By Dan Vergano
Snail salvation? Threatened apes' survival might rest on West African escargot. Only about 300 apes survive in Nigeria's Cross River National Park on the Cameroon border. Poaching from nearby poor villagers searching for food or meat to sell has reduced the rare apes' numbers to about one-tenth of their population a century ago.
"These are some of the most endangered apes in Africa," says James Deutsch of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "The people are poor and protein is hard to find, so they will eat gorillas."
Over the past six months, though, a pilot effort has trained and equipped eight poacher families to farm African giant snails, a local delicacy about 5 inches across, with funding from the Arcus Foundation of Kalamazoo, Mich., a great-ape conservation group.
"Hunters will eat anything they find," Deutsch says, but the likely profit from snail farming, about $413 a year, exceeds the profits from bushmeat trade, for which one gorilla's meat earns poachers about $70.
In 2008, Cameroon created Takamanda National Park, which protects about a third of the Cross River apes, says field biologist Andrew Dunn of the Wildlife Conservation Society. On the Nigerian side of the border, people live close to that nation's park, making it more likely they will hunt gorillas.
In response to such concerns, conservation groups have increasingly sought to involve locals in efforts to preserve African wildlife, after steps to create national parks alone failed to save declining species. A November report on African rhinos from the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission, for example, found their numbers increasing despite widespread poaching, thanks to conservation plans that combined better policing, park management and local population involvement. More....