The dense treetop canopy plunges day into night as we enter the rain forest. We are about 300 miles north of the Equator, in the Central African Republic, and the jungle vibrates with the haunting shrieks of insects as we clamber over fallen logs and step around giant trees strung with thorn-studded vines. Lurking overhead, I am told, are cobras. Leading the way is Babangu, a Pygmy tracker. He is followed by two tall Bantu paramilitary guards, clad in camouflage and toting AK-47 assault rifles. David Greer, a 35-year-old American who leads the anti-poaching patrols, is armed with a 9 millimeter pistol.
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Shotgun shells litter the animal paths. "They’re fresh, the poachers have probably been here today," Greer whispers. I gulp with fear, knowing that the poachers carry AK-47s and elephant guns. Babangu points to a poacher’s snare—a wire loop buried in the fallen leaves and attached to a bent sapling. Greer snips the wire and uproots the trap.
Babangu leads us to a red duiker, a dog-size antelope, caught in a snare. It’s dead. "This could have been a gorilla, a chimp or a leopard," Greer whispers as we squat by the body. His eyes harden as he sees that the duiker had almost torn off a front leg trying to free itself from the trap.
We leave the animal in search of more snares. In two hours walking the jungle, we find another 171. Greer and his 48 men have destroyed more than 30,000 of the illegal devices in the past year, putting a big dent in the poachers’ haul of forest animals. But Greer knows that much more needs to be done.
Later, on our way back, we pass by the spot where the duiker had been snared. The carcass has vanished. Greer grimaces. "The poachers must have been nearby," he whispers. "If we’d stumbled on them, there could have been shooting."
Illegal hunting is devastating wildlife across sub-Saharan Africa. "The African bushmeat trade is huge," Jane Goodall, the distinguished primatologist (and Greer’s mentor), told me in an e-mail. "Tons and tons of wild animal meat [are] trucked into the urban centers, and a good deal is shipped to other African countries and to other continents."
A study in the journal Science this past November said the bushmeat trade was among the "greatest threats to the persistence of tropical wildlife." The researchers—from England, Ghana, South Africa, the United States and Canada—found that increased hunting of wild animals in Ghana had led to sharp declines in 41 species. They went on to suggest that the bushmeat trade had grown partly in response to the depletion of fish off West Africa by foreign and domestic industrial fleets; deprived of a traditional protein source, people turned to the forests for food. To curb the traffic in bushmeat, the researchers called for both limiting "the access of large and heavily subsidized foreign fleets to fish off West Africa" and "increasing the size, number and protection of wildlife reserves."
In the Congo Basin—an area consisting of the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Gabon and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea—some researchers estimate that up to five million metric tons of bushmeat are traded each year, according to the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation consortium.
Another threat to wildlife is infectious agents, including the deadly Ebola virus, which has stricken primates in central Africa. It also poses a danger to people who eat or come into close contact with infected animals; some experts say that Ebola-contaminated bushmeat smuggled into the United States could trigger an Ebola outbreak here.
All told, the number of western lowland gorillas in the Congo Basin has fallen from about 110,000 to fewer than 40,000 in the past two decades because of poaching, loss of habitat to logging and development, and disease, says Richard Carroll, director of an African program for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF): "It’s a crisis situation, and that’s why the anti-poaching program is vitally important."