Although illegal in many regions, hunting of primates for bushmeat occurs on all continents and has been an aspect of many native cultures for centuries. With the world's human population passing six billion, though, this practice now poses a significant threat to prosimian, monkey and ape populations.
In many regions, human famine is a problem that coincides with insufficient numbers of guards to protect endangered animals. As a result, hunting is becoming the leading contributor to monkey and ape endangerment.
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Although unsustainable commercial and sustenance hunting of wild animals is happening across the globe, West and Central African nations – areas rich in primate diversity – are regions where experts believe the problem has risen to crisis levels.
As much as 1 million metric tons of wild animals per year are hunted for food in the Congo Basin alone, and with growing populations, the demand for bushmeat is projected to increase by 2 to 4 percent yearly.
One example of this growing problem is the plight of the mountain gorillas. Fewer than 650 of these apes are believed to exist in the world today, and unless poaching can be curbed, the outlook for this species is questionable.
Gorillas, along with the other great apes of Africa (chimpanzees and bonobos) are being hunted to dangerous levels. Gorilla and chimpanzee steaks can be found on the menu of some of the finest restaurants in Central Africa, and gorilla hands are considered a delicacy in some cultures.
NARRATIVE: Read a first-person account of a visit to a bushmeat market in Equatorial Guinea.
The poaching of these apes is perpetuated by high market demand and the lure of easy cash generated through this illegal trade. And because apes have low reproductive rates, every gorilla, chimp or bonobo killed brings them that much closer to extinction.
Gorillas and other primates are also unintended victims of hunting efforts targeting other species. Hunters who lay snares or traps intended for non-primate species can end up trapping and sometimes killing monkeys and apes. Because snares kill indiscriminately, rare species can be caught just as effectively as common ones, causing further stress on already imperiled populations.
In the Market
Food is not the only reason primates are hunted and killed. Primate skins and body parts can fetch large amounts of money when sold at local and international markets as trophies and ingredients for traditional medicines.
For example, black and white colobus monkeys are often hunted for their fur; many Africans use their skins for traditional clothing and, as recently as the 1970s, their hides were widely sold as coats and rugs in places such as Europe and Japan.
Slowing the Decline
However, since international treaties have emerged banning the sale of endangered species and species parts, the exportation of colobus furs has dropped dramatically. Conservationists are also working on introducing fake furs to local populations in Kenya to provide a culturally acceptable alternative to the real ones.
Such creative solutions will hopefully serve as models for slowing and ultimately stopping the unsustainable trade in bushmeat throughout Africa and other parts of the world.
READ MORE: Primates are also threatened by disease, habitat loss and capture.