This story is the third part in a series. Read part 1, The Logs of War, and part 2, Building a Green Economy.
The smell of the bushmeat market in Monrovia, Liberia is a cloying, sweet and meaty stench that immediately stimulated my gag reflex: the smell of dried primate meat baking in the hot sun.
"We know that the chimpanzees and monkeys are endangered – we know it because the hunters are telling us that they cannot find them anymore. We try to ask them to bring us meat that is not from chimpanzees, but they just hunt what they can find, and we have to sell it – otherwise we cannot get money."
- bushmeat market vendor
in Monrovia, Liberia
On one table sits a chimpanzee's (Pan troglodytes) complete arm and shoulder – roughly hacked off the animal, and then smoked, while still covered in skin and hair. The disturbingly human-like hand and fingernails are reminders of how closely we are related to these creatures; indeed, the diseases that they carry can often affect humans. Studies have clearly suggested that butchering these animals for meat may have been the initial way that HIV and AIDS entered the human population – ultimately killing tens of millions of people worldwide.
On another table are the indistinguishable parts of various monkeys, also smoked, and even some meat covered in rough grey skin. It is clearly elephant.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about primates.
A Livelihood of Necessity
Most of what these vendors are selling is not allowed even by Liberian law, but in a nation which has an annual budget that is smaller than the budget of the city of Columbus, Ohio (Columbus' annual budget is $523 million, Liberia's is $327 million) the authorities are so colossally over-stretched that the sale of illegal meat is low on their list of priorities.
Even the women who work at the market don't really want to sell the meat. "This is a bad job," one tells me. "I want to raise enough money so that I can open a stall selling secondhand clothes." But in a country with 85 percent unemployment, any job is highly prized if it provides the money to feed an entire family. Even if these women did stop what they are doing, their places would be filled immediately by others desperate to earn an income.
LEARN MORE: Ghanaian Clan Customs Offer Way out of Bushmeat Crisis
It is the same for the hunters. They aren't killing chimps out of any particular love of chimp meat – it's just a means of earning $30. Chimp, deer, monkey, whatever – for these guys, meat is meat, and it provides a means of generating money to support their families. Who can blame them for that?
A market vendor selling a chimpanzee arm in Monrovia.
© CI/Photo by Rob McNeil
Rebuilding Liberia's Economy
So – what on earth can be done?
Well, the first thing is to raise awareness of what is happening. Conservation International's (CI) Joel Gamys has developed a good relationship with the women at the market and is encouraging them to try to ensure that the hunters only take animals that are quick-breeding and are not endangered.
"Joel has been helping us to know what we should not sell. We know that the chimpanzees and monkeys are endangered – we know it because the hunters are telling us that they cannot find them anymore. We try to ask them to bring us meat that is not from chimpanzees, but they just hunt what they can find, and we have to sell it – otherwise we cannot get money."
IN DEPTH: The Battle Over Bushmeat
Secondly, the nation must ensure that its forests remain intact and not easily accessible to hunters, so that the animals still have habitat to breed. This can be done – the country is making significant steps toward securing a future for its forests – but the economic incentives remain elusive. CI is working with the government of Liberia to help prepare the ground for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation "plus" conservation, the sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks), a mechanism that will help to financially reward the nation for conservation of its forests by paying for the carbon that they store. REDD+ activities will be a vital component of Liberia's conservation effort, and will also play a critical role in curbing global climate change.
THREATS TO SPECIES: The Illegal Wildlife Trade
The next step is to create a situation where the wildlife in Liberia's ecosystems is more valuable alive than dead. This is not a nation that has much of a tourist industry; after a long civil war and with a battered infrastructure, it's hard to see it as a "fun" destination to visit. But Liberia is a truly beautiful place – its staggering forests could one day be fabulous ecotourism destinations and its stunning beaches and incredible surfing opportunities could make it a coastal hotspot.
But all of these potential solutions need international support to become realities. CI is working hard in Liberia against odds that can sometimes seem staggering. But the rapid change in the nation since the end of the civil war is encouraging, and if another African nation like Rwanda – for all of its challenges and the horrors of its recent past – can become an economic success story, then maybe Liberia can too.
FROM THE BLOG: Despite Troubled History, New Hope in Liberia