By Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Beekeeping and breeding animals such as cane rats for food are needed to help tackle the unsustainable trade in bush meat in central Africa, conservation experts said on Friday.
Local populations rely on birds, reptiles and mammals including apes in the vast Congo Basin for food, but overhunting for so-called bush meat is leading to 'empty forest syndrome', according to a statement issued by a panel of environmental experts following a meeting on the issue in Nairobi.
"Tackling the impact of unsustainable and illegal trade in bush meat is critical for protecting the livelihoods of rural people and conserving wildlife in biodiversity-rich areas," said John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES).
Legitimate subsistence hunting is being replaced by commercial hunting and trade in endangered species including elephants and primates, said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
The statement said that replacing bush meat with locally produced beef would require up to 80 percent of the Democratic Republic of Congo to become pasture.
"Therefore, there is no alternative to making the use of wildlife for food more sustainable."
The Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the size of western Europe, is home to more than 150 million hectares (370 million acres) of forest, one of the largest stretches left in Africa.
Experts say overhunting is undermining food security and also poses a threat to the forest itself, as 75 percent of tropical tree species depend on animals to spread their seeds.
Measures proposed by the experts include the promotion of beekeeping to produce honey for trade and subsistence, the introduction of community wildlife management programs, and farming cane rats for food.
Cane rats, also known as grasscutters, are large herbivorous rodents that are already farmed in some parts of Africa.
Bush meat has become big business in some countries, with the Central African Republic's informal trade estimated at $72 million dollars a year, the statement said.
Population growth and commercial trafficking were adding to pressure on local wildlife, it added.
(Editing by Bate Felix and Jonathan Lynn)