Bioko Island
Bioko Island

Photograph by Tim Laman National Geographic August 2008

Bioko Island is a little known island off the west coast of Africa. It's part of Equatorial Guinea and the site of Malabo, the country's capital, but it's also a center of unparalleled biodiversity—home to seven species of monkeys, four species of galagos, and two species of duikers, among other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects as well as tropical flora.

Bioko's biggest claim to fame is its primates, including six unique subspecies: the Bioko drill, Bioko Preuss's monkey, Bioko putty-nosed monkey, Bioko red-eared monkey, Bioko black colobus, and Pennant's red colobus. All of the monkeys are endangered, and two of them, the black colobus and the red colobus, rank among the most endangered of all primates. More information on Bioko and its endangered monkeys can be found here.

Morell, Virginia. "Island Ark: A Threatened African Treasure," National Geographic (August 2008), 68-91.

Other Resources

Conservation International

International League of Conservation Photographers

To Market, To Market

The popularity of bush meat is spelling doom for primates across the African continent. On Bioko Island the situation is no different. People usually buy wild-animal meat because there are no alternatives. On Bioko Island, however, bush meat is considered a luxury item. The discovery of vast reserves of oil in the nearby Gulf of Guinea has increased the wealth of island inhabitants, and they can now afford bush meat. In the market in Malabo, they often buy high-priced bush meat, including monkeys, despite the availability of less expensive options such as chicken. And it's not just monkeys that are being hit hard. The most popular bush meat on Bioko is the blue duiker, followed by the giant pouched rat, and then by monkeys. Other animals are also being killed, including porcupines, squirrels, snakes, and tortoises.

Morell, Virginia. "Island Ark: A Threatened African Treasure," National Geographic (August 2008), 68-91.

Other Resources
Hearn, Gail, Wayne A. Morra, and Thomas Butynski. Monkeys in Trouble: The Rapidly Deteriorating Conservation Status of the Monkeys on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea, Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, November 2006.

Bush Meat

The carts arrive at market packed with meat—perhaps a catch of writhing crocodiles or stacks of monkey limbs. Shoppers seeking choice cuts bargain for the best prices. Most have no idea they're helping to exterminate the continent's wildlife.

Africa's trade in bush meat is a multibillion-dollar business. Up to five million tons of bush meat are taken from central Africa's forests—much of it illegally. The result of this grim harvest may be empty forests, extinct animals, and, ultimately, hungry humans.

For some Africans, bush meat is their only source of protein; for others, hunting and selling the meat supplements meager incomes. City dwellers buy bush meat as a reminder of their heritage and because it confers social status.

Shrinking the demand will be difficult, but biologist Justin Brashares and others see hope. In Ghana, for example, Brashares found bush-meat consumption spiked when fish wasn't available or cost too much. Fish farming or cultivating cheap protein sources such as beans may reduce hunting. So would developing employment programs and enforcing hunting regulations. "This isn't a lawless land of animal killers," says Brashares. The bush-meat problem "is really about people who have few alternatives." —Neil Shea

Shea, Neal. "Bush Meat: Appetite for Wild Animals Is Emptying Africa's Forests." National Geographic (September 2005).

Other Resources
Bushmeat Crisis Task Force.

Controlling Bushmeat Trade.

Murder Most Beastly

By: David Diamond
A moose carcass, an eagle wing, a jar of caviar, the gallbladder of a black bear. It almost sounds like a recipe for some diabolical witches' brew. Actually it's murder evidence, carefully bagged and tagged, and it's all sorted in the walk-in freezer at the National Fish and Wildlife Agency's forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon, the only lab of its kind in the world. Without the lab's help, the statutes that protect endangered or threatened animals worldwide would have, well, no teeth. "We're fortunate in the U.S. to have a crime lab dedicated to animals," says Edgard Espinoza, deputy director of the lab and its chief forensic scientist. "Most countries can't afford this type of facility."

The lab never lacks for work. "The illegal wildlife trade is probably second only to the drug trade," says Fish and Wildlife agent Tim Santel. In a typical year the lab's 23 scientists analyze more than 5,500 items—from animal carcasses to boots made of crocodile leather. Here, a technician dusts a mounted rhino head with magnetic fluorescent powder, revealing a clear fingerprint on the horn.

A pioneer in the science of wildlife forensics, the animal lab often uses DNA analysis in its work. Among other innovations, its genetics team has developed a technique to identify the DNA of 14 species of sturgeon and paddlefish whose eggs are packaged as caviar. With backup from the lab, agents run sting operations to catch traffickers in illegally harvested or fraudulently marked marketed fish eggs. In one case perpetrators were hit with a 10.4-million-dollar fine, the largest fine ever imposed in a wildlife crime case.

The lab also used DNA to help make a case against a butcher shop in Illinois accused of selling tiger meat. The meat was labeled as lion, which is legal to sell in the U.S. (tigers are endangered, lions are not), but DNA tests revealed that it was tiger.

Over the past decade there's been a boom in the import of exotic animal parts that immigrant communities in the U.S. traditionally use in ceremonies or for medicinal purposes. African bush meat such as monkey, eaten during rituals, fetches high prices on the black market. To help identify meat from primates—animals known to carry HIV and other deadly microbes—lab technicians collected DNA samples from the paws of monkeys and apes that lived and died in zoos. The resulting DNA catalog provides a ready reference to help solve future cases.

Black bears have fallen prey to hunters hoping to cash in on the market for bear gallbladders, which are prized in Asia for treating a host of ills, from liver disease to hemorrhoids. Hunters typically remove only the gallbladder and leave the rest of the bear—ample evidence for the lab to link a culprit to the crime.

Often agents get a tip from informants that, for instance, a hunter has made an illegal kill in a national park. The agents locate the kill and any shell casing left behind, then ship any remains containing bullets to the lab, where ballistics analysis can lead to the killer.

Agents working undercover to snare offenders can find themselves in dicey situations, particularly with cash stakes so high. One agent posing as a hauler of lions and tigers had to watch as his contacts shot the big cats: Unarmed himself, he could have been their next victim. But he managed to get evidence critical to breaking up the criminal ring. "We realize there are dangers in what we do," says agent Santel. "But because of the passion we have for our work, we don't think about it, we just do it." —David Diamond

Diamond, David. "Murder Most Beastly: Inside the World's Only Animal Crime Lab." National Geographic (March 2004).

Last updated: May 22, 2008