- Once a traditional way of life, wild game - or bushmeat - hunting in Ghana has evolved into a $350-million-dollar industry that has driven several animal species to the brink of extinction. Using deadly techniques like chemical poison, brush fires and automatic weapons, bushmeat hunters have become the leading cause of "empty forest syndrome" - the absence of wildlife in otherwise intact forests. And while the bushmeat trade's toll on the environment has long been documented, recent studies suggest that it is also having a negative impact on consumers, generating serious health concerns in this West African country.
According to the Scientific Officer of the Ghana Standards Board, Yaw Agyei-Henaku, 30 percent of Ghana's bushmeat contains chemical poison. Analysis revealed the presence of organochlorines, carbamates and organophosphorus, elements commonly found in pesticides. "Not only is our wildlife in peril, but we are also at risk," Agyei-Henaku said.
The government's study supports research by Conservation International-Ghana (CI) that found 32.5 percent of all bushmeat supplied to local markets contains chemical poison residue. "This hunting method using pesticides is particularly dangerous, as it poses health hazards to bushmeat consumers," the study indicates.
The new data was unveiled during a recent conference in Accra where more than 200 participants - including government officials, NGOs, tribal leaders and representatives of the bushmeat trade-gathered to find ways to limit bushmeat consumption while generating economic alternatives.
The representatives agreed to a 55-point action plan called the "Accra Declaration on the Bushmeat Crisis" that asks the government to review its outdated wildlife laws, ban the use of indiscriminate hunting techniques and place a moratorium on wildlife exports, among other measures. Stopping short of an outright ban on bushmeat, signers of the Accra Declaration asked that the trade to be regulated and supervised in order to protect the country's endangered species and consumer health.
The meeting was part of Conservation International's (CI) broader Bushmeat Crisis Campaign organized in collaboration with governmental institutions and NGOs to generate awareness about the environmental and health problems associated with bushmeat. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is financing the project.
Historically, traditional rulers played a vital role in preserving wildlife by enforcing rules, taboos and social sanctions that prevented people from overexploiting natural resources. Since the colonial era, however, their authority has been considerably reduced. Now almost 98 percent of the animal totems associated with Ghana's 110 clans are no longer found in their traditional territory.
"The socio-cultural life of many communities in Ghana are inextricably interwoven with our wildlife," said the director of CI-Ghana Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei. "Some of these animals are totems - symbols of our clans - but are hunted with impunity to the extent that there are a number of forests without animals or wildlife. Our history and culture are all in danger."
In total, Ghana is home to 59 endangered mammal species including three of the world's top 25 most endangered monkey species: Miss Waldron's Red Colobus, the White-Naped Mangabey and the Roloway Guenon. The Red Colobus has only been sighted once in the last decade and its virtual extinction is blamed on bushmeat hunting.
Ghana is located in the heart of the Upper Guinea Forest that stretches across nine countries from Guinea to northwestern Cameroon. CI has identified this forest as one of the 25 world's critical Biodiversity Hotspots. It is home to 514 bird species and 551 mammalian species (more than any other Hotspot), including many that are prized bushmeat, such as duikers, royal antelopes and bushbucks.
In 1957, Ghana became the first country in colonial Africa to gain its independence; with this bushmeat initiative it becomes the first nation in the region to seriously confront the bushmeat crisis that is threatening the environment and their cultural heritage.
"The proverbial porcupine is the symbol, or totem, of the Ashanti nation and we used to find them here, but now they have completely disappeared," explained Okatakyie Agyeman Kudom, the Omanhene of Nkoranza, a traditional ruler. "If we are not careful, all our wildlife will disappear and we will have nothing to show our future generations."