Special report: Horrific bush-meat trade stalks Guinea-Bissau

| 29th September 2010
bush meat
The bush meat trade, including primates, occurs across west Africa. Photo: Dawn Starin
In a remarkable and harrowing dispatch from Guinea-Bissau, Dawn Starin reports how logging, mining and agriculture are opening up the country's once intact forests to the ravages of the growing bush-meat trade, threatening some of the country's most enigmatic monkey species

‘I eat monkey whenever I can,’ says Angela, a Guinean health worker at one of the major hospitals in the capital Bissau. ‘Often I go with my son and we pay 2000 CFA (the equivalent of $4.12) for four or five pieces of monkey and a loaf of bread. I prefer mona monkey but I'll eat anything on offer unless I'm pregnant. Pregnant women can't eat monkey because they will end up having kids who act like monkeys and that's a problem.’

Angela takes me to her local monkey butcher in Bissau. At two o'clock in the afternoon he has already sold out but, he says ‘come back tomorrow and I'll have more.’ He buys monkeys everyday; monas and baboons and sometimes red colobus and black and white colobus – all of them from Gabu in the eastern part of the country. According to the butcher, 'they come by boat and they come by road and they come everyday.’

Jose, a poet/artist/accountant who has travelled far and wide – and knows the works of Picasso and Michelangelo – sits in his local monkey restaurant drinking coke and beer and smoking cigarettes. While waiting for a plate of monkey stew he shows me his many pencil drawings. Detailed portraits of Amilcar Cabral, the father of the nation, naked full-breasted women and Joao Bernardo, the assassinated ex-president, spill across the table. Jose explains that ‘my favourite meat is domestic goat, but next to that, I prefer monkey meat, especially the chest… I eat it anywhere from four days a week to four times a month.’


Jose also points out that ‘this restaurant gives the best value in Bissau. I can get four or five pieces of monkey for just 1,000 CFA (the equivalent of $2.06) and the other restaurants either give fewer pieces or charge more money or do both. So, I always come here.’ Jose may find this good value for money, but this is not a cheap meal by Guinea Bissau standards: according to the World Bank, the average yearly income is less than $250 and the UN ranks it one of the poorest nations in the world.

I used to assume that increasing wealth would lead to decreasing bush-meat consumption. Looking at the customers here I now think the opposite. These are not poor people and monkey meat is not cheap.  Monkey meat in Bissau is not a necessary source of protein – or even a semi-treat. Monkey stew seems to be a luxury for the well-off.

Two businessmen sit discussing the day's deals and sucking on monkey bones. An old man sits in a corner, drinking his liquor and eating his monkey stew. Two young men sit drinking beer and waiting for their special morsels. They are only interested in chomping and sucking on the hands. Maria, a well-dressed young businesswoman arrives carrying a mobile phone, a computer case and a Tupperware-like container. The restaurant owner ladles five chunks of monkey meat and lots of sauce into her container and she returns home with her take-away. She does this every evening for dinner because she ‘loves the taste of monkey.’

The monkey stew on offer today is made by a woman from one baboon head and the head and body of a mona. Onions, garlic, chilli, vinegar, lemon and oil are added, along with some extra herbs, and it is stewed on top of a charcoal fire before drinking with liquor and eaten with bread... the Guinean equivalent of a French baguette.

Every day, seven days a week Carlos, the owner of the monkey restaurant – who says he prefers ‘wild pig to monkey but monkey is second best’ – goes to the local monkey butcher where he buys at least two monkeys, the equivalent of 20 separate plates. At the butchers he forks out 1,250CFA per kilo – regardless of the species. The hands, feet and head are the most coveted pieces and are sold separately. A baboon head can cost up to 2,500CFA (approximately $6.50)

Butchery and bribery

Inside a monkey butchers’ I found skinned, gutted, smoked and shaved human infant-like forms lying on blood-soaked, filthy floors. Heaps of baboons rolled in on wheelbarrows get dumped in the corner in a pile. All of them have been smoked so they don't go rotten while being transported long distances from the forest. The sight is unbearable. The stench is overwhelming. The butchers – almost all of them women – sit around gossiping and plaiting each other's hair and waiting for customers.

I spend five days visiting the local monkey butcher. During this period, the shop receives at least 48 monkeys (21 baboons, 15 monas, three red colobus, one black and white colobus, one green monkey, seven unidentified – but not baboon). I know that this count is far from complete and I have no idea how many other monkey butchers there are in Bissau – but I am told that there are at least five others scattered around the town. 

If 48 monkeys is a normal haul for five days, this would mean that in any five day period a minimum of 240 monkeys are leaving the forest and end up somewhere in Bissau. These numbers do not even begin to include the meat that is consumed in the local village, the meat that is sold to fellow passengers en route to Bissau, and the meat that is taken by the transporters.

The numbers are believed to be less during the rainy season when the forestry department halts the killing, but corrupt officials frequently ensure monkeys get through in return for cash.

Across town Agostinha runs another monkey restaurant six days a week. Every day she goes down to the harbour to collect monkeys from the boats. Today she has received a call from a hunter who tells her ‘there are four monkeys arriving on a boat.’

When the monkeys come off the boat, Agostinha  pays a bribe to an official from the forestry department. The official originally asks her for 1,000CFA per monkey but she talks him down to 500 CFA per monkey because ‘they are only small ones.’ She then sells three monkeys and keeps one for her restaurant.

I meet up with a local hunter and follow him around town as he goes from Agostinha's restaurant to another restaurant serving monkey. As we walk through Bissau, the hunter is accosted by a policeman who claims he is owed money as a ‘monkey tax’. The hunter pulls away and yells 'you are not from the forestry department and I owe you nothing. I have paid my tax and I have paid for my hunting permit.’

Talking with the hunter to get a better idea of how the entire ‘chain’ works,  he tells me that after the monkey is shot in the forest and falls to the ground, he skins it, smokes it, and removes the tail, genitals and intestines. These 'dirty' pieces are then either thrown away or fed to dogs.  In order to work as a hunter he says he pays the forestry department 60,000CFA (approximately $123.60) per year for a permit that entitles him to hunt anything he wants wherever he wants: ‘A typical catch for me is ten monkeys a day but if someone wants a live one I can get it. If you want a chimp I can get that too but I have to kill the mother to get the baby.’

Monkeys arrive in the capital Bissau from the eastern and the southern parts of the country and also from some of the islands. Criss-crossing the country, the dead monkeys are often hidden in charcoal sacks and then transported by truck (there is no rail system) or boat. All along the way from first shot in a dying forest to last bite in a monkey chop shop, the bribing and bartering and bargaining occurs.

If a hunter is not caught and his goods make it on to a truck headed for the capital then he may have to pay the lorry driver in meat. And, when the meat reaches the butcher shop, representatives from the forestry department often stop by and take some for their own use. Or, if the meat arrives by boat, then the boat is met by a bribe-taking forestry official.  And when the meat is being stewed in the dark and smoky kitchen another forestry department official or a policeman might stop by for a 'free meal'.

Empty forests

Walking through Lagoas de Cufada Natural Park, where leopards, elephants, buffaloes, chimpanzees and numerous species of monkeys once reigned, the forest feels empty. There is silence. There are virtually no insects, hardly any birds, no reptiles, a small number of mammals and some chimpanzee nests. A few mona monkey troops run through the canopy in the distance and one troop of baboons flees across the almost devastated landscape. This forest looks empty too. Large areas have been degraded by slash and burn agriculture and logging operations. There are gaping holes in this living architecture.

Things could get worse since an Angolan mining company has reportedly secured a vast mineral deal and is now building new roads and a harbour and tearing up this forest for bauxite. If this is so, hundreds of mine employees will be on the hunt for protein – and the monkey harvest in this region could expand.

A conservationist with knowledge of the local situation told me: ‘this mining company has already cut down almost 10 per cent of the forest and when they have finished taking the bauxite out of Guinea-Bissau they will leave nothing behind except for habitat loss, an increased access to previously inaccessible areas – making it easier for the hunters to get their monkeys to market – and possibly, even the creation of more commercial hunters and more monkey eaters.’

In the past the bush meat market was limited because it was difficult to gain access to forests and it was difficult to transport the meat to urban centres. These factors have now been overridden.

Travelling further into the country I get to Cantanhez, the largest and newest national park. Sitting beneath massive buttressed trees in the middle of the forest, I hear some chimps pant-hooting. I see a small group of graceful black and white colobus and a larger group of clumsy red colobus. Soon there is a veritable choir of primate voices from on high and I begin to think that maybe there is hope for the forests in this poverty stricken land.

But then a shot rings out... the endangered primates above my head are being preyed on by a local hunter. This hunter is caught and his gun is confiscated. He then pays a bribe to the man who caught him and the gun is returned to him so he can shoot another endangered animal another day. There doesn't seem to be any other way: this forest is the hunter's supermarket and job centre combined. This forest is also a place without a fence; without guards, and without headquarters. In short, this is a park in name only, a park without protection.

Another conservationist – who did not want to be named – pointed out to me that ‘Cantanhez is not far from the border where chimps are considered a delicacy… I can give you a list of problems you wouldn't believe. Not long ago French medical laboratory researchers reportedly came here and bought 20 young chimpanzees for 20,000CFA (approximately $41.20) each for experimental research. I can understand why the villagers would sell the chimps. That's a lot of money for a poor villager. It would be impossible to turn that amount down.  I don't blame the poor villager. I blame the medical researchers and the incompetent bribe-taking government officials.’

The conservationist continued: ‘Recently an irate farmer killed a chimp for taking oranges from his orchard. And these wildlife-human conflicts are going to increase because the more the forest is denuded through mining and logging, the more the wildlife will loose out and the more the chimpanzees are going to be forced to search for food and water on the farms. I seriously believe that law enforcement is only part of the problem. Living conditions, livelihoods have to be improved. Economics. It all boils down to economics. If the economic situation here doesn't change then I don't think there is anyway this is going to end until all the forests disappear and all the chimps and all the monkeys are dead and then all the people will have lost out because they will have lost their forested supermarket, pharmacy and job centre.’

Protected areas

The trade in primates in Guinea-Bissau shouldn't be happening. Sport hunting and trafficking in wild animals is illegal; the bush-meat restaurants and butcher shops I visited are illegal. On paper Guinea-Bissau doesn't look bad. They have signed CITES, an international agreement designed to regulate the trade in rare and endangered animals and plants. Hunting with guns, fire and traps is illegal. Red colobus, black and white colobus and chimpanzees are protected throughout the year and all the other primates are protected during the rainy season. Only individuals living in the forested areas can hunt in those areas and they can only use the meat for their own personal use; it cannot be sold, bartered or traded. A network of 'protected' areas has been established.

In reality none of this matters. Because of a lack of proper fencing, manpower, financial resources and educational conservation, the setting of uncontrolled bushfires, constant logging, mining and hunting and total non-protection of the so-called 'protected' areas, Guinea-Bissau is on its way to disaster. Its forests and its primates are disappearing and its people are on their way toward becoming eco-refugees in their own land.

How did things get so bad? According to an official with IBAP, a semi-autonomous Government agency semi-responsible for management of the country's five national parks: ‘We don't have the resources in terms of money or manpower to protect what we have. Cantanhez, has no fencing, no guards and no headquarters. Basically it is a totally unprotected area that is being logged and hunted and there is nothing we can do about it. Our problems are immense. The government is irresponsible and bribes are a normal way of life. We have no way of rescuing pets and the restaurants and the butcher shops are illegal and there is nothing we can do about it. And, even if hunters and poachers were arrested, we couldn't do anything since the country has no prisons or detention centres to hold prisoners or suspects. Corruption plus a lack of transport plus a lack of detention centres only means that anyone arrested would simply walk free.’

Walking through the forest he continues: ‘Look around you, it is getting worse. Now people from the neighbouring countries and beyond are coming in and raping the land. They have ruined their land and now they are coming here to ruin ours. They are taking away the fish and the trees and the animals and leaving nothing behind for the local people. Until very recently the people in Guinea-Bissau knew how to preserve and protect their resources. They only took from the forest – their larder and hospital and sacred sites – what they needed and no more because they respected the forest. I cannot give up the belief that someday we will find a balance.’

The official tells me that ‘more and more we are seeing that the people who are benefiting from Guinea-Bissau's resources are not the people of Guinea-Bissau. They are from Europe, Asia and the neighbouring countries. If we had to deal with just subsistence hunting for consumption at the village level we might be able to contain the problem. But what is going on here in Guinea-Bissau is commercial hunting for markets in Bissau and beyond. In the past, people were few, their weapons primitive, the forests were large and the market economy small, the impact of hunting was probably modest.’

‘Today in Guinea-Bissau this is no longer the case. The population is now growing, the weapons are no longer primitive slingshots and bows and arrows, the forests are fragmented and unprotected and being exploited by mining companies and the monkey meat market economy is far-reaching and extensive. The government is weak and does not have the political will to enforce any of the laws and the government employees are poorly paid (sometimes not paid at all for months on end) and thus open to bribes and handouts and sometimes even encourage the bush-meat trade. This is a beautiful but poor country frequently at war with itself so the conservation of wildlife and the protection of its primates is a very low priority. But, in spite of all the problems I live in hope that the devastation will stop and the conservation of our many species and beautiful landscapes will become a priority.'

Standing outside the butcher's shack watching piles of dead monkeys arrive by wheelbarrow; squatting in Agostinha's kitchen with the stench of cooked mona wafting around me; sitting on the forest floor hearing the hunter's shot, the magnitude and rate of loss of primates here is reaching breaking point and I wish I could share in the conservationist’s hope. Urbanisation, rural poverty and growing economic burdens, conflict and fragmented societies are also creating a vast crisis for already vulnerable human communities.  Leaving Guinea-Bissau I was left wondering how many species can an ecosystem lose before it collapses? How many disasters can a people endure before they too are doomed?

All names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Bush-meat fuelling secretive trade in Guinea-Bissau's primates
Logging, mining and agriculture are opening up Guinea-Bissau's once intact forests to the ravages of the bush-meat trade, an Ecologist investigation finds
A green army
Natural resources,are increasingly responsible for fuelling violence across the world. Now some environmentalists want to fight back – using force if necessary.
Dr. Jane Goodall: I'm not going to fight for animal rights
The renowned primatologist and conservationist on the need for scientific empathy, the impact of economic development, and why children give her hope for the future
A green army
Natural resources,are increasingly responsible for fuelling violence across the world. Now some environmentalists want to fight back – using force if necessary.
Ecocide: making environmental destruction a criminal offence
Lawyer Polly Higgins is spearheading a campaign to have 'ecocide' recognised by the UN as an international crime against peace. But how will this work in practice?

More from this author