Conservation Blog

Tony's Journal: Tue. 1/29/02 (Grist 2)

The cover-mandrill
Photo: Karl Ammann
Date Added: January 29, 2002

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. (reprinted from gristmagazine.com, art. 2) Hail fell last night in Hermosa Beach. Ice sizzled in surf, pocked the sand, and tangled in my hair. A two-minute winter, followed by clear skies. That's what we get here in sunny Southern California -- pocket-sized cold snaps and perpetual spring. Or that's what we get so long as the greenhouse effect and the ozone hole don't melt the polar icecaps and reduce salinity in the deep sea conveyor belt that moderates ocean temperatures and keeps global climate in balance. If the meltdown happens, all bets are off. Real estate values will tumble like a tornado in Topeka. And this will be Kansas, Toto.

Catastrophic fantasies aside, it is another exquisite day, so far as I can tell at a glance. Of course a glance is all I get: Work prevails. I managed to reach Ammann at his flat in London this morning. The droll Swiss pessimist was in rare good spirits. He likes the manuscript -- made my month. We now have a prototype coffee table book on its way to publishers in Europe, and ready to discuss with our donors in the U.S.

Imagine wildlife advocates and adventurers around the world giving friends the gift of a photo essay about African wildlife that tells the truth. Suppose Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Pope John Paul flipped open this big fancy book with a brilliant mandrill on the cover and found themselves staring at a full color photo of a bloody butchered gorilla. That could start a revolution. And a revolution is what we need. A counter-revolution to reverse global greed.

Recent projections place the volume of bushmeat commerce in the Congo basin at two million metric tons -- a $4 billion annual business, mostly illegal. The bushmeat trade became big business in the late 1980s, when the timber barons of Europe began to buy options on rainforests in central Africa. Pulling hardwood out of the wilderness is very profitable in countries where labor is cheap and government regulations are minimal. A constant and growing stream of men have moved into the forests, under contract to cut wood and transport it back to sawmills in the cities. Many have brought wives and children, or found them in the villages. Roads and logging towns have sprung up in pristine wilderness areas from Cameroon to eastern Congo (DRC). The result: a commercial and cultural revolution.

gorilla
Gore-illa head and ribcage.
Photo: Karl Ammann.
The forest has become a marketplace. Where bird calls and the chatter of monkeys were once the loudest sounds of the day, the roar of chainsaws and the explosion of falling timber are now heard from sunup to sundown. At night, gunshots and radio drown out the cries of sloth and civet cat. With the subduing of nature, there comes a subverting of culture. Cash corrupts community and seduces local leaders to serve outsiders instead of their people. For a small pension, the mayor will look aside when loggers and hunters cut protected trees and kill endangered species. The profit motive overwhelms ecological interests. To increase their margins, timber companies don't provide poultry or beef to their workers, but instead encourage bushmeat business. The traditional hunting grounds are being converted to modern harvest fields to feed a captive market of hungry loggers and their families.

It is time that people around the world confront this tragic situation and help to stop it. The loggers and urban elite of Africa won't become vegetarians anytime soon, but they can be asked to stop paying a premium to eat vanishing species. Urban Africans, from the business sector to the parliament, are demanding meat from apes and other endangered animals for their feast tables. In doing so, they are setting aside both ethics and the law. There is nowhere in the world where killing and consuming apes is legal. But the laws are on the books, not in the values of many African people. Even the clergy transgresses.

Last year a colleague of ours showed up at a party for a visiting Catholic bishop and found gorilla meat on the table. This was in eastern Cameroon, just a few miles from a gorilla protection project we helped develop. The local priest removed the gorilla steak at once, but the damage had been done. His call for bushmeat had produced what local hunters considered a delicacy. The result -- two dead gorillas -- was an embarrassment to the bishop, but he showed no signs of remorse for the apes. Ape or antelope, pig or porcupine -- it's all meat in much of equatorial Africa.

How can we expect anything different? We set the example. It is northern consumer societies that have set the stage for eating apes. The prevailing message we send around the world in our entertainment and advertising is, "Consume goods, spend money, live in luxury and comfort! That's what life is for." Euro-Americans are the mouth of modern civilization, consuming 80 percent of the gross world product. It's not surprising that the people of Africa who aspire to an affluent lifestyle are feasting on their natural heritage.

The horror starts here, at home in affluent America and Europe. And I am part of it, living in this wonderland at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where the greatest challenges are a two-minute hail storm and crossing a busy intersection at rush hour. I guess that's why I spend sunup to sundown in my office, and barely allow myself a sideways glance at the sea. I've paid my dues for the day, trying to save apes. Just in time for sunset.

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