'People don't kill elephants for meat in Gabon,' said J Michael Fay, as he lounged on a couch in his house-cum-office of the Agence National des Parc Nationaux in Libreville, also known as Gabon Parks, the management authority for protected areas in Gabon. 'They kill elephants for tusks, period. And that goes for the rest of Central Africa, too.'
I tended to agree, but since no-one had ever investigated the question, there was no evidence available to confirm or refute the contention. Fay has worked for many years in the region for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and is now the technical advisor for Gabon Parks, so his opinion isn't to be taken lightly,
'I've read a couple of bushmeat research reports that mention the elephant-meat trade,' I replied, as diplomatically as I could.
'Okay, there might be a little of the meat traded,' Fay conceded, 'but not enough to make it a cause of elephant killing.'
How much was a little? That was the problem--no-one knew. Anecdotal reports of elephant carcasses stripped of meat being found in parts of the Congo Basin began appearing during the mid-1990s. Karl Ammann, a Kenya-based photojournalist, documented the elephant-meat trade in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR) more than a decade ago. 'Elephant meat is worth much more than the ivory,' Ammann told me when I visited him at his home on the slopes of Mount Kenya. 'Conservationists should realise that.'
I never anticipated that I would be researching the question in depth, until the International Union for Conservation of Nature's African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG) began a project dealing with the subject on behalf of CITES (the Convention on the Illegal Trade in Endangered Species). Having established a network of monitoring sites in Africa and Asia to keep track of the number and causes of elephant deaths, CITES' elephant programme, known as MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants), wanted the AfESG to find out whether meat was a causative factor in elephant killing.
The forests of the Congo Basin, the habitat of the forest elephant, cover an area of 3.7 million square kilometres. I decided to study those places with the greatest concentrations of elephants: Boumba-Bek National Park in Cameroon, the Dzanga-Sangha Complex in CAR, Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo and Okapi Faunal Reserve in DRC. All these protected areas are the subject of a MIKE monitoring programme.
I gathered bushmeat experts and local research assistants, and sent them into the jungle in teams to find elephant hunters and commodity traders. 'You will not find it easy to collect the kind of data you want,' Jean Joseph Mapilanga, warden of Okapi Faunal Reserve, warned me. 'People are very aware that selling something from an elephant is illegal. They will not tell you anything.'
They might not tell me, but our undercover local researchers managed to solicit a surprising amount of information about how, why and by whom elephants were poached and the products trafficked. Our findings confirmed that the elephant is an extraordinarily lucrative animal for poachers and traders, which explains why it's currently under assault in poverty-stricken Africa.
The Congo Basin, because of its dense forests, doesn't have large populations of cattle, sheep and goats like other parts of Africa. Humans living there have, since time immemorial, depended on the meat of wild animals trapped and shot in the forests to satisfy their protein needs. Many cultural beliefs linked with different species have become entwined with purely nutritional concerns, so the problem of unsustainable bushmeat harvesting is a very complex one. When looking at the issue as it applies to elephants, which have …