Tony Blair will be asked this week to make the world sit up and take notice of the bushmeat crisis – the mass slaughter of African wildlife believed to be driving the great apes and other endangered species towards extinction.
A coalition of more than 30 pressure groups, headed by a Labour MP, will tell the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, to make bushmeat a key issue at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg in September.
In the past decade the hunting of wild animals for food – bushmeat – in central and west Africa has suddenly gone from being a custom to a multi-million pound business, which is having a catastrophic effect on primates in particular. Some species of monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas are now threatened with extinction.
In countries such as Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the two Congos, organised teams of hunters are stripping whole areas of rainforest of their large animals to supply a rapidly growing market for primate flesh and other wild meat in African cities, and abroad.
Current estimates of the volume of bushmeat trapped and shot in the countries of the Congo basin – quoted by Glyn Davies, director of conservation programmes at the Zoological Society of London – are between 1 million and 5 million tons annually. The disparity reflects the fact that much locally-consumed bushmeat is not recorded. Even the lower figure represents millions of animals, from elephants to bats.
There seem to be two main reasons for the sudden increase. One is simply that it has been facilitated by the extensive logging operations, some of them illegal, now going on in Africa's equatorial forests. Logging companies are driving roads into the jungle and opening it up as never before, allowing gangs of hunters to take out wildlife in an unprecedented manner.
The other reason is the continuing urbanisation of Africa and the increasing drift to big cities of rural people, who take with them a taste for wild meat, so creating an enormous market for traders.
The African great apes are the group of species most at risk from the bushmeat trade; their populations are already a fraction of what they once were. 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.
Some of the world's most senior conservationists feel this is an assault on land animals to compare with the slaughter of the great whales, and that the sheer scale of the killing, increasing all the time, makes it a very real crisis for wildlife, particularly for the great apes, our closest relatives.
Dr Jane Goodall, the world's leading expert on chimpanzees, said last year: "If the international community does not respond vigorously and comprehensively to the bushmeat crisis, most endangered medium and large-sized mammals, and many endangered birds and reptiles, will be extinct in these areas in the next 10 to 20 years."
But on the world stage, the bushmeat crisis is not seen as a crisis at all. Some observers believe this is because the many governments and campaigners passionate about the economic and social development of Africa see the fate of wild animals, even endangered species, as of little or no importance compared with the fate of millions of people, many of whom are existing in the direst poverty. If desperately poor people need to eat gorillas to survive, then so be it.
On Wednesday, however a new bushmeat campaign will attempt to bridge the gap between conservationists and developmentalists by pointing out that bushmeat can be a sustainable resource for poor people, and if it is all wiped out by uncontrolled hunting, it is Africa's poor who will suffer more than anyone else.
The campaign is led by Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, and brings together 30 leading conservation bodies including the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Zoological Society of London, Fauna and Flora International, and the Ape Alliance, itself a coalition of groups trying to save the great apes from extinction. Their main targets will be Mr Blair, who has made Africa and its poverty a prime focus of Britain's foreign policy, and Ms Short, whose own concern for Africa is long established; neither of them, however, has hitherto seen bushmeat as a major issue.
The campaign's message to both will be that Britain should take the international lead in tackling the bushmeat problem by making it a key factor in overseas aid policy, and put it firmly on the world's political agenda at the Johannesburg summit. The meeting in South Africa in September is the 10th anniversary conference of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and its theme is sustainable development – how poor countries can grow without destroying their own natural resources. If ever there was a sustainable development problem, the campaigners are saying, bushmeat is it.
Mr Gardiner said yesterday: "There are two issues: the survival of animal species, and sustainable development for some of the poorest communities in the world. What is happening is an absolute catastrophe for African wildlife, but it is also something that is clearly unsustainable for the local people.
"We want Britain to take the lead in tackling it worldwide."
The essence of the new approach is that if local people are given a recognised interest in consuming their own wildlife in a sustainable way, they will help protect it from over- consumption – and extinction.
Dr Davies, one of its principal advocates and an adviser to the new campaign, says: "We cannot tackle the issue of bushmeat successfully without addressing the needs of the local people. Protected areas for wildlife, for example, are important, but in countries with poor local governance they will not work without community support."Reuse content