I step out the taxi and directly into the lion’s den. In front of me a couple of large tubs, filled with live catfish wiggling about. The “Mamas” selling the fish give me a hard look, a European man entering the market. As I walk past them, a smell of cooked meat starts reaching my nose.
Four men are standing in the middle of the market, at each of their “cooking stations” preparing what seems to be different kinds of animals. One man removes scales from some long-tailed animal with both his hands and a machete, whilst another is cutting the animals into smaller bits, pieces that fit on top of the old oil drum the third man is responsible for. Here the meat is roasted on an open fire. I take a couple more steps, passing a low wall that had been blocking my view, and I finally realise what kind of meat the men are preparing — bushmeat, the flesh of wild animals!
In front of me are ten pallets, filled with freshly killed duiker, monkey, forest rats, antelope, and a couple of large snakes. To my surprise, a small pangolin starts moving. As it unfolds I realize that it is not alone; the floor is filled with them. On this first visit I count 19 dead pangolins and 5 live ones crawling amongst the freshly killed.
This was my debut at Nkoldongo bushmeat market.
With me was a former investigator of LAGA (The Last Great Ape Organization), Jean Pierre Tsafack. He was accustomed to the markets, and did not seem as disturbed at the sight of all the animals; he had seen it before. Not only here in Yaoundé, but in cities all over Cameroon, a Central African country along the eastern border of Nigeria.
I was here because of the snakes. I had traveled to Yaoundé, the political capital of Cameroon where 2,4 million people live. As part of my thesis work I had set out to quantify the amount of snakes being hunted for bushmeat, and what better way than to see how many are sold at bushmeat markets. Snakes, especially larger vipers and pythons, are important predators in an ecosystem, and are often found at the top of the food chain. I was interested to find out how many were being harvested for consumption, in order to estimate the pressure from hunting.
Many species of snakes found in Cameroon are seeing threats from all sides
Many species of snakes found in Cameroon are seeing threats from all sides: Deforestation is prominent throughout their distribution and some are collected for the international pet trade without any regulation. Researchers from WCMC and IUCN found several West African snake species vulnerable to climate change, and that many of them have not yet been assessed for their conservation status.
The species of snakes I encountered most commonly at the bushmeat markets in Yaoundé were the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) and the Rock python (Python sebae). The beautiful Gaboon viper being the heaviest venomous snake of Africa, is consideret very dangerous as it has some of the longest fangs of any venomous snake, and packs a large quantity of potent venom. This species lies on the floor of the forest, perfectly camouflaged amongst the leaves. There it waits patiently for any small or medium-size mammal or bird to approach within striking range. The Red List of Threatened Species assessment for this species has yet to be completed, but as accounts of it being hunted for bushmeat have been reported in Nigeria, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea and Mali, it has to be assumed that the species is consumed throughout its West and Central African range.
Back at the Nkoldongo bushmeat market, I stand and watch as full-size Gaboon vipers are being gutted and blow-torched, 5-6 big snakes every day. A large viper is sold at between 26.000 and 60.000 CFA (U.S. $45-108) and a snake of this size would sustain a family for quite some time. When asked if people are eating more snake meat, several mamas responded: “Snake meat is becoming much popular; snake meat too sweet”. Once an animal has been purchased from the sellers, you can then, for a small fee pay, the “cooks” in the middle of the market to prepare and chop the meat into more convenient-size pieces. This service will usually cost you around U.S. $2.
Yaoundé has three main markets from where bushmeat is sold and distributed throughout the city. The largest of these is Nkoldongo. In close distance you find a bus station where middlemen deliver fresh bushmeat from the east and south of Cameroon, a region where several nature reserves and protected areas are found, including Dja Faunal reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Elig-Edzoa market is located in the northeastern part of Yaoundé. Its location in close proximity to the railroad that connects Yaoundé to northern Cameroon makes this market an easy distribution point. This market is considerably smaller compared to Nkoldongo market, but the atmosphere is comparable.
In the corner of the square-shape marketplace, I see a man preparing a big pile of animals, on top of what looks to be an old Texaco oil drum. Tables filled with smoked monkeys and antelope are located on each side of the square. On the table next to him something catches my eye; a big python. The seller notices my interest and quickly uncoils the snake. The rock python, being close to three meters (about 10 feet), was the biggest snake I had yet seen at the markets. And for 100.000 CFA (U.S. $175), also the most expensive. I turned the seller down, telling him that it was not the species that I was looking for. Noticing the disappointment on his face, I turned around and left.
The rock python is the largest species of snake on the African continent, a keystone species that play an important role in the ecosystem. In contrast to the Gaboon viper, it is protected by international trade regulations. This means that international trade in animals and skin is only possible with the correct permits. National Cameroonian wildlife law also protects pythons from being hunted, killed and sold, but enforcement of the law is severely lacking.
Pythons are among the most exploited reptiles on the planet
Pythons are among the most exploited reptiles on the planet, especially in Southeast Asia where both the skin and the meat is used. The skins are used for bags, wallets and accessories exported to the European and North American markets, while the meat is consumed locally. Analysis show the numbers of traded python skins over the last decade to be in the millions — and this accounts only for the legal trade.
The third market is the smallest of the three, and named Mfoundi. It is open-air, so you don’t feel claustrophobic like in the other two. I walked down a flight of stairs, and immediately was greeted immediately by what can now only be described as a familiar sight, tables filled with smoked animals. The sellers seemed uneasy by my presence, but after the purchase of a couple of peppers and carrots from a nearby vegetable seller, I was free to look around.
The bushmeat found at this market resembled the meat found at Elig-Edzoa market. Monkeys and antelope made up the largest proportion of the animals I saw. There was one thing that distinguished this market from the other two: the presence of a table filled with traditional medicine and fetish objects. I found myself staring down at all the items on the table, not knowing where to focus. The table contained everything I could think of: tortoise shells, python skin, eagle talons, and to my surprise, draped across the table was an elephant’s tail.
Viper stew with a side costs $3.60
To get a better idea about how popular snake meat was, Jean Pierre took me to a popular bushmeat restaurant located on the outskirts of the city. At first glance it looked like a common restaurant, one that we had been eating fish at several times during my stay. But at a counter stood five mamas behind closed metal pots. We walked towards them and as we approached the lids were taken off the pots and the contents were revealed. Pieces of viper was picked out of the stew by the mama. She asked if we wanted some; I politely declined, whilst Jean Pierre asked her the price of a plate: 2000 CFA (U.S. $ 3.60) for a piece of viper with a side. Pieces of meat that were clearly not snake, were floating around in the pots. I noted especially the pieces with clear scale indications: pangolin. A plate of pangolin and a side would cost us (U.S. $ 2.70).
Bushmeat or wild meat hunting is considered by many to be a conservation disaster, and a bushmeat crisis has been proclaimed by the scientific community. It is important to realise that this crisis has two intertwined aspects: a biodiversity and a livelihood aspect. Implementing policies to reduce the bushmeat off-take must be done in collaboration with the hunters. But while hunting to sustain households across the rural areas of West and Central Africa might be sustainable, supplying the growing urban population with bushmeat is not. Finding alternative protein sources must be made a top priority in order to cover both aspects of the crisis. Several alternatives have been suggested and projects involving agriculture, including farming of different wildlife species, has proven valuable alternatives.
Snakes are shown to be hunted and sold in large number at one main market in the capital of Cameroon. Primarily Gaboon vipers are harvested, and as the conservation status of this species is not yet known, natural populations could possibly be declining. When asked about the accessibility of Gaboon vipers, several mamas and middlemen answered that the hunter had to travel longer distances to catch the snakes.
Following this post will be a another, showing African snakes exported for the international pet trade. This trade includes the Gaboon viper and shows previously undocumented pressure on several non CITES listed species.
My name is Timm Juul Jensen, an M.Sc. student at Aalborg University in Denmark. I am currently concluding my thesis focuses on exploitation of African snakes. My thesis will shine some much needed light on animal species often neglected, and three main focal points form the core of my research: Trade for the international pet market, skin trade, and hunting for bushmeat. The latter is what led me to Cameroon. Quantifying the off-take of snakes for the bushmeat trade was the aim of the case study conducted in July 2017. The results from my thesis will form the basis for future projects aiming at African snakes and their environment while providing protein alternatives for local people.