Endangered Great Apes : bushmeat, ape trade, consequences

We are sharing 99,4 % of our genetic code with bonobos, a primate species. We have in common with the apes the capacity to create and use tools. We have also the ability to be self-aware. Nevertheless, the man is on the verge to kill these species.

Illegal ‘bushmeat’ trade

The expression ‘bushmeat” comes from the African culture. It is an unwritten law that we designate the African fauna as the ‘bush’. So, according to the Convention in Endangered Species (CITES), the bushmeat can be defined as ‘the wild animal flesh aimed at consumption’.

All the wild edible animals are threatened by this illegal trade. As an example, 90% of impalas, a species of the antelopes family, are now slaughtered by poachers in Central Africa. It is the first species being poached in this area. However, there are more great apes that are endangered due to this trade. The destruction of their natural habitats by the man or the illegal young apes trade to zoos or as a pet are also the reasons behind this ecological issue. According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), 5 million tonne of bushmeat have probably been consumed each year in the Congo Basin.

The great apes (Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, Orangutans) are localised in Central Africa and in Indonesia.

Source : www.hominides.com

Evolutions of the practice: from hunting to poaching

From a traditional hunting to a trade hunt

In the African cultures, hunting has a key role in livelihoods. It is a rite of passage to adulthood. It represents strength, sense of responsibility and courage.

Moreover, Central African populations, a geographical area where poverty is really high, eat mostly roots and plants. Farming is rare so bushmeat is often their only meat source.

The demand of bushmeat has increased because of all of these reasons. Also, bushmeat became first, year after year, a means of subsistence for the rustics and then a distinctive sign of the upper class in the capital cities. It also brings economic opportunities for the hunters. There has been a quick increase of protected species killed as the bushmeat trade is now controlled in Africa. This does not stop the killings. Hunters who became smugglers, would like to sell meat in the black market with a sales margin of 300% in the capital cities. According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), there are 460000 hunters in Cameroon.

From commercial chase to illegal hunt: growth of poaching

A lot of poachers who had different illegal activities, have now entered the race to get their share of this business. Bushmeat trade is thriving but is detrimental for the great apes that are killed without restraint. In this way, there are thought to be fewer than 45000 gorillas in the African forests and between only 10000 and 20000 bonobos.

Poaching practices have devastating effects in the fauna and the flora. They change the balance of the ecosystem. Wide scale fires are provoked by the poachers in the African forests to destroy flora that help the animals hind behind bush for example. Concerning the burned trees, they are used as coal and sold as well on the black market. These arsons destroy the habitats of the animals and represent a real threat for anti-poaching brigades that patrol in the forests.

These practices are also used by poachers who are ready to risk their lives to save their taking of animals.

There is another phenomenon related to poaching and bushmeat trade : the entry of forests companies. They have constructed roads within the forests. This makes a huge part of the flora attainable for the poachers. The forest industry also opened new hunting spaces and bushmeat trade spaces. Poachers are used to sell bushmeat to forest companies employees on site as a way to thanks them for creating access to these unknown natural spaces.

Global trade

If the bushmeat goes from villages to capital cities, within one African country, revenues from this trade helped its globalisation. In this way, bushmeat is also illegally sold outside a country and travels from a capital city to another one among tourists that do not know anything about it.

In 2010, there has been a study conducted by researchers of the Zoological Society of London, the Royal Veterinary, the National Veterinary Institute, Natural History Museum, at the airport Roissy-Charles de Gaulles with the help of customs officials. Researchers tried to estimate the quantity of bushmeat that comes illegally in an international airport. The results of this study showed that around 270 tonne of bushmeat potentially contaminated (essentially primates, crocodiles and pangolins) come illegally to this airport each year, or 5 tonnes per week. The main countries where they found bushmeat were Central African Republic, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.

Dr Marcus Rowcliffe, co-author of this study says that ‘importing bushmeat is quite easy as the customs officers have no financial incentives to fight against this trade. They do receive bonus when they discover drugs and counterfeit’. Moreover, we need to know that fines are not so deterrent as they are from only 150€ to 450€.

Public health risks


There is a real public health issue when it comes to consuming bushmeat. There are indeed various viruses that are transmitted by the animals, especially from the great apes to humans. This is the case with HIV (the Human Immunodeficiency Virus) transmitted to the man by chimpanzees. This is the origin of a sadly famous disease : HIV. Researchers from the Research and Development Institute have shown that in Africa, more than 20 species carry the virus. All it takes is a cut on somebody’s skin and the blood will come into contact with the blood of an animal as the transmission of the virus is possible with the blood streams. It can also increase the risks to get the virus.

Yet, this blood mix is frequent during for example, the butchering of the animal. As a remark, the risk of transmission is very high among the great apes, in particular with the Bonobos because of the similarity of their genetic heritage with ours.

HIV mortality rate for 100000 inhabitants in Guinea and in bordering countries.

Source : World Health Organization


Like HIV, Ebola virus is more transmitted during the preparation of bushmeat than its consumption.

The first victims of Ebola virus, and identified scientifically as such, lived in Yambuku (Democratic Republic of Congo), a city located near the Ebola river where it took its name in 1976.

According to the Research and Development Institute :

  • Frugivores bats are silent carriers of AIDS (which means that they carry the virus but they are not sick)

  • Bats transmit the virus to other animals of the forest, the great apes in particular.

  • Humans hunt the great apes and bats to eat them ultimately.

According to the World Health Organisation, there is an expansion of the virus in Western Africa that spread beyond the borders ; the most affected countries are Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

According to the European Food Safety Authority, the risk of transmission of the virus in Europe with the illegal imports is low. However, the WHO still worries about the contamination for people or the farming on areas where the bushmeat is imported illegally.

Are Great Apes going to disappear ?

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the man kills between 3000 and 6000 great apes each year. Great apes have showed unexpected abilities to adapt human threats : whereas they are diurnal animals (active during the day), researchers have noticed that several chimpanzees families were used to move during the night to avoid being spotted by the hunters. Moreover, some species have changed their eating habits in order to alleviate the scarcity of fruits as the result of deforestation.

However, the great apes cannot fight on their own against their extinction even if they are intelligent. There are less and less great apes since the man discovered them and the scientific community predict that they would disappear in 50 years time if no change or practical actions are implemented and realised.

The struggle against the disappearance of « our cousins » is now committed. Nevertheless, there are not enough financial aids and applicable legal measures are not so effective to stop this sad trend.

There are various threats upon the great apes but they all have one point in common : the human activity. So, their survival depend entirely upon us. Let us support the approach of local and international associations and spread the word around us to emulate reactions from the authorities.

Ways to save great apes

In the heart of the forest

Logging companies play a key role, sometimes unintentional, as they help poachers having access to the forest. Some of them have then prohibited to their employees to transport bushmeat on the roads and buy them on site.

Today, these initiatives are not efficient because the carriers are threatened by the hunters to transit meat. With the help of the local police, the transport of meat could be more controlled and the increase of seizures in the forest roads reflects this view.

A more dissuasive and sufficient repression

Sanctions are currently too low to prevent smugglers.

On 1st March 2016, a decision made by the judge of the peace in Dalaba (Guinea) is a good example: the smugglers were arrested with 103 kg of bushmeat in their possession in order to sell them. They have been prosecuted for butchering, transport and selling of protected species. They were sentenced to 6 months’ suspended sentence without the judge having clarified his/her decision about the destination of the meat.

This type of decision clearly aims at discouraging the anti-poaching brigades: they risk their lives while making arrests and they see smugglers being free without any other sanctions.

It seems that it is essential to harden the judicial system to give a reason to smugglers to stop their illegal practices without any concerns.

Alternatives to smuggling

As a part of the hunters wants to feed their families and improve their living conditions, it is necessary to plan alternatives for the illegal chase to stop this phenomenon.

There are awareness campaigns that promote farming techniques to villagers for feeding themselves and to adapt them, if so, with the environmental and climate conditions of their region. Moreover, hunters have the possibility to hand over the weapons to the local police and to be recruited to fight against poaching and the bushmeat trade that they used to be part of. In this way, anti-poaching teams have a better understanding of the practices, traps, poachers’ lifestyle. For the ones who decide to surrender, they get a job automatically.

In the heart of new generations

Even if wild species hunting is an ancient tradition, new generations can stop these practices. So, the anti-poaching organisations have to bring awareness to the today’s youth to prevent them for becoming hunters in the future.

The Jane Goodall Institute plays a crucial role by organising awareness programmes in African schools. The goal is to explain to children that nature is not unlimited and that there are other possibilities to support oneself instead of illegal trade and hunting. In this regard, the outreach programme roots and shoots has been implemented in 1991. It helps kids, from kindergarten to University, as well as any volunteer, to get involved in a common project and to fight for protecting animals via recreational and interactive activities.