Bushmeat Takes Center Stage

Maarifa, the Senior Wildlife Warden, tries to talk to the villagers about bushmeat."I am not interested in blood money," says Philomena to her husband, Molkacha, a bushmeat trapper in Africa. "I will not be a party to a merciless and inhuman trade. I cannot believe that you would participate in the killing and maiming of animals for money. I don't want anything to do with bushmeat."

This is but one of the many insightful exchanges in a new play about the bushmeat trade, Carcasses. The play was the vision and a project of Born Free Foundation's Global Friends Programme, an initiative to unite schools and communities around the globe to help wildlife, and was written, produced, and performed in association with Kenya's Kenyatta University Travelling Theatre. In collaboration with many other organisations, Carcasses was premiered at the Louis Leakey Theatre in Nairobi's National Museum on April 23. Kenya's Honorable Minister for Land and Settlements, Amos Kimunya, was among the national dignitaries who attended the opening night performance. Mr. Kimunya said of the show, "We need people to feel they are benefiting from wildlife and I think that the challenge is for people to see that if we conserve we benefit; if we destroy we all suffer-that's clear. This is a wonderful production and I wish to see as much of this going out to the people so that we can sensitize as many people to the dangers of eating game meat, trading in game meat and the snares."

While the Animal Welfare Institute and others have long campaigned against the global trade in bushmeat (the flesh of wild animals in Africa and Asia), our educational efforts have been focused on the developed world and global decision-makers. This traveling play, however, enables the message to reach the people on the ground who live with wildlife, may have previously consumed bushmeat, and who are under enormous pressure to catch and sell bushmeat to middlemen who make terrific profits selling the game meat in city centers and abroad.

Carcasses challenges people to consider their relationships and attitudes toward wildlife, and explores many of the complex relationships that exist in wildlife-rich areas. In the story, three subplots swirl: the relationship of Molkacha the trapper with his family, the relationship of bushmeat hunters and the middlemen they supply, and the relationship of wildlife rangers to the people in the village.

Molkacha is clearly dismayed at the small bounty caught in his snare-one skinny dik dik (a small antelope)-as the play begins. There once was a day when plenty of game meat was available in the forest. Historically, bushmeat has been consumed sustainably by the local people who live with wildlife. This was hunting based on sustenance, not commercial trade. But with the insurgence of foreign poachers and logging companies that destroy the forest, pressure is placed on the wildlife that it simply cannot withstand.

This leads to the conflict with the local villagers and the poachers who profit by commercialization of local wildlife. One villager in Carcasses cries out, "There is a threat in our world today. A threat to our society, a threat to our way of life, a threat to everything we have been doing since the days of our forefathers. What is this threat? Poachers! There are people who are making easy money by killing animals and selling their products: meat, skin, horns and so on."

While this outside threat is indeed real, local consumers are not without complicity. The wildlife warden, Maarifa, who claims that "nobody has the moral obligation to kill animals for money," points out that as the local population expands, they are eating exorbitant amounts of bushmeat-eating faster than populations can recover with new animal births. Further, he alludes to the cruelty of snaring wildlife: "Unfortunately, the snare will trap any animal that comes along, even the unintended ones. If an animal manages to get away, and does not die of injuries it has sustained in the process, it has to live with an injured limb all its life." This holds true as well, of course, for animals cruelly trapped for their fur in steel jaw leghold traps in America and other developed countries.

Maarifa accurately reveals the potential economic consequences of wildlife consumption-tourists will no longer be able to come see wildlife, and those villagers employed in the ecotourism industry will lose their jobs.

Perhaps most persuasively, he teaches that there is not only a risk to the very wildlife on which local communities depend, but there is a health risk from consumption of bushmeat. "Do you know that you can contract diseases like monkey fever and anthrax when you eat meat that has not been inspected by Public Health Officers" he asks. In fact, during the performance, Molkacha's family becomes violently ill after eating a recently killed and cooked antelope, stunning the family into awareness.

The performance clearly illustrates for its audience the issues surrounding the bushmeat trade, raises awareness on the implications of slaughtering and selling wild animals, and hopefully will lead to a shift in people's attitudes and behavior toward wildlife.

Carcasses was commissioned by the Born Free Foundation (BFF), after receiving a joint grant from AWI and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM). Together, AWI and ZSM are part of a consortium called Up The Rivers Endeavors, which examines the root causes of human ills in an effort to discover innovative strategies for addressing these problems.

Delivering education to local people on the ground is clearly one way to share knowledge and experiences in developing countries. Using performance art is a sure way to reach vast numbers of people. In Malawi, for instance, small traveling theaters help educate local villagers about AIDS and other vital health matters. In Zimbabwe, the United States Agency for International Development reports that a new television show, Studio 263, which deals with HIV prevention, is the most popular TV show in the country. Performances such as these can simultaneously entertain and educate.

Carcasses will be performed in schools and communities of Nairobi initially, with a view to expanding nationally as funding allows. As part of a wider bushmeat campaign in Kenya, BFF has commissioned the local nongovernmental organization, Youth for Conservation, to undertake a survey of Nairobi butcheries to see what proportion of their meat for sale is from bushmeat. Initial results reveal an alarming 30% of samples coming from wild forest animals.

If we are to arrest the alarming decline of wild animal species slaughtered for their meat, we must engage in a coordinated strategy that includes local people. Carcasses could become an invaluable model and, with its expansion, just might be the final tool we need to save duikers, primates, elephants, impala, and other bushmeat species for future generations.

For more information on the bushmeat trade, request a copy of AWI's "Bushmeat" leaflet or view it online here.