Joseph Tsongo | May 25, 2020
In DRC, poaching has been banned in Virunga National Park for some time. Consuming and hunting bushmeat has been banned to protect humans from possible diseases like Ebola and the new coronavirus and to protect endangered species. Ebola and the new coronavirus are both zoonotic diseases, meaning they jumped from animals to humans, though the source of transmission is human-to-human contact. Malese Yirayira is a community leader in North Kivu, DRC. She says the bans on hunting and consuming wildlife affect the diets and customs of local people. But other community leaders are working to popularize alternative sources of protein, including mushrooms.
It’s 7 a.m. and a fine rain is falling in Virunga National Park in North Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Paluku Kaposolina, who lives in the area, bends over to light the fire near his shack. Mr. Kaposolina is only 30, but his scowl makes him look older.
The young man relies on illegal hunting for food. However, with the spread of viral diseases like Ebola and the new coronavirus, both of which originated in animals, hunting and consumption of wild meat is formally banned. There are awareness campaigns to ensure everyone understands this message. But communities living near forests are finding it difficult to comply because they have been getting most of their protein from bushmeat for a long time.
Mr. Kaposolina says: “I make my living here. Each day, I must get up before five in the morning to check my traps in the bush and gather my game … but I’m not going there today and my customers are suffering just like me.”
Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ban on bushmeat, Congolese law had already banned poaching in protected areas such as the Virunga National Park, classified as a World Heritage Site. But hunters like Mr. Kaposolina continued to enter illegally to hunt.
Malese Yirayira is a community leader and anthropologist, and is worried that community diets and traditions will be compromised by the hunting ban. He explains, “If the bans on wildlife hunting or consumption are maintained, millions of people in native or rural communities that depend directly on wild meat for protein will be at risk of malnutrition.”
He says that many groups in this region live by hunting wild animals such as monkeys, foxes, wild pigeons, warthogs, rats, antelopes, buffaloes, and many other animals. Some groups also use these animals for customary sacrifices to contact ancestors and solve community problems.
The transmission of disease from animals to humans is not new. According to the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. The article indicates that when the diseases pass from animals to humans, it can become more serious and can cause pandemics as they spread from one human to another.
Bahati Kiro is an expert on animal diseases. Mr. Kiro explains: “Zoonoses are infectious diseases that reach humans via animals.… It is in this context that eating bushmeat is fiercely prohibited today even here in DRC. It is clear that human pressure on biodiversity is causing a problem.”
In this area, many local populations are infringing on protected areas like Virunga National Park to cut wood or cultivate land, but also to hunt wild animals. Charcoal is a flourishing industry and there is not enough arable land for farming in the region, and animals are used for both food and trade. These activities are conducted with the blessing of the armed groups that are active in the region.
Although the origin of the coronavirus pandemic and the exact transmission route from animals to humans has yet to be clarified, there is an understanding that the virus spread from animals to humans.
But meat—and more specifically wild meat—is not the only way to get protein. Bantu Lukambo is the coordinator of a local organization that protects the environment and promotes sustainable development in eastern DRC. He explains that everyone’s protein needs are different and are determined by many factors, including body weight. He says, “We can obtain proteins from plants just as we can from animals. The human body needs all [kinds of] proteins.”
His organization has already set up a community hutch and a mushroom farm to help farmers produce mushrooms around Virunga National Park in an effort to reduce poaching and consumption of wild meat.
This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.