I might have a problem with the authorities,” Natasha said.
It’s not like she’s hiding, though. Natasha has been perched on the same corner for the last six months, next to a woman who sells squiggly fat palm larvae. But she has yet to be accosted by anyone.
It’s a situation you might find anywhere in Cameroon. The Central African country is often called Africa in miniature, with desert, grasslands, mountains and the Congo Basin rainforest. And illegal hunting is rampant throughout all of those ecosystems.
Natasha’s antelope meat might have come from a protected area in the foothills of Mount Cameroon, near the Gulf of Guinea, where John Ngomba works as a mountain guide. Ngomba tells his clients they should see elephants, gorillas and herds of antelope here. But, he said, they might also see hunters.
“One time I saw a hunter with two antelopes,” Ngomba said. “But it was impossible to carry them. So he decided to slaughter them and then dry them.”
Ngomba said his tour group wasn’t happy to see antelope being slaughtered and smoked right there in the wild. And he said the hunters make his job harder by scaring off the animals they don’t kill.
“When the animals see people, they go very far away,” Ngomba said. “Because they know they are trying to kill them.”
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that bush hunters kill over one million tons of wild game a year across all of Central Africa. And that doesn’t include animals killed for skins, tusks or other body parts, or animals that dealers smuggle out of the forest alive.
Cameroon does regulate hunting. It’s illegal to kill endangered species or hunt in national parks. There are limits on the number of other animals you can catch at any one time, and on the types of weapons you can use.
But critics say there’s one problem.
“It’s not well-regulated,” said Germain Ngandjui, of the Cameroonian office of the wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC. Ngandjui tells an old and common story: Cameroon has good laws, he said, “but there are weaknesses in law enforcement.”
Ngandjui said the fact that you can sometimes find endangered species like gorillas at local markets proves that something isn’t working. In 2009, TRAFFIC found that hunting in Cameroon is sometimes twice the sustainable level.
Not surprisingly, people responsible for enforcing Cameroon’s laws see things a bit differently. Cameroon’s Director of Wildlife, Philip Tabi Tako-Eta, said he thinks his country’s government is doing quite well with the resources it has available.
Tabi Tako-Eta said the government is using its limited resources to try to crack down on illegal hunting, and that field staff throughout the country are working with conservationists and villagers in what he calls a war on poachers.
“The war is on,” Tako-Eta said. “We will not say the poachers are winning or that we are winning. A war is never won by one battle. Today they might have a battle where the poachers win, and tomorrow we might defeat them in other battles.”
No one is more aware of that ebb and flow than Desire Foguekem, who works for the World Wildlife Fund’s office near Campo Ma’an National Park, in southern Cameroon.
Campo Ma’an’s more than 1000 square miles of forests is home to protected species including elephants, hippos and gorillas. But hunting pressure is high. And Foguekem said swings in the park’s budget have made it hard to sustain anti-poaching efforts.
“When anti-poaching activity is going on in the park on a regular basis, poaching activities reduce” Foguekem said. “When there is a lack of the budget, poaching activity increases tremendously.”
Despite the budget problems, Campo Ma’an park ranger Raphael Fouda said these anti-poaching patrols are having an impact. Fouda said that before they began, local people would hunt when and where they wanted to.
“At the beginning, everyone was poaching without knowing what they were doing. It was just to live,” Fouda said. “With the patrols, we have tried to get people to understand conservation. At some point, many people understood our goal and joined in. Others rebelled and stayed poachers. So we continue to pursue them so that they too come to understand.”
But Fouda said the rangers have to worry about more than just local hunters that. He said hunters are crossing the border into the park from neighboring Equatorial Guinea, while others are coming in to supply food for workers at nearby logging camps and rubber and palm plantations.
Fouda might be talking about people like Jeannot Nbessolo, an impossibly skinny man with torn and dirty clothes who was recently picked up for hunting in Campo Ma’an park.
At first Nbessolo said the rifle he was carrying wasn’t his and that he just happened to be holding it, along with a couple of cartridges. Then he looked up with tired eyes and said, yes, he was hunting in the park, but only because he wanted to get something special for his mother in law. Then he changed his story again, and said he was hunting to pay for his kids’ school fees.
“I’m truly sorry,” Nbessolo said. “I’m sorry if I broke the law. I just went to look for rats.”
And a parakeet.
Nbessolo admitted he tried to shoot one of those, too, for dinner.
It’s hard to know which story is true. What certainly is true is that thousands of Cameroonians like Nbessolo make money any way they can.
That’s why Park ranger Raphael Fouda is under no illusions that anti-poaching efforts alone will solve the problem, however well funded they may be. He said people also need other ways to make a living.
Elsewhere in Cameroon, organizations have started working on just that, by promoting alternative livelihoods like beekeeping and farming. But here in the Campo region, Fouda said, people have grown tired of waiting.
“People are leaving for the forest again, he said. “And it’s really a problem. On the whole, I will tell you that the hunting pressure is again very heavy in the park. And for me that’s really troubling.” Download MP3
Jori Lewis reported from Cameroon on a grant from the International Reporting Project.