Author Interview: Theodore Trefon's new book highlights the complexities of the bushmeat trade

Hunting is the greatest threat to bonobo survival. While the solution may seem straightforward, the consumption and trading of wild-caught meat is actually an incredibly complex and multi-layered issue, with deep cultural and financial significance. Theodore Trefon’s new book, Bushmeat: Culture, Economy and Conservation in Central Africa, analyzes the trade and consumption of bushmeat through a combination of compelling individual stories and thoroughly researched data.

Theodore Trefon has dedicated his career to environmental governance and related issues in the DRC. He is a researcher at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium, and a lecturer at ERAIFT (Regional Post-Graduate Training School on Integrated Management of Tropical Forests and Lands), Kinshasa. He has also served as a longtime member of BCI’s advisory board. Thanks to his many years as a researcher, consultant, and project manager in central Africa, Theodore has developed a formidable level of expertise that comes through in every chapter of this essential book. While the subject matter is daunting, Theodore approaches the topic with clarity, empathy, and profound insight. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in Congo Basin conservation.

BCI spoke to Theodore about bushmeat and the implications of his research. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

BCI: You've dedicated your career to studying environmental governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What inspired you to pursue this line of work?
TT: It was quite random at first. My thesis director in the African Studies Center at Boston University was Belgian, specializing in State-Society relations in what was then Zaire. I ended up in Brussels to do research and once having completed my PhD found work at the Free University of Brussels in the anthropology department. There were projects funded by the European Commission with a focus on environmental governance in central Africa, so one thing led to another. Thirty years later a random situation became a passion. My work in the DRC has been a school of life for which I feel so lucky to have discovered.

BCI: "Bushmeat" is a term embraced by some and rejected by others. What was the process of deciding to use that term and make it the title of your book?
TT: Politically correct or not, bushmeat is the most relevant term. It’s closest to both the French terms viande de brousse (literally meat from the bush) and the Lingala term nyama ya nzamba (meat from the forest).

BCI: Has anyone found that controversial?
TT: Prior to publication, the manuscript was read by around 20 experts from universities, research organizations and the conservation universe - as well as my publishing partners. No one red-flagged the title or the choice to use bushmeat opposed to other ones such as wild meat or non-domesticated meat. Moreover, I don’t really mind being controversial. We need to go beyond conventions if we expect to change attitudes and behaviors – which is indeed a wildlife conservation priority.

BCI: What's a major misconception that non-Africans, especially Americans and Europeans, have about the bushmeat trade?
TT: I’m not sure that misconception is the best way of looking at it. I’d frame the divergence of perceptions as more Western ignorance of the issue and a serious lack of empathy. The chapter ‘meat for some, wildlife for others’, does a deep dive into that cultural divergence.

BCI: How would you describe the cultural role that bushmeat plays in the Congo Basin?
TT: You are totally on track with that question. Along with economic drivers for bushmeat hunting, trade and consumption, the cultural drivers are key. People say they crave bushmeat because it is traditional, it reminds them of their childhood and it is associated with family gatherings. Eating it or offering it bestows prestige to the giver and the receiver. There are cognitive links between the characteristics of an animal and its benefit or danger to humans. Ingesting the flesh of a monkey will give agility to a child; conversely, a pregnant woman who eats turtle will have a difficult delivery. Going into the forest with a 12-gauge shotgun, getting meat and celebrating back in the village defines the hunter’s masculinity. Trading bushmeat is a source of empowerment for women. These are some of the many examples of cultural attachment to bushmeat.

BCI: Your book explores the complexity of wild meat consumption in the Congo Basin. It's such an enormous topic—how did you even begin to tackle the research required for a book of this scope?
TT: I love talking to people and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I wrote a book of personal narratives from the Congolese city of Goma and a friend from Wildlife Conservation Society said it would be great to have stories of the people involved in the bushmeat commodity chain, also based on an empathetic ethnographical approach. That was the start. The book is therefore based partially on original interviews. I travel four or five times a year to central Africa for research, teaching and consultancy assignments, so I was able to get lots of ideas and data over the past few years. The research is also based on the many articles devoted to wildlife conservation. Surprisingly there are many hundreds of scholarly articles about bushmeat but no book. I wrote the book alone but lots of people contributed in different ways.

BCI: What was your goal in writing this book? Did you have any particular desired outcome?
TT: One question I kept asking myself was “Will this analysis and book be impactful?” I want the work to be impactful. There needs to be a change in how things are done and how these issues are understood. Unfortunately, there’s been a long tradition of environmental NGOs that suffer from hubris and aren’t sympathetic to the needs and realities of people living in central Africa. Often, people who work for these organizations don’t even speak the languages of local communities and then they end up being heavily involved with things they don’t fully understand or dismiss for ideological reasons. It’s easy to point fingers at someone for hunting or consuming wild animals—but the truth is that it’s just deeply ingrained in the central African universe. I believe that the best way to be impactful is to tell people’s stories, which is why I wanted to focus on the qualitative rather than the quantitative. I’m hoping that people in charge of policy will look at this work and think that these stories, these perspectives, are something that needs to be considered. I hoped to find the right discourse that engages decision-makers and doesn’t put them off. There’s a real need for readable social science.

BCI: You introduce readers to perspectives that many people may never have heard or considered, like a restaurant owner in Kinshasa who says, "I’m a businesswoman and bushmeat is my livelihood. Everyone has the right to earn a living, no?” and a university assistant who says, "God, family, and bushmeat—those are the things that really matter to me." How did you decide whose voices to represent in the book?
TT: Bushmeat is so incredibly at the heart of the central African universe it was really easy to get men and women to open up and talk. Anyone who had something interesting to say was carefully listened to. Once I figured out the book’s chapter structure, I’d go back to my notes (many hand-written, others typed up on my laptop) and use them to construct my discourse.

BCI: What would you hope that these decision makers would do in response to all these narratives?
TT: I would hope that they would recognize that a “one size fits all” approach simply doesn’t work. Site specificity matters a lot. In areas where there are few opportunities to create wealth or save money, there are many factors we have to look at when we consider wild meat consumption. Bushmeat isn’t ideological; it’s based in economic and cultural realities. There’s too much focus on making laws that don’t make sense for local people. In order for there to be any possibility of an effective response, you have to embrace a more holistic perspective. We have to look at the culture, the economy, and realize the challenges faced by local administrations and the difficulties local authorities are faced with to enforce laws that are often perceived as being illegitimate

BCI: You mention that alternative livelihood initiatives, though sensible in theory, aren't often effective in practice. As you know, BCI works with Congo Basin communities to expand economic opportunities for local people. What can we, and other NGOs like us, do to improve outcomes?
TT: Yes, I am a bit harsh on such initiatives but fully agree that some NGOs like BCI which are truly embedded in the communities where they work can help improve livelihoods and wellbeing. There are plenty of alternative livelihood strategies – bee-keeping, sewing workshops, poultry breeding, improved agricultural techniques – but they tend to be isolated specks on a vast landscape without sustainability, impactfulness or scalability. The strength of BCI’s approach is its long-term version. Its success today is the fruit of decades of commitment, struggle, sacrifice and most importantly building solid relationships with communities. It’s all ultimately about trust and sustained efforts. BCI has earned the trust of the true protectors of bonobos. Some of the big conservation NGOs may also have long-term visions but tend to be subject to donor whims and unrealistic project cycle requirements. Conservation and building trust takes time; most big donors, however, want quick results.

BCI: Bushmeat is a huge part of the culture and economy of the Congo Basin AND it also has devastating consequences for wildlife and the environment. Here's the biggest question: is there any hope? Is there a path forward that honors the traditions and economic realities of Congolese communities while also protecting the rainforest and its wildlife?
TT: Sorry, but I’m not going to try to sugarcoat an answer for you. The challenges to sustainable wildlife management in central Africa are overwhelming. Climate change, deforestation and forest degradation, demographic pressure, urbanization, unrealistic legal frameworks, corruption, the dominance of the informal economy and entrenched poverty are the main big picture problems. I asked a Congolese friend from Sankuru who unabashedly loves bushmeat if he eats bonobos. His response was: “They're monkeys, aren't they?” Meaning yes. That's a big cultural obstacle to BCI's work. Even the best-managed conservation organization, with great leadership and piles of money, will find it difficult to sustainably manage wildlife given these cultural and broader political economy obstacles.

Elikiya in Lingala means hope. BCI’s people in the field and in the office have plenty of that. We have no alternative but to carry on with a creative vision as best we can, driven by this important cause for the future of our planet.

Buy the book here.

Three people sitting, facing camera
Theodore Trefon (center)