"We've ignited a fire, and now were stepping back to let it take hold."
Those are the words Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei, director of Conservation International (CI) in Ghana, uses to describe the expansion of CI's work across West Africa. With partners, he leads a charge to curb the unregulated bushmeat trade in his country. Since 2003, CI has helped to significantly stifle the industry, which once amassed millions of dollars annually. Now through strong partnerships, Okyeame is taking the campaign to the regional level, as a model for halting the trade and preventing extinctions in countries of the Guinean Forests of West Africa Biodiversity Hotspot.
Why It's Working In Ghana
When Okyeame and the CI Ghana team launched the bushmeat campaign, the hunting and sale of threatened wildlife for bushmeat was widespread in Ghana. Most Ghanaians relied on bushmeat for animal protein, and many relied on the trade for income. Fueled by more efficient technology and techniques, hunting was at the center of a local extinction crisis.
Key to dismantling the bushmeat trade, Okyeame has discovered, is addressing its socio-cultural and economic components. "When we started our work in Ghana, no one would speak negatively about bushmeat or of stopping the trade. It was part of the culture," he says. "When we suggested otherwise, people looked at us as if we were from a different planet." Today, the story is much different.
Reveal the Toxic Ingredients
With government agencies, CI helps raise awareness of the ecological and public health implications of unregulated bushmeat. At the nation's first bushmeat conference, CI released a study showing a third of the country's bushmeat to be contaminated. The news coincided with international outbreaks of wildlife-to-human viruses, such as Ebola virus, and resonated throughout Ghanaian society and media.
Educate the Next Generation of Consumers
Having grown up in a family of bushmeat eaters, Okyeame understands the importance of raising awareness among children. CI, local organizations, and community members devise special education programs directly targeted to Ghana's next generation. On T-shirts, in classrooms, and at youth events, they deliver facts about bushmeat consumption and how the trade is affecting Ghana's wildlife and landscapes.
"It is difficult to change behavior in adults, but the future is good for conservation in Ghana," Okyeame says. "Those who will determine whats for dinner in a few years are choosing not to eat bushmeat." A recent survey of 9- to 15-year-olds in Accra found that 90 percent were opting not to eat bushmeat. Some had never tasted bushmeat, and many others hoped never to eat it again.
Revive the Culture of Conservation
In Ghanaian tradition, communities protect their totem animals those they consider sacred. "Historically, members of a particular clan would be prepared to fight to protect their totems," says Okyeame. "But due to modernization and urbanization, many Ghanaians today dont even know which are their totem animals."
With community leaders, CI works to revive the cultural traditions that have historically supported conservation. "We are trying to raise a war cry among communities to protect their own culture," says Okyeame.
They conduct scientific assessments and provide data to illustrate the current status of totem animals in Ghana, roughly 150 of which are threatened or extinct. Okyeame and the CI Ghana team lobby to remind rural communities that a loss of totem animals is a loss of cultural heritage. Increasingly, Ghanaians in all parts of the country are becoming aware of the need to protect species, and many communities have since revived certain rituals to recognize the totem animals. Some communities informally act as forest guards and stop hunters on the outskirts of nearby forests.
Supplement Incomes, Nutrition
As Ghanaians rise to meet growing international interest in and tourism to their country, preserving cultural heritage and unique species is even more paramount. More and more, the government is promoting ecotourism as an economic base for the country. Says Okyeame: "If we kill off all of our species, what will people come to see?"
CI also works with other partners to promote the domestication of wildlife for income and protein. Whereas in 2003, it was common to find a lineup of threatened wildlife for sale on roadsides and in markets, today you are more likely to find "grasscutter," a type of rat that is a delicacy in the region.
Stepping It Up in Africa
The bushmeat trade still exists in Ghana, but it is significantly weaker. While a societal behavior change is clearly afoot, bans on hunting certain species, regulated hunting of others, and embargos on exporting bushmeat help to stabilize and replenish Ghana's biodiversity. Community and government participation in the effort are instrumental, and it is this partnership structure CI's colleague organizations will recreate as they initiate bushmeat campaigns in countries throughout West Africa.
CI, the Ghana Wildlife Society, Ghana's Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Ghana have agreed on an action plan for ramping up the campaign. With his colleagues now at the helm, Okyeame looks forward to seeing CI's model employed to prevent extinctions in other countries.
"Between Ghana and the Ivory Coast, we can't yet stop bushmeat traders from crossing borders," he says. "The trade affects all of Africa and its biodiversity. With luck, our work in Ghana and our partners' work in West Africa will elevate this critical issue on the international community's agenda."