Notes from the field: March 22, 2015 – rural highway from Lambaréné to Libreville, Gabon
“Wait, stop! That was a mandrill!”
That exclamation from my colleague cut sharply through the pop songs on the radio, as we cruised down the bumpy two-lane highway on our way back from the field in the central African country of Gabon.
The driver screeched to a stop, and we parked on the side of the road so we could check things out.
Mandrills – primates with brightly colored faces — are charismatic megafauna at their best.
Up to this point, my experience with mandrills was limited to eye-catching photos in National Geographic.
So this was my first time to see one up close.
But there was a catch – this mandrill was not alive. It was dead, lying limp and lifeless on its belly slumped over a rickety wooden table along the side of the road.
How much to buy that mandrill?
The mandrill in front of us was being sold as bushmeat, which is a common sight along rural roads and in some urban markets throughout central Africa and other parts of the world. Already on our drive we had seen a bushmeat menagerie of wild animals, such as blue duiker, porcupine, squirrel, turtles, and snakes.
Bushmeat can be an important source of protein and income for households. But commercial bushmeat hunting is also a major threat to conservation.
For abundant animals, hunting can arguably be done sustainably. But heightened concerns arise for protected species, like mandrills, whose numbers are already critically low. Mandrills are protected in Gabon – the country where they were first discovered – and are a major focus of wildlife conservationists.
But mandrills are also considered a delicacy, further exacerbating concerns. And then there’s the reality of the practical challenges of enforcing the animal’s protected status.
At the roadside table, the mandrill we saw – completely intact and weighing an estimated 70 or so pounds – was by far the largest and most prized item for sale. It lay there alongside parts of several other wild animals, a garlic-smelling bark, and other harvested products from the nearby forest.
As we approached the table, a man up the hill walked down his dirt driveway to see if we were interested in purchasing anything. In that short amount of time, two other cars of Gabonese locals parked and joined us.
After some initial small talk, the get-down-to-business questions started coming.
“How much for the bush pig hindquarter?” one of the Gabonese locals asked. “25,000” the seller replied, quoting the price in the local Central African Franc currency.
“And how much for the mandrill?” the same person asked. “35,000” the seller responded.
While those prices sound steep, they were much smaller when I did the conversion to US dollars.
The bush pig hindquarter was selling for about $50. But the entire mandrill – weighing far more than the hindquarter – was just a bit pricier at $65.
I was blown away.
How could such an iconic conservation species be selling for mere pennies on the pound on the side of the road?
The value of a mandrill – to whom?
Our experience that day was environmental economics 101 playing out in the real world.
Behind Door A was a prized conservation species – some might even say priceless – that also faces a very uncertain future.
Behind Door B was an animal considered a food delicacy that also supported a hunter’s livelihood.
The thing is, they are not separate doors – they are one and the same animal.
But that afternoon, the economic forces of supply and demand were driving the price of the mandrill from the perspective of bushmeat. And when demand is present, there’s strong incentive for hunters to sell.
Wasn’t the seller worried about getting caught? After all, mandrills are a protected species in Gabon.
Turns out, no. “It’s Sunday, and they don’t come around to check on Sundays” said the seller, when challenged by another Gabonese local next to us about why he was selling this animal illegally.
In Gabon as elsewhere, despite increasing enforcement efforts, it remains a difficult game of police and robber. Corruption remains too.
And lest we think this was an unlikely occurrence, other colleagues driving this same road two days later (and not on a Sunday) reported that they too saw a mandrill for sale.
With demand for bushmeat growing, do mandrills (and other hunted threatened animals) have a viable future?
Putting values at the heart of conservation actions
Gabon is a country working hard to create a “green” economy, in which protecting nature goes hand-in-hand with economic development of the country’s vast and largely untapped natural resources.
Mandrills are just one piece in a much larger puzzle. But focusing on mandrills helps ground our understanding about what it will truly take to make high-level policy visions a reality on-the-ground – especially for the hunter and his community that we met along the side of the road.
Economic and institutional forces are powerful, and the status quo drives the seemingly incompatible values ascribed to the mandrill.
But what if a focus on values could lead us to solutions, rather than just help us diagnose the problem?
Seeing the face of the values conundrum, literally and not just figuratively as I stared at the dead mandrill, has made me realize anew how essential it is for the conservation community to find solutions to bridge the values gaps to identify common ground.
I don’t know what happened to that mandrill, as the prospective buyers passed on it. And we drove off to return home.