In Africa, wild animals are being hunted as never before. According to Jane Goodall, forests that were once impenetrable have been opened to hunters by logging roads.
“[The bushmeat trade is] being made possible by the foreign logging companies going in and opening up the last remaining forests with roads. Hunters can now go deep into the forest where they couldn’t get before,” she said in an interview with the Canadian Press.
The hunters are taking all species available, from rodents to chimpanzees, and in record numbers.
But chimps aren’t the only primates in danger. Many diseases in the deep central African rainforest could easily transfer to humans.
According to Johannes Refisch from the University of Bayreuth and the Thai Monkey Project, a little known fact about AIDS is that it crossed from apes to humans not once, but at least seven times.
“There seems to be no doubt that the virus has been transmitted from manga-beys to humans at least six times, independently of each other, whereas the virus was transmitted from chimpanzees to humans only once,” he wrote in a report in the Gorilla Journal.
The jumps could have happened when the bodily fluids of freshly killed apes mixed with those of the hunters preparing them, or when the animals were actually eaten. The relatively frequent transmission from monkey to human is likely to become even more common as more primates are eaten each year.
AIDS isn’t the only virus to come out of the jungle. Monkeypox and Ebola are both diseases exported from African forests in meat. And in 2004, Primate Foamy Virus – functionally similar to AIDS but with no identified symptoms so far – was found in humans. The bushmeat trade not only threatens the ecosystems that sustain African people and culture, but also threatens to release new diseases.
It is possible that a new disease might not break out beyond Africa, as has been the case with Ebola. But diseases have a way of turning up where they’re not expected. Monkeypox entered the U.S. in a Gambian pouch rat bought by a pet shop in Texas, spread to prairie dogs, and from there proceeded to infect 54 people. And AIDS, of course, was first identified in North America.
But there is yet another worrying scenario. In addition to the possibility of a disease spreading in Africa before spreading around the world, is the possibility of an initial outbreak elsewhere. Bushmeat is also popular outside of Africa, and as a result the trade is globalized. According to the BBC, in 2002 up to 10 tons of bushmeat arrived in London daily. Because the trade is illegal, accurate figures are difficult to obtain. According to Justin Brashares, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, the U.S. likely sees a similar amount of Bushmeat as London.
“A very small part of the total sold makes its way overseas, but considering that millions of tonnes of bush meat are sold in Africa each year, a ‘very small part’ can still mean several hundred tons each year arriving [in the united states],” Brashares said in an interview with National Geographic.
The hundreds of tonnes of meat exported around the world don’t undergo health or customs checks, and often reach their destinations half decomposed. As a result, widespread infection could easily originate from such shipments.
It is unclear how the ongoing food crisis has affected the bushmeat trade. Rural populations rely on bushmeat for protein, and it is possible that with the scarcity of crop-grown food, more forest meat is being taken than in previous years.