By Gayne C. Young

Hey kids! Who wants to eat a whole smoked monkey? 

Unfortunately, a lot of people. And that is the problem with bushmeat.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, bushmeat is “raw or minimally processed meat that comes from wild animals in certain regions of the world, including Africa and other areas, and may pose a communicable disease risk.” It can come from any type of animal or fish (literally anything that can be trapped, caught, or killed) and is often smoked, dried, or salted. None of these methods of preservation are “sufficient to render the meat noninfectious.” Aside from it being illegal, conservationally unsound, and potentially life-threatening for the person who eats it, bushmeat poses very few problems if it stays local. Once it leaves that area, however, all hell can break loose.

Bushmeat often carries zoonotic diseases (those that can jump from animal to human) and is credited with being responsible for such emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) such as Ebola, HIV, Nipah virus, Henipah viruses, SARS, and more. Put that meat from Africa, Asia, or South America on a plane and it can be almost anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. If the meat ends up in a highly populated urban environment, disease can spread rapidly.

A recent article in The Guardian by Phoebe Weston detailed how officials are doing their best at the Brussels Airport to stop the flow of African bushmeat and the potential epidemic it could start. According to estimates from officials, a staggering 4.3 million tons of bushmeat is smuggled through the airport … each month. Most of it isn’t found, and therefore, isn’t seized. The majority of it comes from Africa, and in the past officials have confiscated meat from cane rats, monkeys, pangolins, elephants, and crocodiles. Authorities have also discovered and seized oddities such as a whole smoked monkey, an almost five-foot-long basking shark folded into a suitcase, and crates of live caterpillars, as well as more traditional food items like sheep and calves freshly butchered and wrapped in plastic. All of the meat was presumably smuggled for the purpose of being consumed by humans. Meat that is confiscated is incinerated as it is too costly and time consuming to individually identify each item, making accurate record keeping of just what and how much illegal bushmeat is coming through the airport an impossibility.

It’s clear that the international bushmeat market is substantial enough for couriers to take the risk of discovery and face the subsequent consequences. The Center for International Forestry Research estimates that up to six million tons of bushmeat is poached from the Amazon and Congo Basin alone each year. According to INTERPOL, “Environmental and wildlife crime has become one of the world’s largest and most profitable crime sectors and continues to grow as it pushes many species to the brink of extinction.” A recent Europe-wide joint INTERPOL/World Customs Organization (WCO) operation effort named “Operation Thunder 2022,”  seized more than 2,000 pieces and parts of endangered and protected animals. These seizures included parts of elephants, rhinos, primates, big cats, and reptiles, among others. Annually more than 1,000 species are affected and the operations involved in killing these animals and bringing them to market worldwide are part of a much larger problem. In fact, INTERPOL states that “60 percent of wildlife trafficking cases were linked to transnational organized crime groups.”

As with most anything, the blackmarket for bushmeat wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a demand. The simple fact is that people eat what they are used to eating and this usually doesn’t change simply because they move from one area to another. Anne-Lise Chaber, a researcher at Adelaide University, told The Guardian that people continue to eat bushmeat after they move because they find the meat tasty, believe it to be healthy, and that the only way to stop the trade is to “work with the community and see what could replace bushmeat.” 

Chaber’s kumbaya approach of gathering all the newcomers around a table and serving them flights of different local meats in hopes of winning over their palettes sounds delicious but is a bit far-fetched. A more plausible approach would be to allocate more resources to the detection and prosecution of the poachers, smugglers, sellers, and possessors. Let’s hope that can be done and done soon as more than 1,000 species are at risk—not to mention the dangers posed to humans from exposure. 

From the FE Films Archive

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