Inside Africa's biggest bushmeat market in Angola

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Bushmeat for sale at market in Angola June 2016

Angola is home to Africa's biggest bushmeat market but is now ramping up efforts to stop the illegal trade, reports the BBC's Karen Allen from Luanda.

In a blue plastic bucket is a macabre sight - the head of a small gazelle stares straight ahead, as a woman chops meat from its limp body to the the strains of a popular song on radio.

Angola is not for the squeamish.

Bushmeat is everyday fare here. They call it "Carne de Zaza" in Portuguese.

Scientists like Steve Boyes of the Okavango Wilderness Project and the leader of a National Geographical Society expeditionary team, monitor the trade.

"This is not about judgement, it is about conservation," he says, as he reveals that $6 (£4) will buy you a monkey and $60 a fine cut of snake.

Image caption,
An illegal bushmeat market, just miles away from a UN meeting on environmental crime

The consumption of bushmeat is a lingering legacy of survival and tradition, not a sign of bloodlust, among a population still badly bruised by an ugly civil war.

But old habits die hard.

During the war which stubbornly persisted from 1975-2002, communities had little choice but to eat bushmeat, and a man I stumble across in the market speaks bluntly of his distaste for change.

"I had to eat bushmeat during the war years so I intend to continue eating it now… I'd even eat elephant," he boasts.

Another woman told me that she prefers the taste of bushmeat to chicken, or other commonly eaten animals.

Now Angola has become a flourishing hub for contraband from across the region, with billions of dollars netted globally from what has been dubbed "environmental crime."

Syndicates are operating on an industrial scale, and the UN and Interpol warn that this illegal activity has now eclipsed arms smuggling in scale.

So long as there is a market and laws are not enforced, it seems, stamping out this lucrative business will be hard.

A mammoth task

The recently released report on Environmental Crime - a joint initiative from the UN Environment programme (UNEP) and Interpol - comes with a stark warning.

Failure to address wildlife crime now means sustainable development goals may not be reached.

So Angola is trying to ramp up efforts to outwit the poachers, recruit hundreds of former soldiers to re-train as wildlife rangers, and promise strategies to promote conservation.

"We have a big push to manage protected areas and create others for the benefit of our people," said Abias Huongo, director of Angola's National Institute of Biodiversity.

"For us to survive, other species need to survive," he says.

But the sale of the global problem is staggering.

The UN estimates that the value of environmental crime has risen by 26% in two years and now stands at $258bn, only behind drugs, counterfeited goods and human trafficking in terms of criminal enterprises.

Image caption,
Angola hosts Africa's biggest ivory and bushmeat market
Image caption,
Much of the ivory in Angola is smuggled across the border with DR Congo

Angola hosts Africa's biggest ivory and bushmeat market.

It is a transit point for much of the trade, with ivory smuggled from across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A recent seizure of elephant tusks were displayed incongruously in the airport lounge - testimony to at least 11 elephants which fell prey to this spiralling crime.

Ivory traders face the threat of three years in jail or a hefty fine under Angolan law but insiders admit not enough is being done to enforce the rules.

The government here has threatened to close down Benfica market in the capital, Luanda, to coincide with the launch of the report and UN Environment Day.

Image caption,
Soldiers are being recruited as wildlife rangers as Angola promises to live up to international commitments to combat the bushmeat trade
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The battle pitches poachers vs conservationists

Yet it's a mammoth task.

The fact that we were able to find illegal bushmeat at a market just a few miles away from where UN dignitaries met their Angolan counterparts in the province of Cuando-Cubango, is testimony to the vast scale of this illicit global trade.

Just over a decade since the end of the civil war, in a part of the planet which has been locked away from much of the outside world, new territories are now been opened up for exploration.

But it's a race against time, pitting conservationists against poachers.

Image caption,
The Okavango river system is one of the last pieces of uncharted territory in the world

A carpet of thick African bush fed by waters from four rivers make up the Okavango river system. It is a breathtaking sight when viewed from the air, full of promise but also foreboding.

It is one of the last remaining pristine parts of the planet which offers the prospect of becoming a new front for criminal gangs - or a gift to science and conservation.

That is why the pressure is on Angola to take a lead in law enforcement, roll out education campaigns and provide new job opportunities which divert communities away from wildlife crime.

The Okavango Wilderness Project has proposed a 178,000 sq km protected area which would enable elephants and other wildlife to roam freely without fear of being hunted.

Image caption,
There is still a chance to preserve some of the most pristine and wild regions of Angola - but it comes with a price tag

It opens up the prospect of creating jobs in the eco-tourism sector. It is an attractive prospect for a country like Angola that is trying to diversify away from oil.

But conservation is labour intensive and without a major scaling up of global effort and funding, the poachers are likely to continue to have the upper hand.

And the funding may need to be raised "to the tune of $800 per sq km per year", says Paul Funston of the Panthera conservation group.

It seems that the world now faces a critical choice - share the burden and costs of African conservation effort, or look the other way.