Meat hungry refugees are sustaining a thriving wildlife poaching trade in Tanzania, according to a report by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
Wild meat, cooked after dark in the refugee camps of northern Tanzania, is called "night time spinach". Generally cheaper than beef and culturally more appetizing, poaching or trading wild meat is one of the few income earning opportunities available to refugees.
But the decimation of local wildlife in widening areas around camps is threatening the viability of established local non-refugee communities that traditionally supplemented their diet and income with wild foods.
“The scale of wild meat consumption in refugee camps has helped the international community to conceal its failure of meeting basic refugee needs,” said Dr George Jambiya, the main author of the "Night Time Spinach’ 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.”
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. Populations of buffalo, sable antelope and other grazing animals 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.
“Something has to be wrong if refugees, who have run from guns in their home country, then find themselves fleeing wildlife rangers’ firearms in their search for food,” says Simon Milledge of TRAFFIC and an author of the report.
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.
“The sad reality is that those who most depend upon wild sources of food are usually the ones who pay the heaviest price for biodiversity loss,” says Dr Susan Lieberman, Director WWF’s International Species Programme. “WWF calls upon humanitarian agencies to provide for basic food security of refugees, including animal protein, to ensure a sustainable future for all.”
“The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species shows that many of Sub-Saharan Africa’s wildlife species are threatened, with around 20 percent suffering recorded population declines from the wild meat trade,” said Dr Jane Smart, Head of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)’s Global Species Programme.
“Also the depletion of wildlife is likely to cause an overall loss of income as areas become devoid of species and of less interest to visitors, which may cause economic impacts as well as resentment by local people. ”
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.