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

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"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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