/ 4 September 2005

African gourmets threaten great apes

Take one soup cube, pepper, salt and onions, not forgetting chunks of monkey, head included. Cook in a casserole and serve.

At the restaurant Maman Marie Gibier in Libreville, the dish will set appreciative diners back 1 500 francs CFA (R17,40).

”I have been eating monkey since I was little,” said Sandra (28), who works for a bank.

But she draws the line at great ape meat.

”Gorillas, they look like people. You can’t eat that. It’s horrible.”

Her colleague Jean is less fastidious.

”Monkey meat, big or small, it’s all the same once it’s in the bowl.”

It is uncommon to find ape meat on sale in Libreville markets but it is prized and for that reason poaching in the region’s forests is widespread.

It even threatens the survival of the great apes, the subject of an international conference that opens on Monday in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa.

The cook at Maman Marie Gibier says she buys two monkeys a week, compared with five a week in the 1990s, but only a couple of chimpanzees and gorillas, protected species, from the plains of the west a year.

Prices range from 9 000 CFA francs (R106) for a white-nosed monkey to 40 000 CFA francs (R480) for a mandrill, a partly protected large monkey. Gorillas cost between 20 000 and 30 000 CFA francs (R235 to R331). The meat is smoked or raw.

Research by non-governmental organisations and the Gabonese forestries ministry shows that primates cost more than chickens or farmed meat and account for less than 1% of the meat sold in Gabon’s four main cities.

Most Gabonese have no appetite for apes, nicknamed ”cousins”, and their meat is not widely available.

But ”consumption is important because these species are already under threat”, according to Olly Thomas, of the game programme of the Darwin Initiative, financed by the University of Stirling in Scotland.

He points to a study that appeared in the scientific review Nature in 2003, which found hunting for commercial reasons was the chief reason for the disappearance of great apes in Gabon and Congo.

”The forestry concessions open up roads and let hunters into the forests where any monkey they meet is at risk,” he said.

”That pushes the great apes further and further from major human settlements,” he said, with the result that they are now only found in the south-west and north-east.

The animals have a slow reproduction rate and numbers more than halved between 1983 and 2000, Nature found.

The establishment of 13 national parks in 2002 has not made much difference, since poaching continues in the face of laws that are not applied because of a lack of money and political will, Thomas said.

”Gabon has adopted this law but it comes from outside,” said Leon, an aficionado of bush meat.

”It is true that people need to be educated and substitutes found” for monkey meat, he said, but ”Gabon is still, above all, a country of hunters”. — Sapa-AFP