Monkeys on the menu

... conservationists on alert

A bush meat market in Ivory Cost. (Reuters)

If you know where to go in Toronto, you can shop for the most exotic of African bush meat: rodents from the forests of West and Central Africa, bats, even cuts of gorilla meat, an endangered primate. “It’s like a mini farmers’ market with tables set out,” said Justin Brashares, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of California at Berkeley, describing the makeshift markets he has visited in Toronto that are specifically set up to sell bush meat. “Animals are in boxes, some things in coolers beside the table. They sell it often in precut quantities,” he said. Small mammals such as bats, as well as fish from the continent, are the most common offerings but Brashares said that as much as 30 per cent of the meat sold can be primate. A vendor sitting at an empty table is a sign that there is more expensive primate meat for sale.

For the past 10 years, Brashares has been running an international study on the bush-meat trade, for which he has monitored the species of wild animals from West and Central Africa sold each month at dozens of underground markets in 40 cities across Europe and North America, including Toronto and Montreal. At every market, at least two locals record what is for sale, along with the quantity available, and send the information to Brashares, who plans to publish the findings. He has an ecologist’s interest in bush meat that grew out of his doctoral research in Ghana, where hunters kept killing a species of antelope he was studying. By examining the global bush-meat trade, he hopes to gain insight into why humans use wildlife the way we do—and the consequences.

The study is international in scope because what was once a staple food for a local population in West and Central Africa has become a globally traded commodity, just like quinoa or chocolate. This one just happens to be illegal in most countries in the world. According to the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, the global bush-meat trade is estimated to be at least $1 billion annually.  While most wild animals smuggled into the West from all over the planet—not only Africa—are destined for the pet market, a significant number are headed for dinner plates. It is estimated that 25 million kg of bush meat arrives in the United States each year.

“We know a lot comes in through personal luggage,” said Brashares. In October last year, several hundred kilos of African bush meat including monkey and pangolin, an animal that resembles an anteater, were found in passenger bags at Charles de Gaulle Airport, reportedly destined for a Paris market. The contraband also arrives through the postal system and in cargo shipments. Brashares learned of a seizure of 10,000 primate parts at a land border crossing between Canada and the U.S. “They were drawn to the issue [because] the boxes were saturated in blood,” he said.

Globally the bush-meat trade is a growing concern, both for its ecological impact and the infectious disease risk is carries. Last month, Canada participated in a conference in Thailand organized to stem the trafficking of wild animals and plants, by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to which we are a signatory.

But the Canada Border Services Agency refused to comment on bush-meat smuggling, saying the organization doesn’t keep statistics on the types of meat seized at border points. When they do seize meat that appears to be from a wild animal they call Environment Canada. A spokesperson for Environment Canada said Border Services asks them to investigate thousands of seizures each year. According to their records, two since 2009 were confirmed to be bush meat.

If you’ve ever snuck in cheese from France or homemade sausage from a great aunt back home into your suitcase, it’s easy to understand how enough bush meat makes it into Canada to supply the markets Brashares has been tracking. Just as the nostalgia of that sausage makes an honest person lie on a customs form, bush meat offers a connection to culture and to the past. “Apparently the smoky taste that you get from bush meat is not replicated in any of the meats you get in Canada,” said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto who also is a conservationist and works on bush-meat awareness in Central Africa.

“I miss it because it’s my food,” said Ruth Bom, a Montreal mother who moved here from Cameroon four years ago and hasn’t tasted bush meat since. She grew up in a village eating the animals her father hunted, such as porcupine. “It’s a little bit like beef,” she recalled. “It’s not fatty. Even its skin is good to eat.” Her favourite way to prepare porcupine is in a tomato sauce, served with a side of boiled plantain. Monkey is also good, she said—though “it has a strong flavour and smells a lot when you cook it.” Just as your neighbours know when you are frying fish, the smell of monkey cooking can travel.

While bush meat has long been an important protein source in villages such as Bom’s, it is quickly becoming a luxury food in West and Central Africa, too. As the numbers of people who live in cities rise, the commercial market for bush meat increases. Mining, logging and development projects are pushing humans deeper into the forest where they hunt the wildlife for nourishment as well as for trade, contributing to recent dramatic changes in the ecosystem. “The forests are quiet, they are silent,” said Jane Lawton, CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada.

Her organization is now helping in the search for an alternative protein source for locals, to better the chances of forest conservation. CIDA recently funded their project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to investigate what livestock people could raise instead of relying on hunting. However, according to Bowman, the cloven-hoofed animals humans farm in most parts of the world don’t fare well with pests such as tsetse flies and the humidity of the region, and indigenous wildlife such as grasscutters aren’t too happy in captivity.

But it is the commercial trafficking of the meat that is said to be the biggest threat to biodiversity in this region, where healthy forests benefit all humans on the planet. There have been widespread local species extinctions, and the very existence of our nearest relatives, the great apes, is in danger. In the Republic of the Congo, 295 chimpanzees were killed for their meat in 2003 alone. One scientific paper out of the University of London that tracked what passengers arriving at French airports in 2005 smuggled in their luggage, described some people arriving with only bush meat in their bags. When officials searched 30 passengers on three planes, they found what amounted to flesh from 76 animals.

In Canada, the bush-meat market remains under the radar and hard to find. “It is very difficult to estimate the quantity of something illegal,” said Sheldon Jordan, director general of wildlife enforcement for Environment Canada. Public health officials in Toronto, where Brashares has found that bush-meat markets have been held for at least 10 years, have never received a complaint from the public or come across the product in their inspections, said Jim Chan, a public health inspector with the city.

That makes the health concern all the more serious. Raw meat can carry emerging infectious disease. Bats have been linked to scary illnesses such as Nipah virus, and the great apes to Ebola and more. Pathogens like monkeypox can be resistant to smoking the meat, and parasites can survive this preservation method too. Worse, said Chan, if a food establishment were to handle bush meat secretly, they could infect other foods through cross-contamination and improper food handling. “That risk is quite high,” he said.

Brashares said some of his sources are participating in his study with the hope that information about bush-meat trafficking might one day lead to legalizing trade in non-endangered species to satiate people’s craving for a taste of home without too much harm to the environment.

Lawton, however, isn’t optimistic that allowing people to import meat from more abundant species will help save the great apes and the biodiversity of the Central African forests. “There will be serious challenges if enforcing only certain species are taken out,” she said. Particularly if there is a lucrative market. “There is tremendous temptation if you are in a forest and see an animal, to kill it.”