Mon, Aug 25, 2003 - Page 6 News List

African `bushmeat' trade raises health, conservation fears


In the marketplaces of Central Africa it's a common sight to see the body parts of gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees hanging on hooks to be sold as food.

But US environmentalists and biologists are now warning that the growing appetite for "bushmeat" is not only threatening Africa's great apes with extinction but also posing a growing AIDS risk to humans.

As logging companies forge roads into areas previously inaccessible to humans, apes are forced out of their habitats and then pursued by growing numbers of hunters and butchers who turn man's closest relatives into dinner.

The result is a sudden explosion in scope and impact of the traditional consumption of wild animal meat from a means of subsistence to an enormous and unsustainable business with global health implications, said Los Angeles-based biologist Dale Peterson.

"It's a US$361 million business and the supply is collapsing based on sophisticated hunting techniques," said Peterson, the author of a book on the subject called Eating Apes.

Comparing the business to the US$1 billion-a-year logging business which is expanding, he said that while the dwindling ape population remains a major concern to environmentalists, there were human health risks too.

The butchering process of the apes is at the heart of the potential health crisis.

"We're eating our closest relatives," said Michael Dee, general curator at the Los Angeles Zoo. "If a person has a wound or gets blood in his mouth, then the disease would be transmitted."

About 1 percent of HIV-2 (human immuno-deficiency virus number 2) cases, the type that affects West Africa, is transmitted during the butchering process of monkeys, he said.

Since diseases find ways to mutate or cross over to different species -- including HIV and SARS, which is thought to have originated in Civet cats -- the rise of a third strain of HIV is becoming increasingly likely as the bushmeat phenomenon grows, Dee said.

The contraction in population of the creatures has long been a worry for conservationists, but the problem is now reaching epidemic proportions.

Only about 120,000 gorillas -- enough to fill just one large football stadium -- remain in the world, as well as 250,000 chimpanzees and 50,000 bonobos.

By comparison, the number of humans is increasing at the rate of two stadiums a day and expanding into new areas.

"We owe it to them to save them," Peterson said.

But while orphanages have sprung up to care for apes that have lost their parents to hunters' bullets, conservationists are having trouble making their warnings about the surge in appetite for bushmeat heard because the subject matter was "too disturbing" for audiences.

"Not a lot of people want to buy a book of a gorilla's head in a pan or a hand being butchered," Peterson said.

Peterson and a coalition of defenders of Africa's besieged great apes are trying to rally public awareness and financial support for a drive to clamp down on the eating of apes.

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