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Many people who live in a broad belt of West Africa, stretching from Senegal to the Congo, regularly eat forest animals, including a rodent popularly known as grasscutter, monkeys, and such great apes as chimpanzees and gorillas.
The practice of hunting so-called bush meat is centuries-old in sub-Saharan Africa, but rising populations, more lethal weapons and intensified logging have increased pressure on animal populations—bringing many species to the verge of extinction.
Environmentalists from Europe and North America seek to ban the harvest and sale of bush meat. But African environmentalists resist such efforts, saying bans are impossible to enforce and disregard tradition. Eating bush meat, they say, is a cherished part of West African life—and an important source of protein for forest-dwellers and other rural people. Afro-environmentalism seeks to combine Western concerns over biodiversity with African cultural traditions—strategies such as those working to protect threatened animals in Ghana are the result.
“For hundreds of years, we Africans achieved a balance between man and animal,” says Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei, director of Conservation International in Ghana. “There was a logic to these relations that was upset by the conquest of West Africa by Europe and then the embrace of Western values in the post-independence period. But have no doubt: No conservation movement will ever achieve deep roots in Africa without reestablishing the logic of African traditions.”
Ampadu-Agyei, a native of Ghana who lives in the capital city of Accra, has assembled a collection of folklore about the connection between traditional life and local animals. In a study last year, he documented the extent to which Ghana’s dominant ethnic group, the Akan, and its many subgroups known as clans, associate their well-being with animals. Clan art, widespread at the village level, often represents these animals as the source of spiritual inspiration.
“The totem system protected the totem species … [and] thus was an early and very effective form of conservation,” Ampadu-Agyei says. He argues that a revival of totemism could turn the Akan into “a formidable force for conservation.”
The cultural approach to conservation is crucial, he says, because too many Africans view environmentalism as a Western affront: understandable for wealthy societies but inappropriate for poor countries where many people still compete with animals for survival. By associating animal preservation with ethnicity, conservation becomes Africanized, he says, and people realize that their survival cannot come at the expense of wildlife.
Using this approach, Afro-environmentalism is gaining momentum in Ghana. Ampadu-Agyei travels the width and length of the country, roughly the size of Oregon, with the message that destruction of animals threatens the collective identity of Africans. He gives seminars to traditional chiefs, who still retain great authority in rural Ghana, and to hunters. Consciousness-raising among hunters is especially important because the same skills required to kill wild animals often are used in their defense.
“Hunters are thus important allies,” he says. “If they can be taught to respect certain rules of engagement, wildlife gets all sorts of benefits.”
To be sure, conservation requires more than a shift in attitudes. Ampadu-Agyei, whose work is chiefly funded by non-African donors, is trying to undercut demand for bush meat by documenting possible adverse health effects of eating it. At a conference last year in Accra, a chemistry professor from the University of Ghana estimated that 30 percent of bush meat was killed by chemical poisoning. The chemist, Phillip Yeboah, concluded, “Every bush meat consumer is at risk.”
Conservationists also seek to domesticate animals, or at least the most popular of those eaten, the grasscutter, considered a delicacy and popular in stews. A single animal can sell for $9, or about three times the price of a chicken. And to limit damage done from hunting, private and public efforts are attempting to create grasscutter farms. The idea has been around for years. As yet there is no foolproof method of breeding grasscutter in captivity, so yields are low while costs remain high.
West Africans eat a variety of wild game. A 1998 study by the government of Ghana found that hunters killed 23 animal species in 15 areas. About a quarter of that total consisted of grasscutter, but antelope, deer, monkey and giant rat also were hunted.
With so large a hunger for bush meat, West Africans are not easily persuaded that animal protection is in their best interest—giving rise to the need for enforcement of hunting bans. But the work is dangerous. It is difficult to see in the dense forest, and poachers often fight back. A few months ago, Lobito, a 29-year-old wildlife police officer, was injured by a machete while apprehending a poacher in Ankasa, a protected forest inhabited by rare primates near Ghana’s border with the Ivory Coast.
Enforcement has limitations even when police and park rangers are vigilant. Lobito earns less than $50 a month and receives the same pay whether he catches poachers. Lobito complains that local courts often quickly release poachers after arrest, and the fine for killing a Mona monkey is about 50 cents, yet each fetches about $60 in Accra – and 10 times that amount in London, home to an estimated 1 million West Africans.
The relative prosperity of West Africans living in Europe has added a new dimension to the conservation problem. In response, European countries have sought to break the bush meat trade by installing customs officials trained in finding stashes of fresh kills. The European Union also launched a public-awareness campaign in 2002 against the trade. In addition to winning support of dozens of public-interest groups, more than 80 members of the British parliament came out in support of tighter regulations on the importation of wild game.
Despite these conservation and regulatory efforts, animal populations continue to decline—and the political economy of the wildlife remains on an unsustainable course.
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