Elephant steak; the new ivory
I flew into Zemio in the Central African Republic (CAR) where I spent several days. The American missionary I travelled with had lived in the area for many years and was able to tell me about wildlife and poaching in the region. He explained that when he grew up, they regularly saw herds of elephants of up to 300 animals within a few minutes drive of Zemio. Today most of the school children living in the town have never seen an elephant in their lives.
We learnt of the heavy poaching - by armed gangs from Sudan - that is taking place across all of the CAR's South Eastern Region and decimating wildlife. We also heard that two French owned professional hunting camps had closed due to the lack of wildlife and how, with nothing left to hunt, some of the poachers had turned to looting and raping. At least two villages had been completely abandoned due to the insecurity associated with poaching.
My sources in the CAR explained that the UNHCR camp at Mboki (near the Sudan/DRC border), plays a major role in facilitating poaching and the bushmeat trade. Most of the refugees appear to be Azande youth who fled from forced military recruitment in Southern Sudan. When they arrive in the CAR they hide their weapons and head for this refugee camp. With little wildlife left in the CAR, many of these armed youths then embark on hunting excursions in Northern Congo.
Transport from the Eastern Region to Bangui is difficult and costly. The most reliable transporter appears to be the UNHCR which has an average of four 8 tonne lorries supplying the refugee camp every week. I was told that the UNHCR vehicles supplying the refugee camp further west could be smelled a long time before they could be seen as they head back for Bangui, the capital. The UNHCR lorries are allowed to transport local traders and the main commodity carried is elephant meat. I was told that as the journey can take a week, elephant meat is preferred since in smoked form it lasts longer than any other meat.
During subsequent days and a return visit, I interviewed traders and we filmed elephant meat in Zemio's main market. The traders confirmed that nowadays all elephant meat comes across the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as there are few elephants or other wildlife remaining in the CAR. The trade is well-organised with traders regularly visiting the areas where bushmeat is produced and making specific arrangements with hunters. The traders in Zemio estimated that 90 per cent of the meat is traded in this way and never goes onto the open marketplace.
On just one journey (from Zemio to Digba) we came across 4 separate bicycle convoys heading for the CAR and transporting hundreds of kilos of meat - mostly from elephant but also including a chimp and a forest hog in smoked pieces. We also found four young chimps in Zemio.
The market traders, the chimp owners and the transporters of bushmeat all confirmed, on camera, that the source of all the meat was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They also stated that the transfer of the meat across the border - marked by the M'boumou river - did not present any problem whatsoever. Not even in Zemio is there any border control and pirogues cross on a daily basis.
In Digba the Azanda local chief confirmed that this trade had been taking place for about two years. He also told us that the Sudanese poachers were travelling up to 100 kilometres into the DRC: this seems to be about the maximum distance the bicycle traders are willing to transport their loads of some 100 kilos of meat. At the small port on the edge of Zemio we were stopped by police and military officials who charged us duty on various items we had bought in the CAR. The official duty list that I saw included amounts payable for sacks of bushmeat arriving from the opposite direction. Three separate authorities charge three different taxes on bushmeat entering from the DRC.
I later established that most of the meat transporters and traders try to avoid these taxes by crossing the border some 8 kilometres away and usually crossing at night. On the CAR side of the river the meat is stored in a granary belonging to a Mme. Navige. It seems that the traders and housewives of Zemio are all fully aware of this facility and are willing to travel the 8 kilometres to buy and sell meat. I persuaded one of the local traders to monitor and film some of the activities over the course of several nights. What he reported was the storage and sale of hundreds of kilos of elephant meat. Elephant meat comprised about 80 per cent of the meat taken across the border. The number of 5kg chunks of smoked meat was estimated to represent an average of 3-4 elephants being traded each day (only the flesh from the legs and trunk are smoked - the remainder is discarded).
As we continued into the DRC we met several of the bicycle caravans taking elephant meat from the north to the border. Each bicycle carries a 100kg pannier and we were told that forest elephants each yield about 4 bags of meat.
From my interviews with many hunters I concluded that as very few savannah elephants remained as a result of poaching, the hunters were now turning to the smaller but more numerous forest elephants.
I returned to the region two months later. I had been told that Chief Selesi of Badai had several elephant hunters working for him and my time in the forests and savannah confirmed that there were healthy wildlife populations including those of buffalo and elephant.
I travelled north towards Adama and at a mission school along the way I learnt that a Mr Commando, a keen elephant hunter, had sent for porters the previous day to carry smoked elephant meat and ivory. I found Mr Commando's home and his wife told me that her husband and the porters had not yet returned from the hunting grounds some 30km away. She told me that her husband specialised in hunting elephants and that he killed one every two weeks. The meat was taken on bicycles to Adamain in the DRC and then portered to Rafai about 30 kilometres away and on the CAR side of the river.
I returned towards Badai and learnt that an elephant hunter had returned from a trip the previous day. I found his hut and we began talking after I said that I wanted to buy some meat for staff at the camp. He told me that there was little meat remaining as his sons had left that morning for Zemio, each carrying 3 or 4 baskets of the meat. Eventually he offered me two chunks, each weighing about 5 kilograms and I was compelled to buy these but I hoped this would at least give me time to ask more questions. Unfortunately my presence attracted other villagers and the hunter became a little apprehensive. Although I was able to take photos of the meat and ivory, I felt that I had to offer him a position as my guide in order to gain more detailed information. Over the following 2 days he revealed that:
- On average he hunted two elephants a month.
- His most recent kill was a bull forest elephant - the animal yielded very little ivory, yet he said that the bull was the largest animal in the herd of five. This seems to confirm that the largest animals have been wiped out by the ivory trade during the 1980s.
- He hunted with an old gun belonging to a mechanic at the Protestant mission in Bili. In return for loaning the gun he would get the ivory.
- Once smoked the meat would fetch about CFA 35 000 (US$60) per 100 kg basket. The meat from this one carcass would have fetched a little over US$200.
- Each tusk weighed around 2 kgs (4 kg in total) and fetched about CFA 8,000 (US$14) per kg (big tusks can fetch a maximum of around CFA 12,000 (US$19) per kg).
- The total value of the meat (about US$200) was therefore about 4 times that of the ivory (US$50).
The hunter confirmed that this was the usual scenario - elephants are hunted for their meat and the ivory is a useful by-product. He explained that the commercial hunting of elephants had begun about three years ago as a result of the collapse of the coffee market in the region - locals had resorted to hunting and trading in meat as an alternative source of income.
I was told that the new demand from the CAR was a result of the decimation of the elephant populations on that side of the border. In one generation most of the large savannah elephants have been wiped out and the same fate now awaits the forest elephants. My guide explained that as soon as elephant hunting is no longer profitable the locals would turn to buffalo hunting instead.
This scenario is common across Africa - with a lack of regulation over hunting or the bushmeat trade, once one species has declined hunters simply turn to another species to replace it. I cross-checked the hunter's information and it became clear that his story is representative of what goes on along the length of the DRC-CAR border. It is also very clear that elephants are now a major commodity in the bushmeat trade.
Karl Ammann, Nanyuki Kenya
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