The first wild monkey Anthony Rose ever saw in Cameroon was dead--gutshot and still next to a porcupine and a pair of tiny red antelope. "A poor day's catch," his host apologized, gesturing with his gun.
In two weeks of barnstorming rain forest boomtowns in central Africa, Rose, a conservationist from Los Angeles, counted more primates dead than alive.
They were stacked, stiff as cordwood, on the beds of logging trucks bound for distant cities. Sinewy arms and legs were smoking over trail-side fires. Their fresh red meat was piled in open-air market stalls as women listlessly fanned away flies--and questions.
Rare apes and monkeys are among the world's most stringently protected and intensively studied creatures. Yet they are being hunted into oblivion.
Not by native trackers armed with bows and arrows. Nor by Hemingway caricatures dressed in crisp safari jackets. The culprits are commercial poachers toting automatic weapons.
Scientists fear these gangs will exterminate many of the world's 618 primate species--including all the great apes--from equatorial jungles in 10 years. In central Africa, maybe five.
They compare the slaughter to that of the American bison in the 19th century.
"Facing that apes are on the menu is hard enough," said Rose. "Getting them off the menu and finding alternatives for millions of people is enormously difficult."
Biologists from several environmental groups, including Conservation International, estimate hunters are dragging 1 million metric tons of game from the forests every year, an amount equal to about 4 million cattle.
In the 20th century, chimpanzees are down 95% from an original population of 2 million. Their descent has been especially swift since the 1970s, when Jane Goodall estimated there still were 1 million in 21 countries.
Gorillas probably never were that plentiful, but their ranks have dwindled too. Field counts from Nigeria to Rwanda since 1998 show at least three subspecies number only in the hundreds.
Things are equally grim in Asia, where the orangutan population has been reduced to fewer than 20,000 in Borneo and Sumatra.
To the hunters, they are meat. And money.
To scientists, primates are lifelines to our evolutionary past. They demonstrate many of the same qualities--emotions, tool use, communications, problem solving--that we have combined to create culture.
Biologically, they carry versions of AIDS, ebola virus and other tropical diseases that have infected millions of humans, and they may provide the cures too.
Scattered Efforts Failing
Can you imagine a world where a Jane Goodall could study mankind's closest relatives only in a zoo's ersatz rain forest or in a laboratory cage? It's closer to true than you think.
"Traditional conservation is failing on every front," said celebrated photographer Karl Ammann, who has been documenting the escalating hunt for a decade, sometimes with concealed cameras.
He berates primate-eaters as "98.5% cannibals"--a reference to the percentage of DNA that humans share with chimpanzees.
"A drastic new approach might very well represent the last chance for most of the primates and other wildlife," Ammann said.
Conservationists recoil at Ammann's finger-pointing but concede that their scattered protection efforts, hampered by infighting for donor dollars, are being overwhelmed by larger forces:
Overpopulation. Civil wars. Poverty. The demise of tribal traditions. And a voracious appetite for game, or "bush meat." Antelope, elephant, wild pigs and, most worrisome to ecologists, primates, which breed too slowly to replenish their ranks.
In the heart of the African continent, tribes like the Baka Pygmies have been hunting for eons, but their small villages only nibbled at the forest's bounty.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, ancestral hunting ranges were overrun by commercial hunters across Africa's equatorial belt, including Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Congo. Increasingly, the native hunters are abandoning their snares to join the lucrative commercial hunt.
Poachers can wipe out entire social groups of primates in a burst or two of automatic gunfire. If the infants are not killed, they are captured for the illegal pet trade or wind up in cramped orphanages, excluded from the wild gene pool.
Westerners admit they were dazed by how swiftly the hunt has spread.
"The crisis literally erupted as we were sitting there studying the species," said biologist Heather Eves, coordinator of the recently formed Bush Meat Crisis Task Force in Silver Spring, Md. "It was a shocking thing for all of us."
"What's been done in the past isn't going to work," Eves said. "We don't have time for each group to try its own project. We need an unprecedented collaborative effort."
And different methods, too.