The rising and often illegal trade in bushmeat—wild-caught animals, often threatened species such as primates, birds and elephants—threatens African biodiversity and could drive numerous species into extinction. Finding replacements for that trade could solve the need for both income and subsistence in many African communities. The answer, according to experts speaking at a meeting held in Nairobi this week, could include promoting beekeeping and farming jumbo-size African rodents known as cane rats (two species of the genus Thryonomys) for food. Representatives from 43 governments, United Nations agencies and other groups attended the meeting, which was organized by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), along with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to discuss issues the bushmeat trade, law enforcement and related issues.

The bees would provide honey, both for trade and food, whereas the six-kilogram cane rats, already farmed in some parts of Africa, could produce much more food than other substitutes such as beef cattle, yet take up far less space. According to CITES, replacing bushmeat with beef in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone would require converting 80 percent of the country to cow pastures.

"Tackling the impact of unsustainable and illegal trade in bushmeat is critical for protecting the livelihoods of rural people and conserving wildlife in biodiversity-rich areas," CITES Secretary General John E. Scanlon said in a prepared statement. "It requires us to redouble collaborative efforts from [the] international to the local level. The CBD and CITES secretariats are committed to work together with indigenous and local communities and other stakeholders to address this problem and promote sustainable solutions."

Until alternatives for the income and food provided by bushmeat exist, experts at the meeting said the trade will continue at unsustainable levels, creating "empty forest syndrome," where many of the birds and other animals that keep forests healthy—through seed dispersal, for example—will be hunted into extinction, which would then threaten the forests as well.

Both beekeeping and cane-rat farming are already on the rise in various parts of Africa. According to a 2006 BBC News article, cane rats (also known as grasscutters) generate healthy profits for farmers in Ghana. A report last month from Modern Ghana says there are already 3,000 beekeepers in the country's Volta region. A June 8 report from promoted beekeeping in Uganda as a "potentially lucrative but ignored enterprise."

According to the Web site Apiconsult, beekeeping can be started easily, uses very small amounts of land, and does not require much effort. In addition to providing honey and beeswax as cash crops, the bees themselves provide an extra benefit: enhancing pollination in local communities, which may help other crops.

Interestingly, cane rat is bushmeat and is often traded as such. But wild-caught rats are hunted using unsustainable methods, such as setting bushfires. Farming them provides a ready source of high-protein and low-fat meat that is better for the environment as well as for the other species in Africa.

Photo: . By Stewart and Vickie Carrington via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license