Washington - A new report released by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and WWF finds that the lack of meat in refugee rations in East Africa is causing a flourishing illegal trade in wild meat, threatening wildlife populations and creating a food security issue for rural communities.
The report "'Night Time Spinach': Conservation and livelihood implications of wild meat use in refugee situations in north western Tanzania," uses case studies from Kagera and Kigoma in Tanzania, host to one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the world, and the largest in Africa.
Illegally-obtained wild meat is covertly traded and cooked after dark and referred to as 'night time spinach' inside many refugee camps.
"The scale of wild meat consumption in East African refugee camps has helped conceal the failure of the international community to meet basic refugee needs," says Dr George Jambiya, the main author of the report. "Relief agencies are turning a blind eye to the real cause of the poaching and illegal trade: a lack of meat protein in refugees' rations," he added.
Sheer numbers of refugees often leads to extensive habitat degradation and dramatic loss of wildlife in affected areas, with rare species like chimpanzees threatened by the demand for meat. Buffalo, sable antelope and other large mammals have also shown steep declines.
Since Tanzanian independence in 1961, more than 20 major refugee camps have been located close to game reserves, national parks or other protected areas; 13 of them still remained in 2005. In the mid-1990s, an estimated 7.5 tons of illegal wild meat was consumed weekly in the two main refugee camps.
TRAFFIC says that refugees are doubly penalized: their rights to minimum humanitarian care are not always being met and their own attempts to meet them are criminalized. In contrast, humanitarian assistance to displaced populations in Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia during the early 1990s included the provision of corned beef.
"The solution here is not simply clamping down on the illegal trade in Tanzania, there is a need for aid, humanitarian and conservation groups to avoid creating challenges like this in the first place," said Crawford Allan, Director of TRAFFIC North America. "We must avoid the cycle of human suffering compounded by the loss of wildlife."
Trade in wild meat is less expensive than local beef and culturally more desirable for many refugees, also offering refugees the chance to generate income. That's despite official Tanzanian refugee policy discouraging self-reliance within the camps. Conservation organizations believe the key is to supply meat from legal and sustainable wild meat supplies, as well as rigorous law enforcement on the ground.
"Overexploitation of wildlife for food is a no-win situation in which everyone suffers, not to mention the huge loss of biodiversity," said Matthew Lewis program officer for WWF's Species Conservation Program. "It's vital that humanitarian organizations concentrate their efforts on guaranteeing food security for refugees which includes a sustainable source of animal protein."
The report recommends closer partnerships between wildlife and humanitarian agencies, which have already showed progress to address other environmental impacts of refugee camps such as deforestation.