Joseph Munyao is worried. Weekly earnings are falling steadily at the two butcher shops he owns near the edge of Tsavo National Park, Kenya's largest wildlife reserve. Competitors hit by the slump have closed down, and even Mr. Munyao's once-regular beef customers are staying away.
It could be simple economics. Drought has cut cattle stocks, forcing up beef prices in this country where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Or it could be something else. In the past five years, 48,900 wire snares have been found by conservationists along the game trails that crisscross this country famed for its abundant wildlife. Illegal hunting is flooding the market with inexpensive "bush meat." The poachers who set these traps were once after elephant and rhino ivory, but controversial trade bans have shut down those sales.
While the scope of the problem is not fully known, conservationists say it could endanger Africa's wildlife as much the great herd massacres of the 1970s and 1980s.
"Kenyans are poor. They do not have the money to buy beef and goat, but every man wants to eat meat," says Mr. Munyao, a smartly-dressed father of four sons, at his butcher shop in Sofia, 220 miles southeast of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. "Now they are eating wild animals from the land and not coming to my shops."
A minority of Kenya's 72 tribes have always killed wild animals for food, mostly buffalo, impala, gazelle, giraffe, even monkey. But recently these small-scale culls have mushroomed.
Privately, the antipoaching staff at the Kenya Wildlife Service say as many as 1 million animals are dying in the snares each year. Other conservationists the Monitor spoke with agree with that figure. With a pound of bush meat selling for up to 40 Kenyan shillings ($.50), the trade in Kenya alone is now worth around $5 million a year.
"Bush meat hunting has evolved from a low-level subsistence activity to a huge commercial trade," says Winnie Kiiru from the Born Free Foundation, an international conservation group based Britain. "The trade was thought to be predominantly a West African issue, but it's becoming apparent that the illegal sale of bush meat is an emerging industry in East Africa. It is now supplying urban and even international markets, posing what some scientists believe to be the biggest threat facing wildlife populations in many African countries."
Back on the borders of Tsavo National Park, on a well-worn game trail linking the east and west halves of the reserve, Isaac Maina pauses on his morning patrol, his eyes fixed just ahead to a gap between two low thorn bushes.
He moves closer, crouches to his knees, and uses a stick to hook a circle of wire the size of a CD from where it is fixed to a low branch. This snare, the eighth his team has found in less than 90 minutes, was set to catch a dik-dik, a foot-high antelope with wide black eyes and a short tawny pelt.
It is a simple noose, fashioned from stolen telephone wire, which tightens each time the animal struggles to get free. There are thousands of these traps lying in wait across Kenya. Mr. Maina and his three teams from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a conservation group based in Kenya, can clear only a fraction on these daily patrols.
Despite this, they have found more than 8,000 in the past year, designed for every animal from the miniature dik-dik to the towering giraffe. "We can only pick up the ones we see, and we could be missing a lot of them," he says, looping the snare around his arm and setting off again through the thick bush.
In the eyes of the Kenya Wildlife Service and other organizations, Moses Musya (not his real name) is a criminal. Stop him heading home from one of his weekly treks into the bush, bow and arrow slung loose over his shoulder, you would typically find him laden with up to 110 lbs. of illegal meat.
Mr. Musya calls himself a hunter. He says the meat, usually impala, is for his family, wife, Virginia, and their two sons ages 6 and 14, both in primary school. Any left over is bartered for flour or sugar.
"I used to be a chef at a safari lodge, but then the bombings [in 1998, of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania] came, and there were no tourists, and I lost my job," Musya says through the smoky haze in his windowless mud-and-thatch hut in a village a mile from Tsavo's electric fence.
If caught, he could face 10 years in jail. The Kenya Wildlife Service arrested 16 people last year, though none has yet gone to trial.
The Born Free Foundation is pushing for a sharp increase in prosecutions to promote a "zero tolerance" message to deter future poachers. They want more antisnaring teams deployed, adding to the work of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and want to sensitize younger Kenyans to the residual effects of poaching, especially to Kenya's key tourist industry.
But poverty remains the driving force behind the trade.
"I have to feed my family and pay for my sons' education so they do not live like me," he says. "How else can I do this in this place? My heart does not like me to kill these animals, I know it is against the law, but we are poor, we have no choice."