Posted: 11 February 2013. Updated: 14 September 2016
The bushmeat trade is now considered to pose the biggest threat to great apes in the wild.
In forests throughout Central and West Africa, Amazonia, as well as Asia, enormous numbers of species are being hunted for meat, often illegally and unsustainably; the trade presents an even greater threat than deforestation.
The word ‘bushmeat’ is commonly used in Africa to describe the meat of a wild animal; the trade in bushmeat is a global problem that is linked to poverty and economic growth in the countries where the animals are killed and industry, governments and consumers in western countries where bushmeat is sold. Bushmeat is often transported from one region or country to another, confounding efforts to track the origins of meat found in markets.
People have hunted wild animals for thousands of years, often on an unsustainable level; indeed the arrival of people in previously uninhabited areas is characterised by the mass extinction of many species. At certain periods in history, changes in available weaponry and growing populations have seen further extinctions. In more recent history, hunting was mostly subsistence in nature, employing local, lower impact technologies and carried out by relatively small numbers of long-term forest-resident peoples. However in the last 30 years, the nature of bushmeat hunting has radically changed, becoming heavily unsustainable and on a scale never seen before.
Logging is economically important throughout West and Central Africa, and is now a major threat to wildlife. Road construction associated with selective logging dramatically increases hunter access to isolated sectors of the forest, and decreases the cost of transporting bushmeat to urban markets, effectively increasing the supply, and thus profitability of the trade.
Larger primates are particularly vulnerable to hunting because they produce sufficient meat to offset the cost of the bullet. The smaller monkeys are usually left alone and there is some evidence that their populations may actually increase as the other species disappear from the forest. How long this lasts remains to be seen, as the consequences of losing other species become apparent. Many primates are seed dispersers and the long-term health of the forest is dependent on their presence.
Hunters can increase their profit by catching a primate infant for the pet market. This puts a double pressure on populations as females become the preferred prey, making recovery for the species – which mostly have single offspring and a slow development rate to maturity – difficult or even improbable.
When these factors are compounded by the fact that primates tend to be vulnerable to habitat change and social disruption, it is easy to understand why even low level hunting can have disastrous effects on local populations.
The situation is dire for primates such as bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas because they breed so slowly; even present levels of hunting is unsustainable, threatening the long-term survival of ape populations in the Congo Basin and West Africa.