NAIROBI, Kenya – The markets in the Central African Republic offer all of the jungle's delicacies, including monkey, chimpanzee, antelope and, if you have the cash, even elephant.
Hunters kill the elephants and cut off the ivory. Then, over grills fueled with green tree branches, they smoke the meat for a day, charring the outside to preserve it for the trip to town. The main market is in Africa, where elephant meat is considered a delicacy and where increasing populations have increased demand.
Most people believe international demand for ivory is the biggest threat to elephants. But while wildlife experts are meeting in the Netherlands through June 16 to discuss the ban on the ivory trade, forest elephants — perhaps the most endangered elephant species in the world — are being hunted to extinction not only for their tusks, but for their meat.
"These elephants get poached a lot more than the eastern and southern African elephants," said Karl Amman, a wildlife photographer and investigator into the illegal trade in animals. "I am convinced the poaching of forest elephants in the Central African region is for the meat and ivory has become a byproduct."
In the markets of Bangui, ivory earns a poacher about $13.60 a pound. Smoked elephant meat brings $5.45 a pound, considerably more than any other kind of meat, including beef or pork.
A typical forest elephant, which weighs 5,000 to 6,000 pounds and produces 1,000 or so pounds of edible meat, can earn a poacher up to $180 for the ivory and as much as $6,000 for the meat. The average income for an African in the Congo Basin is about $1 a day.
People in the forest live in such poverty they do not have time to think about animal conservation, said Andrea Turkalo, a researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society who works in the Dzangha-Sangha National Park.
"This country can't run their health dispensaries, they can't educate their children, how can you expect them to think about conservation?" she said. "I think people are still killing for ivory, but there has been a shift in the meat trade because of the human demographics. There are a lot more people here."
Gabriel Mabele, chief of Mosapula village, said creation of the Dzangha-Sangha National Park and a ban on hunting elephants there has meant his people have less meat to eat, but people still want to eat elephant.
"You can't just openly put it out in the market, you have to be secretive about it," he said. "But the hunting continues."
Omer Kokamenko, a ranger at Dzangha-Sangha National Park, also said elephant hunting has become more about the meat.
"When someone kills an elephant whose tusks don't weigh more than 500 grams (one pound), it's not for the tusks — it's especially for the meat," said Kokamenko, who lives deep in the forest. "Outside this region (in the city), elephant meat is expensive."
Forest elephants are different from their cousins that roam the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, where most are protected by rangers. Forest elephants are smaller and darker, their tusks are straighter and their ears are more oval. They range from Guinea to Uganda, but are mostly concentrated in the Congo Basin, where poverty and war are common.
Little is known about forest elephants because they live in small groups within dense rain forests. In 1989, wildlife biologists estimated the forest elephant population of the Congo Basin at 172,000.
There have been no comprehensive studies since then, but a Wildlife Conservation Society study of six elephant areas in national parks released in April found "a combination of illegal killing and other human disturbance has had a profound impact on forest elephant abundance and distribution."
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned trade in ivory in 1989, but some African nations won permission to sell ivory in 1999. Another sale was authorized in 2002.
Amman said the focus on the ivory trade overlooks the bigger issue of the sale of elephant meat. Amman, joined by a journalist from The Associated Press, was able to document how wildlife meat, including elephant, is being sold across the border between the Central African Republic and Congo.
Government officials on both sides collect taxes on the trade, even though the business is illegal under international law. Tax collectors and more senior officials declined to answer questions about the trade or tax system.
Until governments act, the elephant population will remain in danger, Amman said.
"Better law enforcement and better governance is the underlying issue of most of the problems in Central Africa," Amman said.
Desire Loa, a former park ranger who turned poacher, said the trade is so profitable that government officials are behind most poaching, hiring Pygmies and providing them with rifles to kill elephants.
"It's important officials who pay for this now, and take Pygmies to be the hunters .... because they're the ones who have money," he said. "You might find me guilty today. They'll put the handcuffs on me and take me (to jail) in town.
But Loa said he would not be there for long.
"The prosecutor will tell me, tonight you'll spend the night here," he said. But later he'll "give me back my weapons and tell me to go back to work ... people are against conservation. They go back to the forest every time."