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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

The Protein Gap

July 29, 2008

John Fa is the first researcher to frame the bushmeat crisis as a protein crisis. And his analysis suggests that wildlife activists are behaving like Marie-Antoinette: “Let them eat cake.”

By Fred Pearce

Illustration ©Michael Gibbs

Gregory Etim Inyang hunts elephants because he can see their eyes in the dark of the forest night. But his friend Edet Okon says it is difficult making a kill because “they run away even when they have been shot.” Monkeys, he says, are good prey. But you have to be a good shot. Both men are agreed, however, that hunting near their home in the last surviving patches of rain forest in southeastern Nigeria is a loser’s game. “The forest is almost finished,” says Edet. He has to travel too far before he can find a catch, whether it is bushbuck or pig, buffalo or monkey. It’s a five-hour trip, he says. Eight hours, says Clement Inyang; “The animals are getting very scarce.”

All these hunters live in a single village, Ekonganaku, not far from the Cross River National Park, whose forests are among the last surviving homes for large wild animals in Africa’s most populous nation. Their stories emerge from interviews conducted by John Fa and Sarah Seymour of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the Channel Island of Jersey. Fa is one of the world’s experts on bushmeat and those who hunt it. He wants to know how and why forest dwellers still hunt and—most crucially perhap— whether in 30 years their children will still be out in the bush with traps and guns.

As they head out into the jungle, many hunters seem in little doubt that they are engaged in the last roundup. “They don’t need educating about the problem,” Fa says in a sideswipe against conventional environmentalism. “They don’t need heavy-handed policing. They need alternatives—of things to eat and of means of making a living. Trying to stop them from hunting won’t work otherwise.”

This debate matters not just for the wildlife but also for the people of Africa. In many parts—particularly in Central Africa, where the continent’s biggest rain forests survive — bushmeat makes up 80 percent of the population’s protein intake. And it’s not just deep in the jungle or among poor villages that bushmeat is the norm. Go to the supermarket in many Central or West African cities and you can pick up a shrink-wrapped pack of elephant meat. It was probably brought out from the jungle on logging trucks. And bushmeat is becoming fashionable, like organically grown food in Europe. In Burundi, the dish of choice in some of the best restaurants is hippo steak. Throughout Ghana, small boys stand by the roadside dangling giant rats. Drivers stop to buy supper as routinely as if they were dropping into the 7-Eleven on the way home from the office. If there are risks of disease from this jungle meat, nobody is concerned about it.


Animal-rights activists and many environmentalists are up in arms about the bushmeat business. As part of their propaganda war against the hunters, they send out gruesome images of gorilla corpses and monkeys strung from poles, illustrating literature on “the slaughter of the apes.” A particularly unsettling image caught by the anti-bushmeat campaigner Karl Ammann shows a fresh-cut gorilla head in a kitchen bowl on a sideboard next to a bunch of bananas. Such reports concentrate entirely on the burgeoning bushmeat business as a crisis for wildlife and Africa’s biodiversity. And there is no question that some of the world’s most endangered wild animals are, quite literally, being eaten to death.

But, asks Fa, is our Western squeamishness getting in the way of a sensible appraisal of the importance of bushmeat? Are we in danger of caring more about the survival of a few rare rain forest species than the survival of their hunters? If we condemn all hunting for bushmeat, then how do we propose that Africans eat? And equally, if we do not take the trouble to find out why bushmeat hunting is still so prevalent in Africa, how can we hope to stop it?

Fa is the first researcher to have attempted to quantify systematically what is going on. In a series of investigations in West and Central Africa over the past decade, he has charted the hunt, measured its importance for nutrition, and watched how the types of animals showing up in market places across the continent have changed.

Bushmeat has always been part of the staple diet of forest dwellers, although—contrary to perceptions in the West—they are not great meat eaters. “People don’t actually eat a lot of meat day to day,” says Fa. “They use small amounts to flavor soup, or they sell the meat on for cash. The exception is during festivals, when young men will go out to catch meat to show off their prowess.” But, again contrary to many people’s perceptions, rain forests are not and probably never have been teeming with wildlife. You can walk for days without seeing wildlife unless you know how to look.

The central problem in the African rain forest is that, as the human population soars and cities grow, national economies are failing to produce domesticated meat of the kind familiar in stores in more developed countries or even in equivalent cities on the edges of the Amazon or southeast Asian rain forests. Much of the continent, urban as well as rural, still relies on the bush for protein. They eat wild elephant rather than pork, snake rather than chicken.

Working in their small region of Nigeria close to the border with Cameroon, Fa’s team has produced the most detailed study yet of bushmeat hunting and trading. “We have data on about 100,000 transactions of animal carcasses in almost 100 villages,” he says. Ekonganaku’s local market for bushmeat is at the village of Ningajue. It is no big deal. It is open for business once a week, on Saturdays, for a couple of hours starting at 6 a.m. Some hunters deliver directly to the women running the market. They arrive with meat in large sacks. But others from farther away, including those from Ekonganaku, sell to traders with motorbikes or taxis who bring the meat. “There are still lots of species sold at Ningajue,” says Seymour. “There are usually about a dozen sellers, each with maybe 15 carcasses. I see grasscutters and rodents, chimpanzees, red colobus, and duiker. But the most popular meat is bush pig, which is still quite plentiful and very tasty.” There are other illegal species available under the counter, she says.

In bigger towns such as the regional center of Calabar, the bushmeat market is open daily. And much meat goes directly to big customers like restaurants and canteens without ever crossing a market stall. All down the supply chain, prices rise. A monkey carcass in Ekonganaku costs 400 naira (or about US$3), but it fetches 1000 naira (over US$7) in Calabar. In the big markets, monkeys are prepared: their heads, hands, and feet are cut off and smoked. “You would only know it was a monkey, not which kind or whether it was one that could be hunted legally,” says Seymour.

Fa has carried out similar studies on Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea. There he tracked the activities of 42 hunters for more than a year, during which they had set more than 100 million snares and caught 3,000 animals, or some 11 metric tons of meat. “It’s very well-organized,” says Fa, “a wonderfully well-run commercial enterprise. Taxis bring in the meat from the bush to the main market at Malabo each morning. But what you often see is that there isn’t that much meat.” For all the effort, the market sells only about 20 carcasses a day. “That’s less than a rack of meat in a small supermarket. The bottom line is that for all the effort, the results are pitiful. There is just not enough meat left in the forests.”

There are few official statistics on the bushmeat trade. Much of it is, after all, illegal. But legal or not, the trade is increasingly commercialized, and there is also a growing cross-border market, even in remote areas. Cameroon meat crosses into Nigeria on foot. Convoys of bicycles carry tons of smoked elephant meat down forest tracks from the Democratic Republic of Congo into the neighboring Central African Republic, where it turns up on supermarket shelves. And there is a growing intercontinental market. Smoked monkey meat in particular is smuggled in suitcases aboard aircraft to the high-priced markets of Europe. The Dalston market in London’s East End emerged in 2002 as an important outlet. It is clear from this, says Fa, that bushmeat is often a luxury item of such cultural significance to people of recent African descent that even people who have not lived in the continent for decades will still seek it out.

The biggest center for bushmeat hunting on the planet is the Congo basin of Central Africa, where most of the population still lives in villages in the bush. A typical square kilometer of Congolese rain forest today contains around 20 people, most of whom get their protein from hunting the animals living close by. Fa reckons around 5 million metric tons of bushmeat is caught and eaten here each year. It is equivalent to a staggering 90 percent of the weight of all the animals estimated to be living in the forest at any one time. Put simply, if the animals did not reproduce, the forest would be emptied in 13 months.

Luckily, they do reproduce. And reproduction has kept the populations of most species limping along. But this cannot continue. Fa calculates that hunting is currently being carried out at between two and five times the rate at which animal populations can reproduce without facing eventual extinction.

Hunting is becoming just another economic activity in the jungle. Many Central African forests are being invaded by miners and logging gangs often working for French, Belgian, or other European companies. Often, these gangs are not supplied with food but are given guns and told to go out and hunt for their supper. Locally, such gangs can have a devastating impact on wildlife populations. And the roads built to remove the timber and minerals also make transport of animal carcasses to distant cities far easier. Bushmeat hunting becomes a lucrative sideline for the gangs, and truckloads of bushmeat are unloaded at city markets each morning.

And its popularity is not surprising. A study by the environmental group TRAFFIC, which investigates the trade in endangered species, found that all across Africa bushmeat is generally cheaper and more available than domesticated meat and that “the poorer households are more greatly reliant on bushmeat.” But the rich also seem to be partial. Until early 2003, when the Cameroon government announced a ban on serving endangered animals, many upmarket restaurant menus in Yaoundé, the capital, included gorilla, chimpanzee, and elephant.

Fa used dietary studies to estimate just how much bushmeat protein Africans consume. Figures ranged from 28 grams a day in Congo, the poorest country in Central Africa, to 180 grams in Gabon, the richest. The U.N.-recommended minimum intake is 52 grams. So it is clear that in many areas, bushmeat is an essential part of a subsistence diet. Perhaps equally clear, if the rich backed off bushmeat and hunters stopped hunting for cash, the situation would be better.

But, as Eleanor Milner-Gulland of the Renewable Resources Assessment Group at Imperial College in London points out, it is also the poorest that rely most on commercial hunting. “They are the most remote and marginalized groups, who have few easily available alternative sources of cash.” The commercial bushmeat business is essential both to feed millions of city dwellers and to provide cash for the poor in the bush. And, as things stand, hunger looms as the forests empty. Fa estimates that by 2050, the Central African bush will be able to supply just 9 grams per capita per day for the region’s population. Unless another source of protein shows up, “malnutrition is likely to increase dramatically.” The only other source would be domesticated meat.


Fa’s research has led him to come out against the conventional environmental response to the slaughter of wildlife—demands for bans on hunting and trade. He says that environmentalists are in danger of behaving like Marie Antoinette, who, on being told the French peasants had no bread, replied, “Let them eat cake.” Pork and chicken are no more available in Central African supermarkets than cake was in prerevolutionary Paris. Right now, the majority of poor Africans have no alternative to hunting and eating bushmeat. Many countries across the continent are going backward economically. They have deteriorating infrastructures, near-constant civil wars, and virtually no governments. Food production on farms in Central Africa has not risen since the 1960s, and in many areas it has fallen back sharply. Their economies are going “back to the bush.” How can their diets do other than follow? And of course, the one thing that the civil wars do provide them with is guns and other weapons with which to go hunting.

“We are understandably horrified by wild animals, especially primates, being killed for food,” Fa says. “But we must remember that bushmeat is a cheap source of protein for many malnourished people in Africa.” Until now, the bushmeat crisis has been portrayed as an animal-rights and environmental issue. But it is also a human rights issue. To solve it, he says, biologists must turn into social scientists. Rather than concentrating on the biology of the animals, Fa says, the outside world has to first understand the social and economic problems of the hunters. Only that way, he believes, can the animals of the African forests—and the people—be saved. And only by saving both can the forest be saved.

Adapted from Deep Jungle by Fred Pearce, Transworld Publishers 2005. Copyright 2005 by the author.

Further Reading
Fa, J., D. Currie, and J. Meeuwig. 2003. Bushmeat and food security in the Congo Basin: Linkages between wildlife and people’s future. Environmental Conservation 30(1):71-78.

Fa, J. et al. 2002. Bushmeat consumption and preferences of two ethnic groups in Bioko Island, West Africa. Human Ecology 30(3):397-416.

Fa, J., J.E.Garcia Yuste, and R. Castelo. 2000. Bushmeat markets on Bioko Island as a measure of hunting pressure. Conservation Biology 14(6):1602-1613.

The Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program (

Gulf of Guinea Conservation Group (


Bioko, an island 20 km wide just off the West African coast near Cameroon, demonstrates the African bushmeat conundrum in miniature.

The island has always been famous among wildlife experts for its array of primates—eight species in all, including drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus), black and red colobus (Colobus satanas and Piliocolobus pennanti), and several endemic subspecies of monkeys. But along with rats and duikers, the primates are heavily hunted for their meat.

Hunting, of course, is nothing new among the island’s 80,000 inhabitants. But the commercial bushmeat business—selling principally to the capital Malabo, where three-quarters of the population lives—got going in earnest only after the island gained independence from Spain in 1968 and became part of Equatorial Guinea.

At that point, the large colonial cocoa and coffee plantations were abandoned to the bush, local incomes plummeted, and hunting for bushmeat became a major means of survival, especially for unemployed laborers in the countryside.

John Fa, who has been investigating the bushmeat trade on the island for a decade, set out in 2003 to establish the overall availability of protein on the island and determine whether bushmeat is essential for human nutrition there. He wanted to find out whether bushmeat is a need or merely a commodity.

He and his British colleagues surveyed Malabo’s central market to estimate the island’s animal-protein supply, including bushmeat. He interviewed some 200 householders to explore who ate what and whether consumption of bushmeat and general animal protein was related to wealth. And finally, he calculated the island’s total animal-protein production and whether it was adequate to feed the island properly.

Fa and his colleagues found that 200 metric tons of dressed meat was sold annually in Malabo market, representing 49 metric tons of animal protein. Bushmeat accounted for 8.7 metric tons of the animal protein, or just under one-fifth. Two ungulates, the blue duiker (Cephalophus monticola schultzei) and Ogilby’s duiker (Cephalophus ogilbyi), made up the largest volume of bushmeat, followed by primates and rats.

Of the rest, the largest component was reared beef shipped frozen from neighboring Cameroon. But there was also locally reared fresh goat, pork, lamb, and duck; live chickens; and fish and shellfish, some imported and some caught in the seas around the island.

The bushmeat and domesticated meat markets were largely separate and were run by different people. Although bushmeat market prices were determined by haggling, the domesticated meat market had fixed prices.

Curiously, given the general shortage of meat, the household survey revealed no obvious link between wealth and either overall meat consumption or the consumption of particular meat types, including bushmeat. Nor were there differences in consumption patterns between different ethnic groups on the island.

The wide variety of sources of animal protein, however, disguised a serious shortage of supply. All told, the market—through which virtually the entire island’s meat was traded—sold fewer than 2 grams of animal protein per Bioko inhabitant per day. “That is not enough to supply even a tenth of the internationally recommended daily intake of protein of 52 grams per person per day,” Fa points out.

The animal-protein intake of people on Bioko is far lower even than that found by surveys on the mainland of Africa. Fa says that people do not starve on Bioko because of the plentiful supply of manioc, which provides them with calories. But manioc fails to provide the nutrition they need from protein, and so they risk serious malnutrition.

Only one-third of the animal protein consumed on Bioko was produced in-country—primarily bushmeat, small livestock, and fish. But this lack of domestic production was not the result of a land shortage. There are large areas of unused agricultural land on Bioko. There is enough potential pasture, Fa calculates, to sustain livestock to produce around 300 metric tons of animal protein annually. That is six times the current throughput of the Malabo market, although still not enough to meet recommended minimum protein intake.

The island could certainly produce more domesticated meat than it currently does. But the vital question for those concerned with balancing conservation and human welfare is whether, in practice, it would. If bushmeat were banned, would other sources replace the 8.7 metric tons of animal protein it currently supplies?

The answer, Fa says, is far from clear. The market fails to fill the existing large protein gap, so it is unlikely to respond to a further downturn in supply following a ban on bushmeat. The problem is due as much to shortages of expertise and entrepreneurship as to the lack of natural resources, he argues.

Fa’s study is the first to show in detail the protein balance of an area of sub-Saharan Africa. It reveals an alarming protein gap. “The story won’t be different elsewhere,” he says. “We are in the process of doing similar studies in Nigeria and Cameroon and they are coming to similar conclusions.”

To save rare species, Fa agrees, there is a desperate need to reduce bushmeat hunting. But to fill the protein gap, any humane strategy must also include positive measures to develop local production of reared meat.
Fred Pearce

Data courtesy of Lise Albrechtsen, John E. Fa, Brigid Barry, and David W. Macdonald

About the Author

Fred Pearce is a freelance writer based in London, U.K. He is an environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine as well as a regular contributor to the Boston Globe and the London Independent.

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