Diseased bushmeat exposes US consumers to HIV-like virus

Primate parts smuggled inside cases of fish. Suitcases stuffed with dried duiker antelope that’s later sold door to door. Smoked cane rat strapped under a smuggler’s clothes. These are the hallmarks of the unregulated, underground bushmeat trade in America.

The high demand for this meat among certain African communities is jeopardizing public health here, destroying the lives of those who depend on the forest to survive, and endangering both the environment and an already vulnerable species, scientists and wildlife advocates say.

“There is no doubt that thousands of pounds of bushmeat is coming into the country every month,” said Dr. Heather E. Eves, former director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force.

Bushmeat, or meat from wild animals such as elephant, bat or chimpanzee, is a prized foodstuff in some African cultures — eaten on holidays and celebrations and believed to have medicinal benefits — according to according to Dr. Richard Ruggiero, branch chief of Near East, South Asia and Africa for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of International Conservation. Some also believe consuming bushmeat will make them stronger, or even increase sexual prowess.

Dr. Eves — now the visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Natural Resources Program and professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies — said bushmeat consumption is culturally significant, like the way turkey is for Americans on Thanksgiving. Dr. Ruggiero likened it to his family, who are from the Mediterranean, eating seafood for dinner on Christmas Eve.

“You’re not doing it intending to be evil,” Dr. Ruggiero said. “You’re doing it because it’s your tradition. It’s understandable, and in some cases justifiable, but that doesn’t make it any better for the earth.”

Bushmeat also serves as both a source of income and protein for those who harvest it, Dr. Eves said. Some types of bushmeat can be as expensive as filet mignon.

“It’s a link to their culture,” Dr. Eves said. “That’s a very important piece. It can’t be replaced by any other types of food here.”

But scientists believe bushmeat can harbor diseases that can spread from animal to human. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, says humans can contract a host of diseases from primates, including the Ebola virus, monkeypox, tuberculosis and yellow fever.

Last month, the CDC and the Wildlife Conservation Society released preliminary test results that found primate bushmeat seized in New York City contained two strains of the simian foamy virus — a virus related to HIV—that can infect people. The related Simian Immunodeficiency Virus or SIV, has been found in bushmeat tested outside the country, and some believe that virus is responsible for the first HIV cases, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“The movement and mixing of humans, wildlife, and domestic animals as part of the illegal global wildlife trade encourages transmission of disease and emergence of novel pathogens,” Dr. William Karesh, of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Global Health Program, said in a statement.

Nonetheless, the bushmeat trade is thriving in various U.S. locales, including Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and New York. New Jersey is a particular hotspot for the trade, Dr. Eves said.

“The availability of bushmeat in the U.S. is surprising,” she said.

With expanded infrastructure into previously impenetrable forests, the process of transporting wild animals from the jungle to the dinner table takes only a few days. The hunter then prepares the meat for shipment, usually by charring off its fur, removing its organs and placing on a frame over an open fire to dry and smoke for a few days, Dr. Eves said.

However, some meat is simply shipped raw. Dr. Eves recalled an airport in Central Africa where workers wrapped all suitcases in plastic after passengers complained their bags were getting blood on them.

One problem in stemming the tons of bushmeat arriving in the U.S. every year is there aren’t enough inspectors to detect it. Bob Onda, supervisory inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement, port of New York, is the first line of defense the U.S. has in keeping bushmeat out of the country. He and his staff of 12 investigators simply can’t inspect every parcel or person that arrives in New York. He said his team already inspects roughly 35,000 to 40,000 commercial shipments each year.

Onda said the number of bushmeat seizures in the port of New York had declined, but said the bushmeat could be being smuggled in other ways, like in smaller shipments or to other cities. When caught, Onda said smugglers are “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Late last year, a New York Federal Court sentenced Mamie Manneh, a Liberian woman from Staten Island, to a three years probation for smuggling and selling smoked bushmeat, including primate parts.

Next month, the Senate is expected to introduce the Global Conservation Act, which would create an international strategy to combat natural resource depletion worldwide, including the illegal bushmeat trade.

Before globalized trade stretched to previously remote areas in Africa, those who lived there hunted bushmeat to eat and sell locally. But worldwide demand has created an insatiable and unsustainable need for bushmeat, leaving swathes of forest, or “bush,” bereft of wildlife and rendering many Africans unable to continue living a traditional lifestyle, Ruggiero said.

Once the animals are gone, villagers who relied on bushmeat to survive are left virtually destitute and unable to maintain their way of life for themselves or for future generations. For example, some members of the Pygmy and Bantu tribes have been forced to work for the very logging camps that created the roads that brought the bushmeat hunters to their doorsteps, Ruggiero said.

“They go down with the forest and the wildlife,” Ruggiero said. The bushmeat trade “is not just a biodiversity issue, it’s a human right’s issue.”

He called on those in the U.S. to stop eating bushmeat, not only because of public health and environmental concerns, but because the trade destroying the lives of those who rely on the bush.

“Understand that you are contributing to the compromise, death and destruction of the forest and the people who live in it,” he said.

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