The June 2023 issue of National Geographic devotes 24 pages to the complex issue of bushmeat consumption in the Congo Basin, and highlights WCS initiatives that address the worrying threat of the soaring urban demand for wild protein.

Reporter Rene Ebersole and photographer Brent Stirton traveled to both Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo to provide insight into an already alarming situation of risky over-hunting, and to answer a simple question: are there alternatives?

In this in-depth feature, National Geographic reports how WCS field programs have provided solutions to curb this trend. These include the EU-funded Sustainable Wildlife Management Programme which is working with partners (FAO, CIRAD and CIFOR) in fifteen countries, USAID’s protein and biodiversity programming, and Urban Bushmeat Program, which is funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service with support from the Arcus Foundation, the UK government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, and the UKRI GCRF TRADE Hub.

WCS is spearheading the use of social marketing to promote behavior change for the conservation of Africa's globally significant wildlife. Two other campaigns are planned in Ouesso and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo), as part of the “Forest to the Fork” multi-pronged approach developed by WCS that inspired the authors to title their paper.

"Forest to the Fork is a framework that leads us to consider the bushmeat paradigm in a holistic way, and to provide various supports to communities, consumers and governments at different levels of the bushmeat value chain, with the same ultimate goal: to avoid ecosystem collapse, to protect the cultures of Indigenous People and local communities, and to guarantee their protein and income sources,” explains WCS’s Africa Director for Rights and Communities Dr. Michelle Wieland.

For many rural communities in Central Africa, bushmeat is a necessity for their livelihood, as well as an ingrained cultural practice. On the other hand, with the rapid growth of cities like Kinshasa (est. population 17 million, up from 6 million in 2000), bushmeat is also becoming a luxury product for urban dwellers and a lucrative business for some of the actors supplying urban markets.

"Unsustainable hunting poses a threat to the survival of certain species, and thus to the food security of the rural populations that depend on it," explains Liliana Vanegas, Urban Bushmeat Program Coordinator at the WCS, "in addition to posing a health risk, as most of the latest epidemics have come from wildlife, such as Ebola, HIV, Mpox.”

“We aim at supporting community governance while developing domestic protein, in order to lead to sustainable wildlife consumption for the rural poor" explains Dr. Germain Mavah, WCS senior technical officer leading this project in Congo.

The WCS aims to promote local chicken and sheep farming, as imported and frozen livestock meat has long been an obstacle to behavioral change, being considered unhealthy and non-nutritious by rural communities, who see bushmeat as the only "organic" source of protein available to them.

The article also quotes Lude Kinzonzi, campaign assistant for WCS's Urban Bushmeat Program who says: "Every year, more than 5 million tons of bushmeat are extracted from the forest (...) at this level, some species will disappear.”

Lude has contributed to two social marketing campaigns launched by WCS with the national governments in Pointe-Noire and Kinshasa, to promote Congolese bushmeat-free cuisine.

“Eating bushmeat is part of my culture,” says Kinzonzi in the Nat Geo piece, “But if we want people to change their behavior, I needed to be the first person to move in that direction.” Kinzonzi embodies the growing awareness of Central African youth that WCS is helping to raise through various initiatives to address the complexity of bushmeat consumption in terms of cultural practices, food security, public health and conservation.

National Geographic’s feature goes live online on May 18th, and will be part of the next issue hitting newsstands on June 1st.