This is the second part of a two-part series on the bushmeat trade. Read part I here.
Confronting my own fear was just the first step. I knew that I also needed to win over the people at the market. From the sellers to the torchers to the customers, nobody wants this practice to change.
A recent presidential ban on the hunting and possession of primates in Bioko – signed presumably to improve Equatorial Guinea’s image as a developing, oil producing nation instead of a backward country – has helped reduce the number of monkeys being brought into the market. But it also has everyone fearing that the trade of bushmeat has just gone underground.
The next morning I followed Sartore’s advice from his earlier market experiences and purchased a large number of cell phone cards to use as gifts – a way to explore people’s more tolerant nature.
I showed up at the market and walked with great determination to one of the tables. A monitor lizard was being scaled. The young boy manning the machete went at it with enthusiasm, making the pretty iridescent scales that once covered a strong and healthy reptile fly across the table. The lizard had been beaten over the head and there was blood dripping out of its mouth.
The first few images I snapped were terrible; I felt my hand shaking and the taste of fear and disgust in my mouth. The camera, fortunately, is a wonderful way of putting distance between emotions and subject.
As I snapped away, I was not prepared for what happened next. The animal, now stripped of its scales, was taken to the torch table. When it felt the first flames, it began whipping about madly. I realized in horror that this poor animal was still alive.
There was nothing I could do about it. Having raised my children in a house full of pet reptiles, where more than one monitor lizard has both fascinated and enthralled us, I felt a terrible sadness. Thankfully, the lizard either died or went into shock and stopped moving. I left the market feeling drained and hopeless, but I knew my job was just beginning.
A Daily Record
I went back to the market every day that week and forced myself to shoot the wide variety of animals that were being brought in. What a senseless waste, I kept telling myself.
It was not, however, until my last day in Bioko that I found what I was looking for. No sooner had I arrived in the gray light of the morning than a male drill was brought into the market hidden inside a sack. His pretty fur was stained with mud and dried blood. The animal had been shot in the head; blood dripped out of one lifeless eye.
My stomach tightened and I felt an adrenaline rush. Where was the enforcement? That one of the largest, most threatened primates was being prepared to be consumed by humans seemed too horrible.
But the many days I had spent at the market prepared me well. I was determined to make the kind of image that would convey the feelings I had accumulated throughout the week: horror, sadness, but most of all anger.
Faces in the Market
By now the boys with the torches knew me; they kept doing their work while I did mine. They even engaged in small talk about soccer while I snapped away.
I wanted to show the setting of this market, the unimpressed people standing around the table as if this was the most normal of sights; the creature in front of me as it lost its once-proud mane, its pretty fur, its lips, its color. Pretty soon there was nothing left but a naked animal that so closely resembled a small child, even I found it disturbing.
At one point I was so close to the torch that a piece of charred skin landed on my nose burning me and causing my eyes to water – partly because of pain and partly because of sadness. By the time it was over, some of my own hair was burned and the persistent smell of burnt flesh lingered in my nostrils and would not leave me for days.
Answering the Call
What can we do about this? This is not subsistence hunting; it is not a matter of survival. This is a luxury market that destroys the very fabric of the habitats we are hoping to protect.
Given enough time, a forest without wildlife is a dead forest. Unless Equatorial Guinea enforces its ban on primate hunting and extends it to protect the full array of fauna, including marine wildlife like the sea turtles that nest on its beaches and the many mammals and birds that grace its forests, there will ultimately be nothing to protect and Bioko will be little more than a dying island.
My intention is not to criticize this young African nation. Rather, as a conservation community we need to celebrate the efforts Equatorial Guinea is making to curb bushmeat hunting and protect its biodiversity.
But we must help them create the kind of conservation infrastructure they require to meet their present needs – without sacrificing resources for the coming generations. Finding that kind of balance is what conservation is all about.
Cristina Mittermeier is Executive Director and a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The views expressed here are her own.