Lomie's Secret Vitality: The Black Market

Now that I’m settled back in Lomié and getting back into the swing of hanging out in the market and talking to the market mama’s, shoe repair men, and boutique owners, I’ve recently discovered some pretty disturbing stuff, namely that Lomié is the hub of the black market of endangered species in Cameroon. With increased integration comes people’s increased ability to confide in me, and with that, some disturbing and sad truths come out.

While this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to me given that bush meat is consumed regularly here, and it is a daily occurrence to see a bloody, dead monkey in the market, or better yet, a smoked and flattened dead monkey whose facial expression looks like the Scream mask. I guess what is more surprising is the extent to which the black market penetrates the life and culture here.

I recently discovered that a friend I talk to daily in the market was jailed for 15 years because he sold millions of dollars in illegal ivory. Another friend owns a few businesses, such as a boutique and a furniture shop, and he is the current kingpin for the black market trade in ivory, gorillas, and chimps.

As I said, this all isn’t too surprising. I knew that illegal poaching happens because I see the illegal monkeys for sale in my market every morning. Also, on my trips to Abong Mbang, I sit next to people who bribe Ecoguards at the anti-poaching control stops so that their large sack of dead chimps or what-have-you on top of the car is passed as manioc, despite the fact that blood is clearly dripping out of it. Sometimes those who are charged with protecting the law here are its worst infringers.

What is surprising; however, is that so much of what Lomié is, is based upon the black market of animals and animal products. What appears as a spice shop on the outside, on the inside is stuffed with elephant tusks covered up with black tarps – reserved for the select few clients who know how to ask for what they want. The expensive liquor shop is in fact only a front to explain the financial earnings of the kingpin of the gorilla and ivory trade. Behind the most popular boutique in Lomié are dozens of endangered animals to be sold for their body parts or for their meat. Many of the inexplicable comings and goings of Lomié’s inhabitants, and many of the reasons they chose to move to Lomié, are based upon the black market. People don’t explicitly admit or advertise that they are part of the black market, but if you hint that you are interested in ivory/gorilla skulls/you-name-it, they are more than willing to pull back the curtain to reveal their true source of profits.

From this whole experience, I’ve come to realize that the foreigners who roll through Lomié fall into one of two categories. The first category is those who are doing development work or ecotourism/conservation. The second group is those who mine, log, or come to find those black market items, thus perpetuating the problem. While I initially blamed the people of Lomié for killing all these endangered animals for the black market, I now realize they aren’t to blame – they are merely being opportunistic and making money where there is money to be made. Those who are really at fault are the foreigners who role through, exploit the soil under my feet for its diamonds, cobalt and what-have-you, and who buy the ivory tusks or gorilla skulls. If there were no demand for these products, there would be nobody emptying the rainforest I live in in order to make a few bucks.

But with the vitality of Lomié’s wealth and well-being being dependent upon the traders making their money from the black market, what happens if it were all to stop? Is it better to let the black market continue in hope that the traders will get enough money to find work that they are truly invested in someday and hope they turn away from the black market to something that truly fulfills them, or it is better to crack down and let the local economy suffer and the standard of living fall?  I wish I had the answers. Instead, I merely try to ignore the fact that the black market here is alive, well, and well-hidden, and that many of those who I consider friends are involved in a career/hobby I find morally repugnant. In the meantime, each day the rainforest around me not only looses hundreds of trees, but also a few dozen more elephants, gorillas and chimps as well. 


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