Its easy to demonize the Chinese when it comes to illegal trade in endangered animal bodies for meat and medicine. See my previous post for a link to the latest “fuck you” to biodiversity from that rich ancient culture. After all, the Chinese, more than anyone else, act like all animals were put on this earth to give them boners.
As large as the Chinese market for wild animal parts is, it is not the only one. Smaller underground bushmeat markets continue to pop up in cities all over the world. So you can buy all kinds of African bushmeat, including the flesh of gorillas, even in cities as far away and “civilized” as Toronto.
If you know where to go in Toronto, you can shop for the most exotic of African bush meat: rodents from the forests of West and Central Africa, bats, even cuts of gorilla meat, an endangered primate. “It’s like a mini farmers’ market with tables set out,” said Justin Brashares, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of California at Berkeley, describing the makeshift markets he has visited in Toronto that are specifically set up to sell bush meat. “Animals are in boxes, some things in coolers beside the table. They sell it often in precut quantities,” he said. Small mammals such as bats, as well as fish from the continent, are the most common offerings but Brashares said that as much as 30 per cent of the meat sold can be primate. A vendor sitting at an empty table is a sign that there is more expensive primate meat for sale.
Hurray for globalization:
The study is international in scope because what was once a staple food for a local population in West and Central Africa has become a globally traded commodity, just like quinoa or chocolate. This one just happens to be illegal in most countries in the world. According to the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, the global bush-meat trade is estimated to be at least $1 billion annually. While most wild animals smuggled into the West from all over the planet—not only Africa—are destined for the pet market, a significant number are headed for dinner plates. It is estimated that 25 million kg of bush meat arrives in the United States each year.
And again, while it is easy to get outraged when a Chinese boat full of threatened pangolins crashes into a protected coral reef, those anteaters remain on the menu elsewhere too, including the gourmet markets of Paris:
“We know a lot comes in through personal luggage,” said Brashares. In October last year, several hundred kilos of African bush meat including monkey and pangolin, an animal that resembles an anteater, were found in passenger bags at Charles de Gaulle Airport, reportedly destined for a Paris market. The contraband also arrives through the postal system and in cargo shipments. Brashares learned of a seizure of 10,000 primate parts at a land border crossing between Canada and the U.S. “They were drawn to the issue [because] the boxes were saturated in blood,” he said.
Lest you think your own hands are clean, and it is just an unscrupulous and ravenous subset of humanity that is involved in this horrendous trade – pause and consider this:
If you’ve ever snuck in cheese from France or homemade sausage from a great aunt back home into your suitcase, it’s easy to understand how enough bush meat makes it into Canada to supply the markets Brashares has been tracking. Just as the nostalgia of that sausage makes an honest person lie on a customs form, bush meat offers a connection to culture and to the past. “Apparently the smoky taste that you get from bush meat is not replicated in any of the meats you get in Canada,” said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto who also is a conservationist and works on bush-meat awareness in Central Africa.
Yes, this is another bane of globalization, of the way we move freely across the entire planet now, able to savor whatever the world has to offer, but insisting also on bringing along (and trading for) bits of our own cuisines and other cultural baggage with us wherever we go. So, just as my family’s occasional craving for Ilish maachh, that most delectable of Bengal’s fishy delicacies, takes us rooting in the freezers of south Asian grocery stores and Asian supermarkets in California (for legally imported ilish, yes, but what are the environmental costs of globalizing that market for a local fish?), so might an African immigrant in Canada go seeking the irreplaceably smoky flavors of the bushmeat from her native corner of Africa.
“I miss it because it’s my food,” said Ruth Bom, a Montreal mother who moved here from Cameroon four years ago and hasn’t tasted bush meat since. She grew up in a village eating the animals her father hunted, such as porcupine. “It’s a little bit like beef,” she recalled. “It’s not fatty. Even its skin is good to eat.” Her favourite way to prepare porcupine is in a tomato sauce, served with a side of boiled plantain. Monkey is also good, she said—though “it has a strong flavour and smells a lot when you cook it.” Just as your neighbours know when you are frying fish, the smell of monkey cooking can travel.
As does the delicious smell of that ilish maachher jhol from our kitchen. And at what cost to biodiversity?
But it is the commercial trafficking of the meat that is said to be the biggest threat to biodiversity in this region, where healthy forests benefit all humans on the planet. There have been widespread local species extinctions, and the very existence of our nearest relatives, the great apes, is in danger. In the Republic of the Congo, 295 chimpanzees were killed for their meat in 2003 alone. One scientific paper out of the University of London that tracked what passengers arriving at French airports in 2005 smuggled in their luggage, described some people arriving with only bush meat in their bags. When officials searched 30 passengers on three planes, they found what amounted to flesh from 76 animals.
So how do we stop the underground part of an international trade in which we all participate, as we carry our native bits of cuisine and medical lore with us to remote parts of the world? How deep and wide does this iceberg go? After all, the efficiencies of global travel allows us to not merely hang on to the once-tenuous threads linking emigrant diasporic communities to their native cultures, but actually strengthen it, and share our native biodiversity with our new neighbors, not through pictures and stories alone, but on the dinner plate.
Brashares said some of his sources are participating in his study with the hope that information about bush-meat trafﬁcking might one day lead to legalizing trade in non-endangered species to satiate people’s craving for a taste of home without too much harm to the environment.
One thing that might put some brakes on this trade is the fear of parasites that might come hidden in all that meat, and make the frightening jump to humans. Yet, I don’t know if that too can slow this trade down (let alone stop it completely) soon enough. After all, we’ve been transporting parasites along with our foods for just as long as we’ve been traveling away from our ancestral homes.
Sad as all this makes me, contemplating not just this ugly trade, but my own culpability as a global citizen enjoying the diversity of the world’s cuisines and cultural artifacts in places far removed from their native soil, I felt even sadder reading this line about why Brashares got into studying the bushmeat trade:
He has an ecologist’s interest in bush meat that grew out of his doctoral research in Ghana, where hunters kept killing a species of antelope he was studying. By examining the global bush-meat trade, he hopes to gain insight into why humans use wildlife the way we do—and the consequences.
As an ecologist, I’ve been there, and I know far too many young people (bright eyed, energetic) who are there: exploring the wonders of the natural world, studying rare (and not so rare, yet) species in remote places, trying to add to our knowledge about nature and evolution, natural history and culture, only to become unwilling horror-struck witnesses to the death of that very nature we wish to study and protect. We ecologists are all part of this global death watch – yet some of us, like Brashares, have the courage turn around and look at this ugly face of humanity fully in the face, holding a mirror up to it. Hoping against hope that that reflection will somehow pull humanity back from the brink of the abyss in time.
When I told my 13-year-old daughter (who imagines a rather different path for humanity) that she could buy gorilla meat in Toronto, her jaw dropped, and she stared at me in growing horror. Then she asked:
“Why don’t they sell human meat instead? It would be just as bad!”
Well… it might yet come to that soon enough… once we’ve eaten our way through all the wild animals, and yet cannot still that persistent ancient craving, what will we eat? Might we not turn upon each other? After all, as a species, we are not entirely averse to cannibalism. So it may yet come to that.
Bon appétit, I guess!