Bushmeat surveyed in Western cities
Illegally hunted animals turn up in markets from New York to London.
Baboons, duiker antelopes and cane rats are available by the pound in markets in major cities in North America and Europe, a scientist reported at the Society for Conservation Biology meeting in San Jose, California, this week.
While the meat showing up in cities from New York to London represent just a sliver of the illegal bushmeat trade, it highlights the strong demand that still exists for illegally hunted meat, the ecologist says.
Bushmeat (wild animals hunted for food) can be problematic when the animals killed are endangered or carrying disease. Most concern about bushmeat centres on western and central Africa, where great apes are among the animals eaten, and where it represents a serious threat to many animal populations.
Justin Brashares, a conservation ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has worked in bushmeat research for nearly a decade. When he was in New York two years ago, sitting in the back of a cab driven by a Ghanaian, they got talking about the wild meats of Ghana.
"Well, I don't really miss it," the cab driver replied, "because I can get it."
Thus began a research project in which African expatriate volunteers were recruited to cruise a local bushmeat market in New York, London, Brussels, Paris, Toronto, Montreal and Chicago, reporting back the kinds, conditions and quantities of African wild meat on offer.
The results of the first 20 months of the survey, reported at the Society for Conservation Biology meeting on Wednesday 28 June, show that about 6,000 kilograms of illegally hunted meat moved through the seven markets surveyed, in total, each month.
That's just a smidgen, Brashares says, of what must be flowing out of Africa into Europe and North America. And intercontinental trade, he adds, is again a tiny fraction (he estimates less than 1%) of total bushmeat kill, most of which stays in the country of origin.
Most of the meat in the survey was found to be butchered and smoked, but about 27% was raw, and 21% was not butchered at all. "You have animals basically coming over in plastic bags," Brashares says. This raw meat could be a disease risk, he adds.
"Some disease agents could make the trip and some couldn't," says Nathan Wolfe, an immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, who has studied diseases that can jump from bushmeat to humans. "Anthrax, for example, is something that could make the trip. It just depends how fresh it is."
High price to pay
Brashares doesn't know most of his volunteers, nor does he know the exact location of the markets they are surreptitiously surveying. In order to ensure that the information is valid, Brashares asks two wholly independent scouts to survey each location.
Brashares says that the bushmeat is more expensive than beef, so the buyers are presumably stocking up because they want the meat for ceremonial or special occasions. "I am not one to say 'I don't care what your tradition is'," says Brashares. He speculates that a small, legalized trade, combined with a crackdown on large-scale illegal hunting, could one day help to fulfil cultural demand for the meat in a controlled fashion.
Until then, homesick ex-pats will probably continue to turn to these underground markets. "They want to bring home the food their families miss," says Brashares.
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