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4.2.2 Subsistence hunting and gathering

Hunting and gathering of wild animals has always been and continues to be an important aspect of life in rural African societies. In the past, hunting provided the main source of animal protein and professional hunters occupied a highly respected position in the society. Even in modern day Africa, some groups such as the Bushmen in southern Africa depend almost entirely on hunting and gathering to obtain essential protein and cash income, while many other groups supplement their livelihood considerably by hunting (see e.g. Richter and Butynski, 1973; Asibey, 1974; Ajayi, 1979; Infield, 1988; Tutu et al., 1994). In many African countries, hunting is not only a means of securing food resources, but is also a social event (rites of passage) in which young men proved their manhood.

Hunting with guns and bows is predominantly a male activity, but women and children also play a significant role in the hunting and collection of wild resources to feed the household. In south eastern Gabon, women and children set traps for small mammals and birds :in plantations (Lahm, 1993). Women of the Luvale and Shaba tribes of Zaire also trap rodents and in West Africa, snail collection is predominantly done by women and children.

In the past hunting and exploitation of wild animals were regulated by traditional rules and every good hunter was expected to respect the traditional code of conduct that existed in whatever community he operated in. With colonisation and the advent of modern wildlife conservation measures, many African governments have introduced restrictions on hunting. These restrictions include prohibition of hunting in national parks and other wildlife conservation areas, closed seasons in which hunting is prohibited, introduction of a license system and restrictions on species and age categories which could be taken. In many countries, hunters are required by law to take out a hunting license which normally stipulates the number of each species he is allowed to hunt over a specified period of time. In some countries, bushmeat traders are also required to take a license which permits them to trade. In southern and eastern African countries. these restrictions are strictly enforced to ensure protection of wild animal both within and outside protected areas in order to promote tourism, sport hunting and other wildlife based revenue generating activities. Within West Africa, enforcement of hunting regulations is less stringent and is aimed at protection to allow wild animal populations to build up, since numbers of most species have already been drastically reduced by hunting. In most countries, hunting regulations concern large game species' a factor which explains the dominance of rodents and other small mammals in the species exploited as bushmeat.

Governmental controls do not normally apply to the collection of invertebrates such as insects and snails but in many African communities the collection of these groups of wild animals is governed by traditional rules and regulations. For example, in the southern forest areas of Ghana' particularly in Ashanti, an unwritten traditional law involving closed seasons exist which was highly respected in the past and effectively regulated the exploitation of the giant African snail Achatina achatina. The closed season for forest snails was strictly enforced in most Ashanti villages; at the beginning of the snail season when the snails were laying their eggs the town crier would inform the community of the ban on snail collection. This was aimed to allow hatching and growth of young snails . This was strictly adhered to until the season was opened by another announcement from the town crier.

Despite all the controls on hunting, subsistence hunting accounts for over 90% of the bushmeat supply on the African continent. In the Cte d'Ivoire bushmeat consumption in 1990 was estimated to be 83,000 tons valued at US$ 117 m, out of which only US$23 m came from commercial hunting Feer (1993). Several categories of hunters and hunting methods have been described by various authors based on number of hunters involved, time of day and the implements used. Thus we have individual and group hunting, hunting with guns, bow and arrow hunting, setting of traps, night hunting and day hunting. Within these groups, hunters may operate as full time professional hunters or as part-time hunters whose main occupation may be farming, artisans or people engaged in the government/public service.

In the past, flint-locks were used and these were made by local blacksmiths. Currently, 12 gauge shot guns as well as locally made and imported rifles are commonly used. Most professional hunters own a gun; part-time and young hunters may or may not have their own guns. It is common for a younger/part-time hunter to rent/borrow a gun from an older hunter and pay a portion of his catch for the use of the gun. Within a population of about 130 people in a village in north-eastern Gabon, the ratio of gun ownership was 1:6.5 persons (Lahrn, 1993). Traditional hunting methods in Nigeria include the use of home-made muzzle-loaders, setting traps and snares, use of dogs and use of fire to drive animals out (Afolayan, 1980; Martin. 1983). The weapons used by the Bushmen of southern Africa consist of a light metal or bone-tipped arrow, whose quiver is made from the roots of the quiver tree Aloe dichotoma, a tiny spear and a hunting club. A short but sturdy bow is used to fire the arrow at close range. Bushmen daub their arrows with poisons extracted from roots, bark and berries of certain trees and also from the venom of snakes, spiders and scorpions (Maliehe, 1993) Hunters in the Kiteto and Mbulu districts of the Arusha region in Tanzania also use poisoned arrows. The poison are obtained from extracts of various species of plants which may also be used to poison fish (Chihongo, 1992).

Hunters may hunt individually, often assisted by a helper, or in groups. Individual hunting may take place during the day or at night, in the forest or in secondary growth around farms. A professional hunter would leave his home in the morning for a day hunting expedition, returning in the evening. Many farmer-hunters share their day time between farm work and hunting or trapping. Dogs are commonly used to sniff out the wild animals,

Although illegal in many countries, night hunting is very common and very popular among professional hunters since the success rate is much higher. The hunter leaves his home after dark for the forest and normally hunts until day break before returning home. Night hunting is mostly a solitary affair although some hunters would use an assistant, a helper or someone to carry the kill. Most hunters normally restrict their night hunting activities to familiar grounds. A single hunter or two to three hunters in a group may also camp out in the forest -to hunt and would remain in the forest for periods ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks. The hunter constructs a hunting camp which is used as a base and hunting is done both day and night. The quarry is smoked and accumulated until the end of the hunt. Occasionally women buyers would travel from one camp to the next to buy meat but more commonly the hunter and his helpers would bring the meat to the village on market days.

A hunter's implements would include a gun, a small bag (often made out of animal skin) containing a supply of gun powder and cartridges, a cutlass or heavy knife and in the case of night hunters, also a powerful lamp which is carried on the forehead. The hunting lamp is a special device made from brass with a polished reflector and contains carbide. When water is dropped on the carbide, it produces acetylene which burns to give the strong light of the head lamp. The reflection of the lamp in the eyes of the wild animal enables the hunter to spot the animals. The strong light has the effect of dazzling the animals and the hunter is therefore able to approach them and shoot at close range.

Three main forms of communal hunting are common on the continent:

i) seasonal group hunting using guns;
ii) combing of vegetation to drive out animals which are then killed with clubs and cutlasses; and
iii) the use of fire to smoke out animals.

Traditionally, the seasonal group hunt was carried out at specific times of the year or as part of the celebrations associated with a particular cultural event and would commonly involve most of the able-bodied males in the community. Among the Ashantis living in forest areas of Ghana, the seasonal group hunting is a highly organised event. A meeting is held several days before the hunt to decide on the hunting grounds, divide people into ranks and share out responsibilities. As many as 60 - 100 people may be involved in the hunting, comprising professional hunters and helpers as well as a number of dogs.

Hunting by combing of vegetation involves fewer people. perhaps four or five. They encircle a patch of vegetation known to harbour animals and work towards the centre beating and slashing the bushes. Signs used to determine whether or not a patch of vegetation is likely to contain animals include presence of droppings and food remains. The method is popular for hunting rodents, especially the grasscutter in West Africa. Animals emerging from the vegetation are either chased and caught by dogs or killed with clubs and cutlasses.

The use of fire in group hunting is more common in the grassland savannah areas. Members of the group are positioned strategically around a patch of grassland known to contain wild animals. The area is then set on fire and animals are killed with cutlasses and clubs as they run out of the area to escape the fire. Within the forest areas fire is regularly used to smoke out rodents such as the giant rat Cricetomys gambianus from their burrows. A group of rat hunters would search for rat holes and set fire at the entrance using palm branches and dry leaves. The smoke penetrates the burrow and forces the rat to come out. In the mean time, members of the group would be waiting at strategic points around the burrow ready to kill the rat as soon as it comes out. Often the animal dies in the burrow out of suffocation from the smoke, in which case, it is dug out.

Most hunters who hunt with guns also set traps. Traps may also be set by farmers who do not hunt with guns and also by women and children. Two systems for setting traps are common on the continent:

i. the setting of traps in the forest in areas known to be used by wild animals or along animal trails and at feeding grounds. The sole aim of such traps is to catch mammals. Bird traps are normally placed among the top branches of trees known to be regularly used for feeding or roosting by birds. In the past hunters also set isolated traps in the forest comprising dug-out pits (pit-fall's), trenches and gin-traps. Such dangerous traps posed serious threats to people and are now prohibited.

ii. the setting of traps in and around farms: often a fence is constructed around a farm and traps are set at intervals along the fence. This system is primarily a crop protection measure and the primary objective is to reduce damage to crops by wild animals particularly rodents. Its value for providing the farmers with meat is however, quite substantial.

Snares may be designed as neck-traps, waist-traps and foot-traps depending on which part of the animal the noose is aimed at. A mixture of natural and man-made materials are used.

The most common material for making the snare or noose is steel wire, while natural fibers and stems are used to make the trigger and spring devices and also to anchor the snare. Foodstuffs such cassava, ripe plantain, banana and palm nuts are used as bait and are normally placed at the entrance of the traps to entice the animals. Traps around farms are inspected daily or as often as the farmer or his family visited the farm. Those set within the forest are normally inspected every other day. In most African communities, it is considered a very serious offence and a taboo for one person to tamper with or remove an animal from another person's trap.

The success of the different types of hunting methods vary, so does the species and sex composition of the catch. For example Lahm (1993) reports that trapping and night hunting had the greatest success rates for hunters in a village in north-eastern Gabon, and small nocturnal prey such as porcupines were more easily caught by snares. A number of duiker species may remain mesmerised by the hunting lamp, thus making them easy prey for night hunters. Arboreal species such as monkeys are highly unlikely to be caught in traps and all the monkeys killed in the Gabon village study were shot (Table 4.7).

Table 4.7 Proportion of hunt accounted for by different methods of capture in villages in north-eastern Gabon. (Source Lahm 1993)


Total Caught

% shot

% trapped









Blue duiker




Red duiker








The time spent on hunting varies from place to place and obviously on whether or not a hunter hunts on a full time or part-time basis and also on the success rates. The average number of hunting forays recorded in the Gabon study was 2.5 days per week. Infield (1988) recorded a mean of 16 hunting days per month by an average hunter in villages around the Korup National Park. Hunting in these villages was carried out all year round although its intensity declined during the farming season between December and March. In contrast. trapping was more intensive during the rainy season and each trapper set an average of 13;) traps. The Kumasi study (Tutu et al., 1993) showed that hunters hunted on average 2.08 times a week and each hunting foray lasted 4.42 hours (range 1 - 11 hrs). Average catch per hunting episode was one to four animals. In another area in Ghana, Akim Ayirebi, professional hunters spent an average of 22 - 30 hours per week hunting at night (Table 4.8).

Professional hunters depend on their stalking skills, experience, knowledge of the behavior of wild animals as well as a thorough knowledge of the forest within which they operate. However, hunters may also adopt a number of strategies involving the use of "magic", which are believed to either increase hunting success or offer protection for the hunter. Four such strategies are well known and have widespread use, but their effectiveness has not been studied.

Table 4.8 Seasonal weekly survey of number of hours spent on night hunting by five professional hunters, Ayirebi, Ghana in 1982/83. (Source: Dei, l 1989)


Age (yrs)

No. hours per week for each seasonal period

Yearly av. Hrs/wk

Yearly av. Hrs./day


(Jan. - March)

Lean season
(Apr. -Aug./Sept.)

(Oct. -Dec.)














4 3







3 2







3 5








        Mean 25 3.6

Use of charms: a hunter may wear a ring on his finger or toe, a bracelet, a necklace or a talisman round his neck or a waistband around his waist, which is believed to improve hunting success by acting as a charm which draws animals towards the hunter.

Magic of transformation: this is another reported form of magical power which is supposed to confer the ability for a hunter to transform into an animal e.g., a hunter may transform into say a duiker or bushbuck. This then increases the chances of individuals of the same species coming closer to the hunter, which greatly improves the hunting success.

Invisibility powers: "magical" powers which makes a hunter invisible to a wild animal and the hunter is therefore able to approach the animal without being detected and is able to shoot at close quarters; this may involve a tail-whisk or a magical preparation which the hunter carries around and places on his head at the appropriate time.

Disappearance powers: this form of magic is aimed at protecting the hunter. It normally involves a long process of rituals comprising periods of confinement, bathing in a series of herbal preparations and living on a prescribed diet. After the initiation? the hunter may or may not be given a magical band which he wears. It is more common among old big game hunters. The process is believed to confer on the hunter the ability to disappear in the face danger e.g if a hunter is faced with a charging elephant, he might draw on such powers and disappear from the scene. The magic is invoked as soon as the hunter panics or when the hunters utters a word/phrase.

Sustainability of subsistence hunting

Considerable effort has gone into studies on hunting techniques and bushmeat exploitation by subsistence hunters in Africa, but very little effort has been put into assessing as to whether or not hunting methods and levels on the continent are sustainable. Wild animals continue to be increasingly exploited by a whole range of hunters from small scale subsistence hunters to powerful professional hunters and group hunters who organise hunting networks including arrangements for transport to city centres and marketing of the quarry. Despite the fact that populations of most wild animal species are declining as a result of over-exploitation and destruction of natural habitats, the quantity of bushmeat on sale in city markets does not seem to be decreasing. Feer (1993) contends that the ever-increasing availability of bushmeat on city markets is not because hunting is in balance with natural production rates but because the areas hunted are continually increasing, often intruding into protected areas. Although animals may be locally scarce, hunters are prepared to go much further afield and spend more time on hunting expeditions to get decent quarry.

Intensive over-hunting is only profitable in the short term. In the longer term, exploitation over and above the productive capacity of wild animal populations will only lead to scarcity and animals will become too scarce for hunting to be profitable. Ecologically and economically. a more appropriate alternative would be to regulate hunting to sustainable levels while managing wild animals and their habitat for maximum productivity. In order to achieve this there would be the need to develop a simple methodology to measure sustainability of subsistence hunting in Africa. This becomes even more crucial under the changing face of conservation from strict preservation to addressing the needs of local people and the increased recognition of the role of subsistence hunters in wildlife protection.

Indices and models have been developed to provide preliminary measurements of hunting sustainability in tropical forests, although these are based mainly on Latin American examples (Robinson and Redford, 1991; 1994; Bodmer et al., 1993). Five such indices reviewed by Robinson and Redford (1994) are based on population density comparisons, population density declines; hunting yield comparisons; hunting yield changes and age structure comparisons. These indices allow the determination of whether the wild animal population production exceeds or is less than the harvest demand at a particular time. For example, in a study of game hunting in the Amazonian lowland forests. Bomer et al. (1993) found that the primates and the lowland Tapir Tapirus terrestris were over-harvested by the rural people in the Tahuayo region of the Reserva Communal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo in north-eastern Peru. Artiodactyls and large rodents were, however, not over-exploited. The authors therefore advocated the cessation of hunting of over-exploited species and the setting of levels for artiodactyls and rodents as a means of ensuring sustainable use of the wildlife resources and protecting over-hunted species.

Determination and implementation of a sustainable level of hunting will yield considerable long term benefits to the conservation of Africa's wildlife resources and also to subsistence hunters for whom the wildlife resources provide their main source of livelihood. Data required for the determination of sustainable levels of exploitation would include:

• the intensity and variation in hunting patterns;
• the population status of game species;
• population turn over in individual game species and
• the response of game populations to hunting.

Such data unfortunately, are non-existent for many of the forests in Africa thus making it difficult to determine whether or not subsistence hunting is sustainable.

4.2.3. Bushmeat processing and marketing

Standards for bushmeat processing and marketing vary from one area to the other. On the one hand, the rules are so strict that it is almost impossible to meet the oconditions without huge capital investment on abattoirs and cold storage facilities. On the other hand. there are absolutely no rules or standards and the quality of bushmeat offered for sale on the markets varies widely. The latter is the situation prevailing within west African sates, where there are practically no rules regarding bushmeat processing and marketing.

While there may be standards set to ensure domestic meat hygiene in most west African states, these either do not seem apply to bushmeat or are totally ignored when it comes to bushmeat marketing and processing. Hunters kill animals and transport them long distances in sacks to market centres without any attention to storage conditions, often carcasses are carried on roof racks of public transport, exposed to the hot west African sun, and still sell them as "fresh" bushmeat. It is common for animals killed on night hunting trips to be kept till day break before the hunter sets off for the market centre, which means animals often get to the markets several hours after being killed. Animals caught in traps may stay in the traps for up to three days if trappers do not visit their traps regularly for one reason or other. Sometimes such carcasses are almost beginning to decompose, but they will be collected and either sold as "fresh" bushmeat or smoked for sale. There also seem to be no standards for smoked bushmeat and it is common to find improperly smoked bushmeat offered for sale on the markets. Whether this is the result of the scarcity and high demand of bushmeat in the sub region or the strong preference for bushmeat and therefore anything is acceptable is not clear. There have also been no attempts to study the effects of prolonged storage of wild animal carcasses under inappropriate conditions on the quality of the meat or even the health hazards consumption of such meat pose.

In eastern and southern Africa, stringent standards are set and enforced for bushmeat processing and marketing to the extent that in some areas game meat production is seriously hampered by obstacles such as shortage or total lack of cold storage facilities. As far back as 1971/72 The Kenyan Government's Veterinary and Game Departments prescribed the following stipulations which were expected to be strictly adhered to for game meat processing in the Kekopey experiment (Blankenship et al, 1990)

• All carcasses were to be bled by severing the carotid arteries while the heart was still beating.

• If killed by shooting, only head or upper neck wounds were permissible. Body wounds automatically meant condemnation due to inadequate bleeding thus, risking contamination.

• Evisceration was to be within 60 minutes of slaughter. (Less time would be allowed for animals larger than gazelle and impala).

• Carcass bone temperatures should fall below 13C (55F) within 4 hours of slaughter, and below 3C (8F) within 16 hours. The fall in temperature to be continuous with no temporary gains.

• Processing of carcasses was to take place in dust and fly-free conditions

• Personnel working with skinned carcasses were required to be bathed, dressed in clean clothing, and to be free of disease or unhealed sores.

• Facilities for tool sterilization and hand washing for carcass processors must be made continuously available.

• A minimum supply of 33 liters of sterilized (chlorinated) water must be available per carcass handled.

• Carcasses and viscera must be inspected by a qualified meat inspector of the Veterinary Department immediately following evisceration

• Unweaned immature animals are considered unacceptable and should therefore not pass inspection.

• Transport inspected carcasses in dust-proof vehicles.

Approximately 7 % of the carcasses culled in the Kekopey and Suguroi experiment were rejected for reasons varying from infection with disease pathogens to body wounds (Table 4.9)

Table 4.9 Causes for rejection of game carcasses culled in the Kekopey and Suguroi experiment. (Adapted from Blankenship et. al, 1990).






% Total


% Total

Poor bleeding















Wounds and septicaemia





Contamination during handling





Wounds/bruises on body





Unweaned immatures










* Total animal culled, Impala 889, Gazelle 1,172

Apart from in-country requirements, there are also international veterinary restrictions on meat exports to markets in Europe and the United States of America which must be considered in advocating large scale production of bushmeat. A number of requirements have to be met if high-quality meat is to be produced (Blankenship et al, 1990). These include the following:

• Ideally, the animal should be kept calm and not subjected to the need for strenuous movement, as this can lead to raised meat acid levels and muscular dystrophy (Young 1975) which lower meat quality.

• The animal should be available for inspection for behavioral or postural evidence of disease that may be difficult to detect post-mortem.

• Slaughter should take place in hygienic surroundings to minimize bacterial contamination. It should be humane and cause as little damage to carcass tissues as possible.

• Post-mortem routines commence with severance of major blood vessels, usually the carotid arteries, before the heart ceases to beat. This allows the evacuation of most carcass blood, thereby reducing the volume of free liquids, through which bacteria spread quickly. This improves the keeping quality of a carcass.

• The alimentary tract is a large internal source of contamination and ideally should be removed from the carcass within minutes of slaughter.

• Rapid cooling inhibits bacterial and enzymatic decomposition of tissues.

• Both carcass and viscera should be inspected to ensure freedom of pathogens dangerous to man.

• Meat processing should start immediately after slaughter. Freezing, chilling cooking, canning, salting or any of the many forms of curing need to carried out under clean conditions to ensure a durable, hygienic product. Hides must also be treated immediately to ensure high quality product.

Such considerations are obviously difficult to obtain even with domestic stock in most parts of Africa, and would be almost impossible with wild animals anywhere on the continent without expensive inputs. Some advocates of wildlife utilisation for meat production reject these high standards of modern meat production as unnecessary. They point out that millions of domestic and wild animals are killed annually by farmers, hunters and sportsmen around the world and either eaten or sold for public consumption, without heed to official hygiene regulations or disease. The important issue however is the fact these requirements constitute the standards against which any bushmeat production will be judged and there is therefore an obvious need for extensive investment in equipment and research to overcome whatever limitations there are and/or to prove the safety of processing techniques currently used.

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