Researchers Call For DNA Samples At Airports To Determine Scope Of African Bushmeat Market

By Mongabay Published: March 23, 2017, 12:37 pm
African bushmeat marketMount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve, Guinea, is a UNESCO World Heritage site with 200-plus endemic species. Photo: Dolgyeokjang/lovethesepics.com

Bushmeat is finding its way to Europe’s biggest cities, where demand for exotic delicacies or a “taste of home” drives a trade which has yet to be quantified.

The meat of endangered species such as primates and pangolins is available, but the scale of the problem is not fully understood. Few studies have been undertaken at airports and other points of entry to determine its scope.

In a Paris airport study, 134 passengers arriving from Africa were searched over a period of 17 days; nine were found to be carrying a total of 188 kilograms (414 pounds) of bushmeat. A more recent study of bushmeat arriving from Africa at two Swiss airports found that one third of meat seized was from threatened and endangered species including pangolins, small carnivores and primates.

Based on what evidence there is of the trade, some appears to be organized for profit, with traffickers transporting suitcases full of bushmeat to sell on the black market. Africans who reside in Europe also sometimes bring back bushmeat from Africa as a “taste of home,” potentially contributing to the risk of spreading diseases that may be found in the meat.

Researchers are urging that DNA analysis tools be used more widely to learn what species are being transported as bushmeat into Europe, and to bring about more prosecutions of bushmeat traffickers who are dealing in endangered species. But with customs officials already stretched, and bushmeat a low priority, the technology is rarely used.

From Mongabay. Story by Sean Mowbray.

Switzerland is home to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. But that doesn’t mean it is immune from wildlife trafficking, or that some of its citizens haven’t developed a taste for bushmeat.

“I’ve checked in on flights in Cameroon, which are going straight to Switzerland. I’ve been in line with people in front of me who have had big cool boxes in front of them, and they have checked them in without any problems,” says Karl Amman, who is credited with first exposing the bushmeat trade in the 90s and who continues studying the problem.

An estimated 40 tons of bushmeat is flown into Geneva and Zurich airports every year, with a similar story likely unfolding in other European capitals, where poached, wild caught meat — including endangered species — is illegally being traded and served on urban dinner plates. The problem could be serious, and some trafficking could be well organized, but only a few surveys in a couple of countries have been done so far to determine what’s happening at European points of entry.

While most of the wildlife trade occurring around the world remains in-country — whether in Africa, Southeast Asia or the Americas — experts are absolutely certain that bushmeat is finding its way to Europe’s biggest cities, where demand for exotic delicacies or a “taste of home” drives a trade which has yet to be quantified. Among the endangered species being served as bushmeat in Europe may be endangered great apes, though no one knows how many and how often.

Know your bushmeat species

To the untrained eye, bushmeat — particularly when chopped up and smoked — is unrecognizable as to its species of origin. Herein lies the key problem regarding customs enforcement, with already harried officials facing a long list of perceived threats ranging from terrorists to illegal immigrants, and likely untrained in bushmeat species identification — no less, spotting the meat of endangered species. As a result, the charred remains being transported into Europe that are sometimes confiscated are often at best categorized as “bushmeat” or “wildmeat,” or more typically just as “products of animal origin” (which includes domestic meat or fish).

This lack of data makes the work of researchers like Noëlle Kümpel of the Zoological Society of London and chair of the U.K. Bushmeat Working Group, all the more difficult. “In the U.K., (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) publishes annual reports of confiscations of products of animal origin,” she told mongabay.com. But there is no specific account of bushmeat quantities.

Another problem: due to the potential health hazards posed by the inadequate handling of poorly slaughtered meat, confiscated bushmeat is often disposed of or incinerated immediately, without species documentation.

That is not to say that bushmeat does not carry health risks, as slaughtered meat has been linked to a wide range of diseases, including HIV, Marberg, and E.coli. It has been suggested that the U.K.’s foot and mouth epidemic at the beginning of the last decade originated with bushmeat imports. It is also suspected that the 2013 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa was spread via the consumption of infected fruit bats.

In the wake of these epidemics, there have been fears that illegally imported bushmeat could be a gateway for such viruses to enter European cities. In March 2015, Kümpel and her colleagues released a review entitled “Bushmeat and Ebola: Myth and Reality,” in an attempt to clarify some of the confusion regarding claims that the bushmeat trade was behind the 2013 Ebola outbreak and could cause a global pandemic.

Ebola can be active in untreated bushmeat for only up to three-to-four days, the researchers wrote, and given that much of the trafficked meat is smoked, the chances of the virus surviving the journey to Europe or the U.S. is low. “The risk of spread to new areas lies with the movement of infected people, not infected meat.”

Still, the potential threat of disease is why bushmeat is rarely stored for analysis — unlike ivory, rhino horn, great ape skulls or other identifiable wildlife parts. The fear of infectious disease being transmitted via bushmeat to humans and/or livestock, and the resulting rapid destruction of trafficked meat, continues to hamper scientific evaluation of European trafficking patterns.

Even when bushmeat specimens are preserved for examination, experts can still miss the mark. “We call ourselves bushmeat specialists, and we believe we can recognize it. But many times we were wrong,” Bruno Tenger says of past analyses. He is part of the Tengwood Organization and a member of the team that studied bushmeat entry in Switzerland. DNA analysis is the only sure way to identify the species of origin with certainty.

“So really that DNA step is critical,” Tenger’s research partner Kathy Wood adds. This is not, however, a test currently being conducted on bushmeat seizures at international airports and at other points of entry.

Europe as destination for the bushmeat trade

Although authorities have long known that bushmeat is turning up on European plates, one of the first significant insights into the trade occurred only eight years ago in Paris. Researchers surveyed bushmeat confiscated at Charles de Gaulle airport on flights arriving from Africa. Over a period of 17 days, a total of 134 passengers were searched; nine were found to be carrying a total of 188 kilograms (414 pounds) of bushmeat.

Extrapolating the figures, the researchers say around 270 tons could pass through this one airport every year. Multiplying these totals by all of Europe’s major airports, the scale of trafficking came as a big shock to researchers. “People knew that bushmeat was being traded, but they didn’t know to what extent,” said Anne-Lise Chaber, who led the research.

Chaber notes that the team studied Charles de Gaulle in part because of other airports’ unwillingness to open their doors to scrutiny. “I’m sure that if we were to conduct the study in other capitals, we would find a similar trend… most of the big cities are likely to be impacted by the bushmeat trade.”

Four years later this hypothesis was given greater credence in Switzerland.

Tenger and Wood of the Tengwood Organization studied bushmeat arriving at Geneva and Zurich airports. The 40 tons per year that they believe is being smuggled into the country may not sound like a large number, in comparison to the thousands of tons poached for local and urban consumption in African states, but for the researchers it came as a shock.

The scientists believe their study was only likely green lighted because customs authorities assumed there was nothing, or very little, to find. “They thought they had a very small problem. The surprising things were, first of all, that (bushmeat) was coming in, and in some volume,” Wood told Mongabay.

The Swiss study added new detail to the trade: DNA analysis was used to pinpoint exactly which species were being trafficked. One-third of the meat was found to be from threatened CITES species including pangolins, small carnivores and primates. Three species of guenon (African monkeys) were found, all being trafficked from Cameroon.

“If it’s coming into Switzerland, which is a tiny country and the seat of CITES, then it’s obviously coming into lots of other places,” Wood concludes.

To raise awareness of the bushmeat issue, the Tengwood Organization collaborated with the Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary authority to produce a brochure featuring graphic images of charred bushmeat to help customs officials identify trafficked species.

According to the Swiss CITES biannual report covering 2013-2014, seven confiscations of identified bushmeat weighing a total of 83.3 kilograms (183 pounds) took place over that period, with 8,500 Swiss Francs (US $8,431) in fines handed out. The steepest penalty, totalling 3,000 Swiss Francs was charged for the smuggling of 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of bushmeat, which encompassed a wide range of species such as near threatened bay duikers (Cephalophus dorsalis), the African brush tailed porcupine (Atherurus africanus), and endangered pangolins.

“Switzerland faces the same challenges as any other country: it is not possible to have a control that covers every incoming passenger, and therefore there will always be imports that go undetected,” says Lisa Bradbury, a scientist with the Swiss CITES Management Authority. “The study has not had any direct impact on [confiscations] within Switzerland that we could measure or quantify.”

The Swiss study and the brochure have, however, “hopefully” assisted customs officers along with CITES officials to identify which species are CITES listed and so warrant a fine. Non-CITES species trafficked as bushmeat are destroyed with no further action taken, Bradbury reports.

Great apes on the menu, or an urban myth?

Great ape meat is making the journey across the world’s oceans to Europe too — though the seriousness and scope of this trafficking is largely unknown with little recent data. In a 2006 study 27 gorilla and chimpanzee parts were recorded in bushmeat markets in cities in North America and Western Europe.

There are stories told of great ape bushmeat being found in New York and Toronto; and claims that it’s also been sold in Paris, Brussels, and even in the English midlands. But researchers haven’t quantified how much is being trafficked and what proportion of the bushmeat trade it constitutes — if any at all. This lack of knowledge isn’t a reason to feel reassured, but is rather a cause for concern. Research is needed to see whether rumors are the only thing being spread, or whether great ape bushmeat is flowing into European markets.

In Africa itself, great apes make up just a sliver of the entire bushmeat trade. But while apes are not usually targeted by hunters, poaching is still cited as one of the main drivers of their decline.

Other endangered species are eaten in far greater quantities, but even a few great apes poached can pose great risk to these highly threatened species: Last year the Eastern Lowland gorilla, also known as Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) was classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and it is thought as few as 5,000 remain in the wild. Three other great apes, the Western Lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) are also listed as Critically Endangered; chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus), meanwhile, are listed as Endangered, with their numbers dwindling year on year.

During his career, Tom de Meulenaer, Chief of Science at the CITES Secretariat in Geneva, has heard many rumors of ape meat being available in European cities. He says that the scarcity of evidence suggests the trade is likely little more than an urban myth. “We would hear about it,” he asserts. “It’s like with rhinos, you hear about it, and there are confiscations. In the case of primates, it’s extremely rare that any consumption is reported taking place outside of Africa.”

However, not all bushmeat researchers agree with this view: Chaber points out that her study was quite small in scale and scope, and just because it did not identify any great ape bushmeat, does not mean the primates are not being trafficked.

Tenger notes that, because customs officials are not analyzing seized meat, it is very possible that great apes are among the smuggled bushmeat: “You don’t even know what you have, you could be throwing out a piece of great ape and you wouldn’t even know that it happened.”

“(T)here is no serious effort to identify the smoked meat that comes to Europe from central Africa. It can be from any animal… That is the reality,” de Meulenaer concedes.

The need for certainty

In light of this lack of data, researchers are urging much more DNA sampling. And according to Michael Bruford, a molecular ecologist at Cardiff University, DNA analysis of smoked bushmeat could be pretty easily accomplished at national points of entry.

In a 2011 study conducted in Guinea-Bissau, Bruford and a team of researchers used DNA bar coding to identify species from various lumps of charred meat available at local markets. They were looking for evidence of great ape consumption, but found instead that vendors were regularly misidentifying the meat they were selling. They discovered that warthog meat was being sold as baboon — one of the most expensive meats in Guinea-Bissau — and also that Campbell’s mona monkey (Cercopithecus campebelli), an IUCN species of Least Concern, was the second most traded species, contrary to local belief.

Bruford says it’s a pity that such a DNA sampling tool isn’t used more widely, especially with international customs, as it’s cheap and simple to use. He believes that its implementation could help to both identify bushmeat species and narrow down the country of origin, potentially facilitating prosecutions, similarly to the Rhino DNA Indexing System used to catch rhino poachers.

Despite being available since 2009, he says that wider use of this technology “has never really come onto the radar” of border inspection agents, likely because the identification of bushmeat is far from being a top priority.

As to whether great apes would be found coming into Europe or not, Bruford can’t say, but he argues that “whether it’s a great ape or other primates, it’s still a real concern; many, many primates are on the IUCN Red List.”

“Taste of home” or organized crime?

One important question still largely unanswered is whether the global bushmeat trade is primarily conducted by individuals, or is part of larger underworld criminal trafficking networks.

In the 1990s, diplomatic couriers were known to be traveling from Africa to Europe with bags packed with bushmeat, according to de Meulenaer. He believes that these sophisticated trafficking rings no longer exist, but admits the numbers gleaned from the few available studies speak for themselves: “Bushmeat doesn’t come in by itself,” he says. “There must be some regular back and forth. Otherwise you don’t bring in these quantities of meat.”

It is known that some Africans traveling between their home states and new residences in Europe, do bring back a little meat, in much the same way that a Frenchman traveling to a new home in New York might stuff a bag with a few wheels of premium French cheese. This practice, known as bringing back a “taste of home” is common among West Africans, where bushmeat has a long tradition.

Importantly, this practice doesn’t necessarily involve the trafficking of endangered species; cane rats are commonly consumed in West Africa, and are often found in bushmeat confiscations. In 2013, rodents made up half of 543 bushmeat confiscations in a U.S. study.

However, other people travel with nothing but bushmeat packed into their bags, suggesting that the meat is being trafficked simply to be sold to market dealers. Smuggling profits can be lucrative. A four kilogram (8.8 pound) monkey can cost around €100 (or around US$105) in Paris, compared to €5 for the same (around US$5.37) meat in Cameroon.

Amman states that this trade is “specialized,” and run by people who are aware of where enforcement is strictest. He notes that unlike other wildlife products, such as ivory or rhino horn, which have limited trade routes, “bushmeat is distributed wherever you go.” In Europe this may be wherever there are migrant populations of Africans. To what extent the trade may also extend to gourmet or delicacy markets is unknown, as is the involvement of organized crime in transport.

The tip of the iceberg

What is known with some certainty is that Europe’s struggle with an influx of bushmeat is small compared to the far greater crisis unfolding in Africa.

“One thing we are all concerned about is the massive impact of bushmeat markets in Central Africa and Western Africa,” de Meulenaer says. “There are estimates that the annual harvest of wild animals is six times what the forest can sustain. Actually, Africa is eating its forests and we are looking at empty forest syndrome — like what we have in Southeast Asia — in a very short time.”

“There is very little that is being done” to staunch this escalating crisis, he warns.

The European bushmeat market does play an important role, however. It represents a lucrative end point for African traffickers, and it is a place where they can get high prices for increasingly rare African species, making transport of illegal meat worth the potential risks, which appear to be minimal at present due to lax enforcement. This could mean that as African species get rarer still, and fetch a higher price abroad, Europe and the U.S. could turn into burgeoning bushmeat markets.

As de Meulenaer points out, the “entire subsistence aspect of the bushmeat trade has changed.” Whereas many remote local people still rely upon bushmeat for their daily protein intake and livelihood, there is also a thriving market for endangered species concentrated in African cities. “It’s become an industry to supply the market, the megacities that are the capitals of these countries.” And it’s only a small step for traders to seek the bigger profits to be made by trafficking across the Mediterranean.

In light of this potential threat, researchers urge that important questions be resolved soon regarding Europe’s role in the international bushmeat trade. Regulators and law enforcement need to know: how much meat is being trafficked? Is great ape bushmeat being smuggled along with numerous endangered, and non-endangered, species? If so, in what quantities? And are the amounts of meat being transported increasing?

Kümpel urges that research be done to quantify the scale of the problem, then create mechanisms to monitor the trade. The former must happen before enforcement measures can be applied, she says. “At the moment we just have the confiscation data, and it doesn’t single out bushmeat (by species), so we can’t see whether this is an increasing or decreasing problem,” she says.

Until the quantity of bushmeat being trafficked into Europe is accurately known, and what species are being traded, the threat to endangered species, including primates, will remain a mystery.

You are what you eat

Experts say that still another piece in this complex trade puzzle needs to be examined: consumers.

Analysis of bushmeat eating habits and trends in African immigrant communities in Europe is essential for developing an understanding of the trade, the health risks involved, and the conservation issues which arise from it. At the moment there is “very little” of this kind of data, or engagement with migrant communities to get it, according to de Meulenaer.

When looking at Africa-to-Europe trafficking, it is important not to demonize the trade, Kümpel cautions, noting that headlines denouncing those who eat rats or monkeys are not helpful, they provoke horror in some people because “we are more detached from those traditional lifestyles” in the West. “I have no problem with hunting and consumption and the trade of bushmeat, the concern is where there are conservation and health risks to it,” she concludes.

While charismatic species such as elephants and rhinos remain at the forefront of the battle against wildlife trafficking, beyond the ivory tusks, tiger bones and leopard skins may lie a potentially large international trade in exotic meat from threatened species which could be steady, or may be increasing — we just don’t know. It may also turn out to be a traffic predominantly made up by less threatened species, but such a trade may not be sustainable, and potentially devastating in the long term.

That’s why enhanced, and ongoing, monitoring is needed now at points of entry to discover just how much bushmeat is coming into Europe, what species are being trafficked, and whether trends are going up or down. What we find may be shocking, but no matter what, thorough study will provide vital actionable data.

Read more at  Mongabay.

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