Much of Africa is a desperate place, embroiled in war, rebellion, and a daily struggle to exist. The region around the Congo basin in particular has been home to many scourges, and millions of deaths. The deaths of any people are a tragedy, of course. So who can blame people in such dire straits from doing what they need to do to survive?
The term is “bushmeat”, and is applied to any small game hunted from the immense stands of rainforest that dominate the heart of Africa, or any tropical forest. While most bush meat is not from primates or endangered species, roughly 1% of all bush meat is from primates and great apes, including chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. Gorillas were frequent targets during the many wars the region has endured, primarily for the large quantity of meat they carry on their massive frames. Infant and young primates seldom have enough meat for the poachers to bother with, and so are often simply left to die. The hunting of bushmeat has reduced the mammalian biomass in some African parks by upwards of 70% since 1960, and taken a heavy toll on the slow-maturing great apes.
Not only is the consumption of bush meat harmful to the primate populations, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that it is very harmful to the human population as well.
Apes may harbour pathogens that can affect humans. As an example, ebola may be found in chimps, gorillas and bonobos, and might spread to humans through the handling of meat and the consumption of these animals.
African giant squirrels have been implicated as reservoirs of the monkeypox virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it is likely that their use as bushmeat is a means of spreading the disease amongst humans.
In a similar vein, research has shown that Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the precursor to AIDS, likely originated from a similar virus in chimpanzees called Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV);. It is believed that HIV probably initially jumped into humans after people in Africa consumed infected bush meat.
While the consumption of bushmeat, even of primate, can perhaps be understood under desperate circumstances, it doesn’t explain the 5 tons or more of bushmeat that is smuggled in through European airports every week. Bushmeat is rapidly becoming a delicacy for some, without regards to the consequences of their actions. In this, it is similar to other culinary practices like shark fin soup and sea turtle soup. Poor villagers may be forgiven for thinking that the jungle will always provide, but the burgeoning trade in bushmeat is putting additional pressure on creatures already stressed from habitat loss.
Education is key in controlling the bushmeat trade. Authorities in Africa are using video and pictures of Koko to educate young people. Young primates rescued after their mothers were killed are rehabilitated, and many are reintroduced into the wild. Along the way, though, they are used as part of the education process, for children and their parents to see these creatures in a different light. It is hoped that this will lead the next generation to regard the primates, as least, as something other than food, and perhaps, eventually as cousins.