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Rangers put bush-meat poachers in their sights

From Nkepile Mabuse, CNN
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Battling the bush-meat trade
  • Poachers illegally hunt threatened species in the Deng Deng National Park
  • The illegal bush meat trade is a problem that now extends beyond Cameroon's borders
  • Bush meat is seen as a luxury outside of rural areas
  • Park rangers are teaching locals to raise domestic animals

Deng Deng, Cameroon (CNN) -- In the dense rainforest of eastern Cameroon a team of rangers is on the hunt for poachers.

The group is cracking down on the commercial trade of bush meat -- forest animals killed for their meat -- a problem that now extends beyond the country's borders.

"It's the main problem we face, but with time we will succeed," said Deng Deng National Park ranger, Julius Tanyi.

The bush meat trade in Cameroon is illegal, but enforcement is low and profits are high.

Animals caught in the rainforest by poachers are often smuggled by train from the rural areas to the cities.

But the threat to wildlife is becoming greater as the meat is sent further afield. A study published last year estimated that each week around five tons of illegal African bush meat is smuggled through Paris Charles de Gualle airport in France.

We see if they (animals) are curious or if they are still running away from us -- if they run away from us, it means they are threatened.
--Julius Tanyi, park ranger

The rangers scour the forest for clues left by poachers looking to turn threatened species into bush meat.

"On these types of expeditions we look for bullets, we look for traps that people set and animals too," Tanyi explained. "We see if they (animals) are curious or if they are still running away from us -- if they run away from us, it means they are threatened."

The meat can be found for sale at a market close to the park. Roger Fotso, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a familiar face in the area but he doesn't confuse recognition with popularity. Most of the meat for sale comes from the rainforest he is trying to protect.

As soon as he arrives at the market a group of meat sellers runs away with everything. But Fotso still finds animals such as monkey for sale there.

"Monkeys reproduce really slowly and it's really serious to have people taking away that many of them," Fotso explained.

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In local markets bush meat can fetch between $10 -15 but in urban centers like the capital Yaoundé, sellers can charge double. And as Cameroon continues to urbanize the problem is getting worse.

Fotso says there's a new breed of consumer in the city that buys the meat for prestige instead of sustenance.

This is taking away from the people in the rural areas ...
--Roger Fotso, Wildlife Conservation Society

"It's quite expensive, so it's more about luxury than really having the need for that bush meat," he said. "This is taking away from the people in the rural areas where bush meat is for local consumption but this is commercial."

The conservation society believes it is not acceptable to have such an open market for something that is illegal.

"Very often people tend to point the finger at the rural poor, but they are not the problem. The problem is the middlemen who come from the cities with money, with cartridges, with guns and professional hunters," Fotso continued.

Fotso says ending the trade isn't about making bush meat less appetizing to consumers -- it's about starting at the source and making it less desirable to hunt, transport and sell.

In a nearby village that borders the national park a local chief explains that he used to benefit from hunting and selling bush meat, but now he prefers not to poach.

However, he points out that if there are no other opportunities to make money some people may be forced to go back to the illegal trade.

The rangers want to make sure that doesn't happen and are suggesting alternatives to the locals.

"(We are) teaching them to raise domestic animals like chicken, goats and pigs so that they can stop going into the forest," Tanyi said.

The rangers know they have a long way to go but say they are committed to their task. In a country with limited resources to fight this growing threat, commitment could be conservation's best hope.