The scene: Ghana's first-ever national conference on the bushmeat crisis, organized by CI-Ghana, Ghana's Bushmeat Task Force and supported by CI's International Communications team and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund
, to curb a trade that is driving much of Ghana's wildlife to extinction. More than 200 tribal leaders, government officials and scientists, as well as a sizable contingent of so-called "market queens" were on hand. The queens, bushmeat sellers who ply their wares in Ghana's open markets, act as a conduit between hunter and consumer. Their cooperation is critical in any attempt to curb the trade.
"The women had gotten annoyed because they felt they were being targeted by others in the meeting," CI-Ghana Director Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei
said afterwards. "I explained to them the conference was to share knowledge about bushmeat, not to attack anyone. I also advised them against leaving as it would only complicate the situation."
The market queens heeded his advice and sat back down. The meeting continued. Ghana's bushmeat trade: Living off the land
On a dusty highway linking Ghana's sprawling coastal cities, a young man stepped out to greet oncoming traffic. He held, and hoped to sell, two royal antelopes, a small mammal popular in the bushmeat trade. The man was there the next day doing much the same thing.
A similar scene plays out daily on a much larger scale in bushmeat markets in Accra, Kumasi and other large cities: Ghanaians young and old trying to make a living through the sale of the country's wildlife.
Today, these markets are dominated by small species such as grasscutters, a symptom of widespread overhunting that has devastated primate and other large fauna populations. Some market animals are smoked, others are just fresh meat. Regulations that govern the sale of domesticated animals are unheard of here. Animals advertised as "fresh" may have been dead for days. Most have been hunted using guns--often automatic weapons that riddle the animal with lead or banned poisons that contaminate the animal and the environment, threatening the health of the consumer.
READ MORE: Ghana Customs and Bushmeat
The scene is not new hunting and wildlife markets are as old as civilization itself. What has changed in Ghana is the scale. Bushmeat hunting is now a $350-million-a-year industry, fueled by new, more effective hunting technologies that are killing wildlife at unsustainable levels. Traditional prohibitions against the killing of Ghanaian clan totems, or sacred animals, have been abandoned. Modern hunting restrictions, such as a closed season to allow species populations to regenerate, are routinely ignored, enforcement nonexistent.
"Hunting is now done with complete disregard to the age-old sociocultural checks and balances which have promoted biodiversity conservation and enhanced food security of local communities," explains Dirck Byler, senior regional director of CI's West Africa program.
At stake are some of Earth's most endangered species
. Ghana is home to 59 endangered mammals including three of the world's top 25 most endangered primate species. Bushmeat hunting is a major contributor to declining populations.
The trade also threatens the health and livelihood of millions of Ghanaians. Rural communities receive up to 75 percent of their protein from bushmeat. Indiscriminate, unsustainable hunting is devastating animal populations could ultimately destroy the livelihood of those who, like the market queens, earn a living from the trade. CIs bushmeat strategy: Reawakening culture, raising awareness
"Two things must be done to successfully curb bushmeat demand," says Okyeame. "One is to restore the traditional protection our culture once afforded our wildlife. The other is to make people aware of the health issues surrounding bushmeat consumption."
CI's bushmeat strategy in Ghana employs both of these approaches. At the national bushmeat conference, CI-Ghana, with critical support from CI's International Communications team, went public with a study that found one-third of wildlife sold in markets was contaminated with toxic chemicals. A follow-up study by the government confirmed these findings. Not surprisingly, the chemicals discovered largely pesticides were the same as those used in hunting.
This revelation generated substantial media attention. Ghana's most influential newspapers ran features and editorials asking the government to address the problem. Global media attention followed, with several international news services, including CNN, broadcasting stories about the crisis. As a result, the federal government launched a $23-million program to establish livestock farming that could provide alternative food sources and income to bushmeat.
The bushmeat market queens agreed to support the creation of wildlife farms. They also said they would ostracize sellers who supported hunting with chemicals and would not purchase from hunters using automatic weapons.
"The response to our awareness campaign is a spectacular achievement for CI," says Haroldo Castro, International Communications vice president. Okyeame agrees: "Even the traditional catering associations have come forward and asked how they can help. Equally impressive is that consumers have joined in and are boycotting bushmeat in Accra and other major cities."
CI-Ghana has had similar success on the cultural front. An initiative to restore traditional clan protections for certain sacred animals persuaded leaders from Ghana's 10 major regions to take a stand against the trade.
"The chiefs were shocked when they heard that most clan totems are threatened or extinct," says Okyeame. "Now, in many of these tribes, if anybody is caught killing totems, traditional laws and sanctions will be applied."
Okyeame admits that this is just the start but it is a good start. Already there has been a marked decrease in the number of roadside bushmeat sellers, and many restaurants that once sold bushmeat have taken it off the menu.
"We have the support of the press, the government, traditional authorities and the general public. All are on board because they understand the implications of our extinction crisis."