Bili Coffee Project:

Congo coffee project: Can coffee save the elephants?

Project Congo: Can coffee save the elephants?

The hunting of wild animals for food has traditionally been the way the forest people of central and West Africa feed themselves, but in recent years this local custom has been turned into a multi-million dollar business. The main reason for this is the growth in the number of towns in Africa and the drift to the towns of rural people who take with them a taste for wild meat. Furthermore it has recently become fashionable amongst urbanites to eat the meat of exotic species so an enormous demand for bushmeat has been created.

Trading in bushmeat to satisfy this demand has been made possible by the extensive logging operations, some of them illegal, now going on in Africa's equatorial forests. Logging companies drive roads into the jungle, opening it up to truck traffic, thereby allowing organized gangs of hunters to take out wildlife in unprecedented numbers.

In some countries, such as Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the two Congos, whole areas of rainforest are being stripped of their large animals. The volume of bushmeat trapped and shot in the countries of the Congo basin is currently estimated at 1 million to 5 million tons annually, equivalent to millions of animals, from elephants to bats.

The African Elephant, and the great apes are the group of species most at risk from the bushmeat trade. Of the apes, the chimpanzees are down to about 110,000 in total; bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees, the animal most closely related to man) down to between 10,000 and 25,000; western lowland gorillas down to about 110,000; eastern lowland gorillas to 10,000; and mountain gorillas down to a mere 600!

What is happening is an absolute catastrophe for African wildlife. But it is also something that is clearly unsustainable for the local people. Bushmeat has become a new source of revenue for ruthless hunters, many of which are local tribesmen who have given up growing crops for cash. When the forests are barren of wildlife they will have no way at all to survive.

To see for itself how far the destruction has gone TWWF recently made a trip to the Bondo/Bili region of the Congo River Basin, perhaps the richest ecosystem on the African continent but an area with immense problems:
The Belgian Colonial Government set up two wildlife reserves there, Bomou East and Bomou West. In theory these are protected areas but in practice they are the areas with the heaviest poaching. Ever since the large herds of elephants in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan were wiped out (in the 1980’s), Northern Sudanese poaching gangs have been arriving regularly, at the end of the dry season, with their camel caravans, to poach elephants. President Mobutu decided to send his army in to confront them, the result of which was that the Mobutu army did most of the poaching on the basis of ‘Let’s get the ivory before the Sudanese do’. Furthermore the area around Bondo is now intensively mined for gold and diamonds and this has drastically increased the demand for bushmeat.

The local population has been severely affected by the insecurity caused by marauding armies moving through the area looting and raping and killing the livestock as they went along. And in the last few years the road infrastructure has deteriorated to the point where most villages can only be reached by bicycles and on footpaths running along the former roads. This lack of road access (including destroyed ferries and bridges) has meant that the coffee buyers from the East and the CAR have not visited the region in some three years. Coffee used to be the major cash crop and the coffee income is now gone. This, combined with the loss of livestock and the influx of hunters with AK 47 and Kalashnicov weapons, has resulted in the local population getting into the act of poaching for bushmeat. The villagers and chiefs confirm that several species of wildlife are declining so drastically in number that many sorts, including all the elephants, will be gone in the coming decades. However they also accept that it does not have to be this way.

TWWF has met with two traditional chiefs of the area, Zelesi Yakiasi, chief of the Collectivité de Gbiamange and Dangako Ani Uwoi of the Collectivité Boso. with a combined following of some 45.000 tribesmen. These tribes are former coffee farmers who were obliged to find alternative sources of livelihood when their coffee sales ended. Together with the two tribal chiefs TWWF has now developed a program which will provide these local people with a guaranteed price for fixed quantities of coffee beans, in exchange for commitments that they will do all they can to capture and punish those who kill wildlife.

The program is still young, yet some of the previously abandoned forest plantations are already being cleared, a station for grinding the beans has been re-furbished and transportation to ship the ground coffee to Europe is being arranged. TWWF is now working on finding markets for the coffee to be produced by these tribesmen. It will be very special coffee too. Not only will the sale of every packet of Elephant Brand Coffee go towards helping the tribesmen stop the killing of Elephants, Gorillas and Monkeys for cash, it will be wild coffee, organically-grown, on shady slopes so the taste will be ‘something else’ too.