Ape Meat Sold in U.S., European Black Markets

Sara Goudarzi
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2006
Meat from chimpanzees, gorillas, and other wild African animals is
popping up in illegal markets in the United States and Europe, a new
investigation reveals.

"Bush meat" consumption is widespread in western and central Africa (Africa map). There, the poor have traditionally trapped wild animals as a form of subsistence hunting to help feed their families and villages.

(See a bush-meat photo gallery. Warning: graphic content.)

However, wild animals such as primates have been shot in such large numbers that conservationists have declared bush-meat hunting a crisis. Adding to the demand, wild animal meat is making its way from small villages into African cities, where some diners consider it a delicacy.

Now bush meat is going overseas to Western cities.

Justin Brashares, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a team of volunteers recently said it found the illegal meat in markets in Paris, Brussels, London, New York City, Montreal, Toronto, and Los Angeles.

The team documented 27 instances of gorilla or chimpanzee parts being sold, though it never found a complete carcass.

Carry-On Meals

"Most illegal meat is carried in suitcases and also is shipped in parcels and large containers," Brashares said.

Brashares first learned of markets that trade bush meat through a chance meeting with a Ghanaian living in New York City a couple of years back.

"In the U.S. a lot of it comes through JFK and Miami airports," he added. "Inspectors actively search for these shipments and use sniffer dogs. But they tell me they can't begin to keep up with the volume coming in and estimate they catch about one percent of the total coming into the country."

Many officials at Africa's airports are aware of the illegal cargo but choose to look the other way and allow the airports of the importing countries to deal with the issue, says Karl Ammann, a bush-meat activist and wildlife photographer.

"I have checked in on flights to Europe in central African capitals," Ammann said. "A lot of local passengers check in openly with [coolers]. Airlines—I talked to Swissair staff at the time—are terrified to confront passengers and risk huge scenes at the airport."

Meat for the Elite

Bush meat is a vital part of the livelihoods of many rural Africans. But for Western countries that are not suffering from food shortages, it has become a luxury food item, like caviar or shark meat.

The biggest Western consumers come from the middle and upper classes and have found easy ways to access bush meat, according to Ammann.

"It is pretty openly for sale, and when checking out the buyers, it is clear that it is not the poor but often the wives of politicians and policymakers," he said.

The University of California's Brashares believes it's reasonable to assume that African bush meat sold in North America and Europe is a luxury good. But he found out that, for many, it's just a matter of getting some home cooking.

"My sense from talking with the volunteers who use these markets and know them pretty well is that most buyers are expats from Africa who cook the meat in their house," he said. "I'm told some of it is going to restaurants, but I can only guess as to how much."

The most commonly sold bush meat found in Brashares' investigation was from small antelopes known as duikers, but meat from various rodents, reptiles, and birds was also discovered.

Risky Business

Many experts warn that illegally imported bush meat could be a vector for the introduction of diseases. Some think this has already happened.

"The belief is that the foot-and-mouth outbreak [in 2001] in the U.K.—costing the country billions of pounds—originated with African bush meat," Ammann, the activist, said. "In Gabon there have been several outbreaks of Ebola, all associated with villagers eating primates."

Brashares agrees that, with the large amount of meat that makes it into the West and the relatively unsanitary conditions of the markets, many zoonotic diseases—infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans—arrive with African bush meat every day.

Shipped by the Ton

Most experts agree that the total amount of bush meat imported into the West is high. But precise estimates are hard to come by.

"A very small part of the total sold makes its way overseas, but considering that millions of tons of bush meat are sold in Africa each year, a 'very small part' can still mean several hundred tons each year arriving on our shores," Brashares said.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement among governments, works to ensure that international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Under CITES laws, cross-border trade of bush meat is illegal.

"I don't believe there are laws against eating bush meat in the U.S. It is illegal to bring it into the country but not to eat it," Brashares said.

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