Note: This post contains a photo of a monkey carcass, on sale at a bush meat market, that may be disturbing to some readers.
What's for dinner?
Porcupines, giant squirrels, dwarf crocodiles and a variety of primates, including golden-bellied crowned monkeys and Bioko black colobus monkeys.
Those are some of the bush meat offerings at the outdoor covered market in Malabo on Bioko Island, part of Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa. And shoppers are willing to pay more for these prized delicacies than they'd fork over for chicken or fish.
Scientists are curious about the impact of the market for wild game, known as bush meat. Are endangered animals being hunted and killed? Is there a growing demand for primates, who could carry diseases that threaten humans?
A new study of the Malabo market offers mostly bad news.
A booming economy has caused an increase in bush meat hunting over a 13-year period, with a particularly sharp rise in the numbers of imperiled monkeys showing up for sale at the market.
Even worse, the study found, efforts to curb killings of those species have repeatedly backfired — producing a temporary lull followed by an even more intense boom once hunters realized they wouldn't face any real consequences.
Those findings highlight some of the challenges in altering a culturally ingrained practice with a complicated array of conservation, economic and health implications.
"We were able to show that it doesn't matter what your intentions are," says Drew Cronin, a primatologist and conservation biologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "If you pass a wildlife law and you don't do anything about it, you can actually be doing harm."
Steep and lush, Bioko Island is an idyllic place with a landscape defined by three volcanic peaks. Its tropical rain forests teem with wildlife, including species that live nowhere else. Many of those animals show up dead on a daily basis at the market in Malabo, in the northern part of the island.
Six days a week since the late 1990s, data collectors from the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program have visited the market to count every animal there. Their records include species names, approximate ages, whether animals were shot or trapped, and if they came from the island or the mainland.
From 1997 to 2010, the team counted a total of 197,000 animals belonging to 28 species, Cronin and colleagues report in PLOS ONE. Sales increased over time as Equatorial Guinea saw an oil boom that fueled economic growth. The average number of primate carcasses counted per day, for example, jumped from four to 17 over the course of the study period.
A substantial proportion of the animals that are hunted on Bioko end up at the Malabo market, making it a useful indicator of what's happening in the surrounding environment, says John Fa, a conservation scientist and animal ecologist at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom, who studied the market on Bioko before the BBPP team took over. Alongside his work, the new study suggests that hunters are decimating certain species. A new road in the southern part of the island is adding concerns, easing access for hunters to even more areas of forest.
"Drew's studies give us more elements to sound the alarm that Bioko Island's animals and in particular its primates need to be protected as soon as possible," Fa says. "Otherwise, they are going to disappear."
Better law enforcement would be one important step to prevent what Cronin calls a "mardi gras mentality." After every major conservation measure has been enacted, the study shows, hunters note an absence of repercussions. They then renew their efforts with extra intensity, perhaps to get whatever meat they can before a new round of legislative or enforcement efforts arrive. After a 2007 ban on primate hunting, for example, numbers of primate carcasses counted at the market per day dropped briefly to almost zero before jumping to 37 per day for several months.
Also essential will be finding viable alternatives for hunters who are resistant to giving up a lucrative trade. A bush meat hunter can make as much as $3,000 a year, Fa says. That's a significant sum in Bioko. Bush meat is more expensive than other meats, he adds, making it a status symbol. The majority of buyers are wealthier people, who prefer the taste to cheaper cuts of pork, beef, chicken or fish. "People are willing to pay enormous amounts of money for bush meat," Fa says, "especially monkeys."
In 2007, a plate of rice, vegetables and half a chicken sold for about $4 U.S. at the market. The researchers believe that at that time, a monkey carcass would have cost 10 times as much, and that monkey prices have increased dramatically since then.
Health concerns add another complicated layer to the story. Butchering primates ups the risk for the transmission of diseases like HIV from animals to people. There's another, more chronic health risk involved, too, Fa says. Hunters appear to be using their boost in disposable income to buy soda, beer, cigarettes, junk food and other products that aren't good for them.
Cronin and his team are working toward solutions on Bioko by stationing more wildlife guards in the island's national park in the north, among other steps. The new study also notes that certain remote areas of the island have remained untouched, so he's hopeful.
Still, efforts elsewhere to introduce beekeeping, wildlife farming or other new ways of life to hunters have been miserable failures, Fa says. Making a real difference, he suspects, will require manipulating market forces so that more sustainable meats are far cheaper than meat that comes from endangered animals. At the same time, there will need to be a strong educational program to reduce the demand for wild meat.