Not only are the Mbuti threatened by roving bands of armed men, as described in recent news reports, but the people who remain in the Ituri Forest are destroying the fauna on which they subsist. A feature story from the Associated Press on Saturday describes the way populations of numerous mammals, primarily forest antelopes such as duikers, are being decimated by the Mbuti when they hunt for meat to sell to Bantu traders.
An AP reporter, Todd Pitman, visited the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in March 2010 to get a sense of the devastating effects of the bushmeat trade. He points out that Africans such as the Mbuti have consumed wild animals—bushmeat—for millennia, but commercial exploitation and over-harvesting is more recent, and totally unsustainable. Antelopes and monkeys amounting to over 1 million metric tons are taken annually in the Congo River basin alone, according to the World Wildlife Fund. As a result, the forests are becoming devoid of animals. Some species have lost 90 percent of their numbers, forcing hunters at times to eat their hunting dogs to survive.
The bushmeat trade has penetrated one of Africa’s foremost nature preserves. When the Okapi Wildlife Reserve was created in 1992 in the forests around the village of Epulu, the nomadic, forest-dwelling Mbuti—and their neighboring Bantu villagers—were allowed to stay and keep hunting non-endangered animals. Epulu was founded in 1928 by the American ethnographer Patrick Putnam, who later married the American artist Anne Eisner. The area became famous in 1961 when the book The Forest People about the Mbuti, by the visiting American anthropologist Colin Turnbull, became a worldwide best seller. Turnbull eloquently described Mbuti hunting practices, and their peaceful lifestyle, in his writings.
The AP reporter participated in a net hunting expedition in the forest. He accompanied Zaire Njikali, an elderly Mbuti man, and other hunters while they waited for the women of the band to drive animals into their outstretched nets—as they have been doing for countless generations. He doesn’t say if he waited long enough to actually see the hunters killing the animals, but he does write that, on a successful day, they might harvest up to 15 forest antelopes.
The band the author visited included 20 Mbuti couples and their children, but, unfortunately, it also included 14 Bantu traders, the new element in the bushmeat equation. In the past, the hunters might have sold half the meat they took in the forest, but now they sell almost all of it, saving only choice parts for their own consumption. The hunting is now a commercial business, not a subsistence activity.
The Wildlife Conservation Society conducted surveys of the animals in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 1995 and again in 2006, and it found that the numbers of all three species of duikers had dropped significantly. Yellow-backed duikers had dropped 59 percent, red duikers 42 percent, and blue duikers 26 percent. The primary reason for the radical increase in the bushmeat trade has been the rebuilding of a dirt road across Congo, which goes right through the Epulu area.
Due to the incessant wars in the country, the road had become nearly impassible, even for truck traffic. But the Chinese rebuilt it a couple years ago. Instead of a couple vehicles per month getting through, truck traffic has increased to over 1,000 per month. Bushmeat traders now have easy access to the Ituri Forest. Conrad Aveling, a British environmental consultant with long-term experience in the country, says that “the forest just doesn’t produce enough to meet the demand.” He adds that, by devastating their food supply for monetary profits, the Mbuti “are sawing off the branch on which they’re sitting.”
Terese Hart, who along with her husband John Hart, helped the Congolese people establish the Okapi Reserve and fostered the scientific work that has distinguished the facility, also weighed in about the over harvesting of bushmeat by the Mbuti: “They’re overexploiting the forest in a way that’s making their own way of living impossible.”
The bushmeat trade is giving the Mbuti access to the benefits of modern civilization: wine, trinkets, watches, radios, used clothing, and all the rest of it. A trader buys a blue duiker from an Mbuti hunter for the equivalent of $5.00 and resells it outside the reserve for three times that. He then has enough money, from his profits, to feed his family and perhaps provide an education for his kids. Everyone benefits—until the animals are gone, of course.
The author points out that the forest, and the lives of its inhabitants, are changing rapidly. Areas that used to have abundant forest vegetation to the east of Epulu are now bare of trees and of wildlife. John Hart told Pitman that the Mbuti have been forced into marginalized conditions as day laborers on the edges of towns.
Mr. Pitman, wanting a discussion of the changes invading the lives of the Mbuti, does not get it from Mr. Njikali, the Mbuti hunter. “The forest will always be there,” he tells the author. “For the forest to disappear, for the animals to disappear, the world would have to end first.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Pitman felt compelled to use some overwrought prose in an otherwise quite interesting article: “The Pygmies living here have never heard of Barack Obama or the Internet or the war in Afghanistan. But the future is coming, on a tidal wave of demand for game meat that’s pushing an army of tall Bantu traders ever deeper into Africa’s primordial vine-slung jungles.”
The AP story includes a slide show with 15 photos of the Mbuti and the environs of Epulu.