Mammals, reptiles, birds … In the Mayombe forest, game production has been running at full speed since the RN1 road was opened in 2011. But the game is hunted illegally, despite the efforts of wildlife protection institutions.
We are near the village of Les Saras in the heart of the lush Mayombe forest in the Kouilou region, some 90 kilometres east of Pointe-Noire, the economic capital of Congo-Brazzaville.
Although Les Saras is famous for banana production, the area is now known as “the big meat market.” Since the RN1 opened in 2011, this area has attracted hunters, traders, and restaurateurs—all part of the value chain for game meat.
Ange is one of the big meat traders in the area. He says, “I used to be a mechanic. But the activity did not bring in much money. That’s why I settled here.”
Stéphane is another game meat trader. He says: “In the past, the meat would rot because the area was difficult to access by vehicle due to the dilapidated road. It was the customer who imposed the prices. Today, this is no longer the case. Due to the fluidity of the traffic (Editor’s note: an average of 3,000 vehicles per day), our products no longer idle [on the racks].”
A blue duiker, a small species of antelope, used to sell for 3,000 FCFA (US $4.94), but today an adult animal fetches at least 10,000 FCFA (US $16.49). The cost of the black-banded duiker varies between 20,000 and 40,000 FCFA (US $32.97-65.95), compared to 10,000 to 15,000 FCFA in the past (US $16.49-24.73).
Ange says it’s a profitable business, so much so that he gave up his career as a mechanic. The forty-year-old says, “What do I earn? That’s a secret. But I earn more than I did as a mechanic.”
It is forbidden to take photos or selfies here. Stéphane warns: “Don’t take photos or selfies. We don’t know where those pictures will end up and it can get us into trouble. And if you insist, I can end you with this cleaver.” He finishes off a young pangolin with a violent blow to the head as he speaks.
In Congo-Brazzaville, hunting is regulated by a series of laws, including one which stipulates the legal hunting periods.
he law states that sport hunting is forbidden from November 1 to May 1 each year. And even during the hunting season, hunters require a permit issued by the Ministry of Forestry Economy.
The penalties for those who disobey are serious. One law provides for prison sentences and fines starting at five million FCFA (US $2,410) for offences such as hunting outside the licensed area, hunting without a license, and killing protected animals.
The penalties are even steeper when the offender is an agent of the administration of Water and Forests or of the police.
But these laws are largely ignored. Stéphane explains, “Deputies, ministers, senators, generals, senior Water and Forestry officials—all these officials stop here to buy game meat.”
The forestry administration refrained from commenting on the issue without giving any reason. However, interviews suggest cooperation between the Ministry of Water and Forests and those involved in illegal hunting markets.
AA trader who prefers to remain anonymous explains: “It is the Water and Forestry officials themselves who warn us of their raids. We leave the area before they arrive. In return, we give them 1,000 FCFA per animal. That’s why they never catch us.”
But even those involved in the illegal trade know that their business has negative consequences for Mayombe’s wildlife. Every day, more than 200 animals are on display in the markets. Multiplied by 365 days a year, it’s possible to imagine a future where the animals in Mayombe could disappear altogether.
The warning signs are already visible. Lucien is from the neighbouring village of Doumanga. He says: “Between 2012 and 2015, this was a very gamey area. You only had to walk three hundred metres to find an animal. But now you have to walk almost five, even seven kilometres.”
The grim possibilities of the trade have already convinced some to seek their livelihood by other means. Joseph Ouboudama is a farmer from Kissila village. He says: “I used to hunt. But since people have been judged and sentenced for poaching or illegal hunting, I have resolved to practice only agriculture. And I even hate eating meat from the hunt, with all the stories about diseases carried by animals.”
Mr. Ouboudama continues, “To say that these people are right to practice illegal hunting? No, they are not right. They need alternatives.”
Alternatives to hunting and illegal meat consumption are being developed in the village of Louaka, in Kakamoeka district, thanks to a biodiversity protection association called Endangered Species International Congo, or ESI Congo.
The NGO has been working since 2015 to protect endangered species in the area, conduct scientific research on primates, provide environmental education to local people, support local governance, and above all, support community development.
Siham Benmamar is the assistant coordinator at ESI Congo. He explains: “We work extremely closely with the people of Kakamoeka district … In order to reduce hunting and increase other alternatives, we realized that there was a strong need to practice agriculture and, particularly, produce plantain. Several cultivation techniques were introduced … We also structure the value chain from the field to the plate. We also organize ecotourism trips that benefit the communities by training hunters to become guides instead. It is true that this is not a sustainable solution to hunting, but it can be considered as the beginning of a solution.”
Though Louaka is in the Mayombe, it is set back from the RN1. So poachers working along the RN1 do not benefit from ESI Congo’s work.
s a result, hunting in the Mayombe remains intense, and there is an urgent need to establish effective ways to enforce laws and introduce alternatives that divert local people from illegal hunting.
The names of some of the people featured in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.This article was produced with the support of the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Photo: The RN1 road opened in 2011. Credit: John Niding-Ngoma.