Trade in African bushmeat - wild, tropical animals caught for food - should be licensed rather than banned so that it can be controlled in a sustainable way, according to British zoologists.
Scientists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) intend to encourage bushmeat hunters to catch smaller animals that breed quickly, so that larger endangered species, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, can be better protected.
The society has asked the Government to consider its bushmeat action plan to persuade African governments to avert an impending crisis among many of the world's most-threatened species.
Glyn Davies, the society's conservation programme director, said great apes and other large mammals living in the rainforests of central Africa are close to extinction because of unsustainable levels of hunting for bushmeat. He said: "An outright ban on bushmeat flies in the face of the needs of local communities. We need to offer solutions in close discussion with hunters and traders to ensure endangered species are protected and a regulated trade is put in place." The scientists estimate that 60 per cent of the mammal species targeted by the African bushmeat hunters are at risk of becoming extinct, with slowly-reproducing animals being at the highest risk. Dr Davies said: "If the unregulated bushmeat trade continues at current levels, food and livelihood security of local communities will decline as species are lost."
The ZSL said at a conference yesterday in London chaired by Elliot Morley, the Environment minister, that instead of trying to ban the trade completely, it would be better to divert hunters towards smaller species, such as rodents and antelope, which can be harvested continuously.
Dr Davies said: "We don't think an outright ban is sustainable because the trade is huge and the number of people depending on it is enormous."
The society wants governments to agree on a list of animals that could be legitimately hunted for bushmeat, such as wild pigs, duikers - a small antelope - and cane rats, which all reproduce quickly and are considered farm pests.
It has also proposed a licensing system for commercial traders and a sustainable hunting strategy agreed with local communities to explain why the regulations are necessary. Dr Davies said: "It's about trying to keep the attention of the Government on the issue. We're also engaging with the governments in the host countries."
Scientists recorded more than 21 tons of bushmeat sold in one market in Ghana in one month, with a commercial value of more than £26,000. This compares with an average Ghanaian monthly wage of between £60 and £100.
"The total trade involves millions of tons of bushmeat a year and we're proposing licensing in order to regulate it so that it can be managed," Dr Davies said. "If we don't have some form of regulation, everything will go. We need to be realistic." Guy Cowlishaw, the bushmeat expert at the ZSL, said that managing bushmeat hunting rather than banning it was the most realistic option. Dr Cowlishaw said: "It's a very long tradition, as long as people have been living in forests, there has been bushmeat hunting."