NAIROBI, Kenya (June 15, 2011) _ Commercial logging in countries of the Congo Basin, one of the world’s few remaining tropical rainforest regions, has come under heavy criticism for its role in fueling the illegal trade in bushmeat and elephant ivory.
Timber extraction is the most widespread industry in the Congo Basin where timber concessions occupy between 30 and 45 percent of all remaining tropical forests and more than 70 percent in some countries.
But opinions were varied on the issue of commercial logging at a recent meeting of experts trying to come up with ways to stem the illegal trade in bushmeat while at the same time promoting the sustainable harvesting of wild animals that provide protein for indigenous and local people and serve as seed disseminators to maintain the forests.
Doug Cress of the Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP) of the U.N. Environment Program insists there is no room to make exceptions for hunting in the case of the great apes and other primates and blamed logging for much of the onslaught.
“If all bushmeat hunting took place in a traditional setting, that would be different. But now there are gangs with AK-47s and logging and mining companies that are coming in bringing entire cities with them that need to be fed. Some people are given guns and bullets to go out and shoot meat to feed the crews, and they shoot the easiest animals to find—the apes and chimpanzees. When one of them goes down, the others come running to help, and they are easy to shoot,” he said. “For us, law enforcement is key, but the law is not enforced.”
Dr. Heather Eves, a wildlife biologist and member of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, points to the irony that while logging companies have created much-needed infrastructure—particularly roads—at the same time they have been “the main drivers of the extremely rapid increase in bushmeat trade and consumption over the past 15 to 20 years.”
But Dr. Robert Nasi, a director at the Center for International Forestry Research, is concerned that criticism of logging and calls to rein in its excesses ignore the serious moves by some loggers to adopt best practices and foster conservation of both timber and wild animals.
“You can’t paint all of them with the same brush. If we want them to work towards the goals of sustaining both forests and wildlife, we have to identify the ones who have adopted best practices and try to encourage others to follow their example,” he said.
Dr Eves, who has been involved in efforts to resolve the “bushmeat crisis” for more than a decade, feels strongly that more than the usual recommendations are needed.
“What recommendations would we be making if sustainable use were not really possible in the next 25 years?” she asked. “We would be making many more urgent actions and decisions….a bunch of biologists don’t sit in a room to draw up a plan. You go out in the field where the project is going to occur, and you bring everyone in—the elders, etc.—and then you build the project from there.”
The foundation of one such project is being laid this month in Gabon, one of the six countries in the Congo Basin—the others are Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The lack of multi-disciplinary professional teams in this part of Africa that can assess problems and create more lasting, long-term solutions is a major weakness in these six countries where cross-cutting expertise is limited, and challenges often overwhelm resources when it comes to conservation—of both forests and wildlife.
MENTOR-FOREST, a program sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, aims to build a multi-disciplinary team of 10 Central African forest resource professionals to improve on current forestry practices, identify new forest stewardship strategies, mitigate impacts to wildlife and enhance the sustainable management of forests, according to Nancy B. Gelman of the USFWS Wildlife Without Borders program and a participant in the June 7-10 bushmeat crisis meeting in Nairobi.
She said the program will train the fellows in improving management in production forests through reduced impact logging (RIL) and private sector partnerships for conservation, designing and implementing innovative pilot forestry programs, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation and addressing emerging diseases associated with non-sustainable forest stewardship. They will also study forest ecology, biodiversity monitoring and wildlife management and project management.
She said the program was designed to address the shortage of information for decision makers to act on, the lack of innovative models that link development and conservation strategies and the low capacity of local institutions of higher learning and governments to study and manage forests.