Elephants, gorillas and other large forest mammals may become extinct in central Africa within 50 years if hunting meat to feed starving populations continues at the current pace. Each year, rural peoples consume some 2.2 billion pounds (one million metric tons) of so-called bushmeat from wildlife, the equivalent of four million cattle; the flesh accounts for 80 percent of the protein and fat in their diet.

"If current levels of hunting persist in central Africa, the most vulnerable species will become extinct in the near future," cautions Nathalie Van Vliet, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Indonesia. The problem is, she adds, that "if the people that currently rely on bushmeat as a source of protein in central Africa had to rely on livestock, we would see the same catastrophe that is destroying the Amazon Basin: deforestation for pasture land and livestock raising."

In fact, there is no simple solution to this problem. CIFOR, in a report released today, argues that a hunting ban would not work, as evidenced by the failure of antipoaching programs, among other things. But it also says that forest species such as elephants, buffalo and apes that are slow to reproduce need to be protected or they will disappear entirely. Already, roughly 40 percent of jungle species are killed in greater numbers than can be regained through reproduction, according to the report "The Bushmeat Crisis."

The report calls for local agreements that allow hunting of species that can rebound quickly (such as various species of duikers, a type of forest antelope) while nixing kills of species with long gestation periods (such as elephants who give birth after 22 months). This is "hunting that can satisfy the demand from the poorest in future generations as well as ensure the stability in the long-term of hunted animal populations," Van Vliet says. But she notes the "success" of such pacts will depend on local communities' willingness to abide by them.

The only examples of such sustainable hunting, however, are either among people who have almost no contact with other human beings, such as the indigenous Aché people in the forests of eastern Paraguay, or those who have already killed off local populations of slow-breeding animals as is evidenced in the bushmeat market in Takoradi, Ghana.

Further exacerbating the problem: illegal and even legal activities in central African forests, such as logging and mining, that carve out new access as well as attract new people who also crave meat. And laws against the wildlife trade have failed to prevent supplies of everything from rhinoceros horns to tiger bones from reaching the estimated $3.9-billion global market.

That suggests that even granting ownership of the common resource represented by a duikers herd might not solve the problem, as some experts suggest. But it also shows that blanket bans are not working either. "In the tropics, they have genuine needs," says entomologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology, who was not involved with this study but has been assessing the problems presented by expanding human population since the 1960s. "There are desperately poor people surrounding reserves. If I was there, I would shoot the hippo and eat it, too."

Granting local peoples a limited right to hunt while working actively to manage specific populations of animals in the jungle—a task complicated by an inability to determine exactly how large a given population is—may prove the only way to truly conserve, according to the authors of the report, which also includes experts from the United Nations Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

"The question is conserving for whom?" Van Vliet asks.  "For rural people that need to survive as well as for urban people that would love to see our fauna in the future—or just conserving for the sake of it?"