The markets in the Central African Republic offer all of the jungle’s deli- cacies, including monkey, chim- panzee, antelope and — if you have the cash — elephant. Hunters kill the elephants and cut off the ivory. Then, over grills fueled with green tree branches, they smoke the meat for a day, charring the outside to preserve it for the trip to town. The main market is in Africa, where elephant meat is considered a delicacy and where rising populations have increased demand. Most people think inter- national demand for ivory is the biggest threat to elephants, and wildlife specialists gathered in the Netherlands last week to discuss the ban on the ivory trade. But forest elephants, perhaps the most endangered elephant species in the world, are being hunted to extinction for their tusks and their meat.
“These elephants get poached a lot more than the eastern and southern African elephants,” said Karl Amman, a wildlife photographer and investigator into the illegal trade in animals. “I am convinced the poaching of forest elephants in the Central African region is for the meat and ivory has become a byproduct.”
At a gathering here last week of the 171-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), African nations agreed to a massive sell-off of existing elephant ivory stocks and a nine-year freeze on further sales, but the issue of poaching elephants for food was low on the agenda.
In the markets of Bangui, ivory earns a poacher about $13.60 a pound. Smoked elephant meat brings $5.45 a pound, considerably more than any other kind of meat, including beef or pork.
A typical forest elephant, which weighs 5,000 to 6,000 pounds and produces about half a ton of edible meat, can earn a poacher up to $180 for the ivory and as much as $6,000 for the meat. The average income for an African in the Congo Basin is about $1 a day.
People in the forest live in such poverty that they do not have time to think about animal conservation, said Andrea Turkalo, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society who works in the Dzangha-Sangha National Park.
“This country can’t run their health dispensaries. They can’t educate their children. How can you expect them to think about conservation?” she said. “I think people are still killing for ivory, but there has been a shift in the meat trade because of the human demographics.”
Gabriel Mabele, chief of Mosapula village, said the creation of the Dzangha-Sangha National Park and a ban on hunting elephants there mean his people have less meat to eat. But people still want to eat elephant.
“You can’t just openly put it out in the market; you have to be secretive about it,” he said. “But the hunting continues.”
Omer Kokamenko, a ranger at Dzangha-Sangha National Park, also said elephant hunting has become more about the meat.
“When someone kills an elephant whose tusks don’t weigh more than [1 pound], it’s not for the tusks — it’s especially for the meat,” said Mr. Kokamenko, who lives deep in the forest. “Outside this region, elephant meat is expensive.”
Forest elephants are different from their cousins that roam the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, where most are protected by rangers. Forest elephants are smaller and darker, their tusks are straighter and their ears are more oval. They range from Guinea to Uganda, but are mostly concentrated in the Congo Basin, where poverty and war are common.
Little is known about forest elephants because they live in small groups within dense rain forests. In 1989, wildlife biologists estimated the forest elephant population of the Congo Basin at 172,000.
No comprehensive studies have been conducted since then, but a Wildlife Conservation Society study of six elephant areas in national parks released in April found “a combination of illegal killing and other human disturbance has had a profound impact on forest elephant abundance and distribution.”