In 2003, a large suitcase containing the remains of 26 butchered monkeys was confiscated at Logan Airport in Boston on its way from Ghana.
The 300 pounds of raw meat, destined to be served as the main course at a wedding in New Hampshire, was "oozing out of its container," said Tom Healy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Experts estimate that about 500 million wild animals, from cane rats to elephants, have been killed in Central Africa for their meat. In the Congo Basin alone, this "bushmeat" is consumed on the order of 1 to 5 million metric tons, or the equivalent of 9 to 45 billion quarter pounders.
A small percentage of that meat finds its way into the United States, and with it, scientists warn, comes a potential public health crisis.
Cane rat, monkey and bat are the bushmeats most often found being smuggled into the United States, and according to Jennifer McQuiston, a veterinarian at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, each is known to carry diseases that can be deadly to humans.
"Rodents from Africa carry viruses like monkeypox, and nonhuman primates can carry Ebola and tuberculosis," she said.
In 2003, more than 50 people across the Midwestern United States were diagnosed with monkeypox. Scientists traced the outbreak to a Texas pet shop that sold domesticated prairie dogs, as well as a giant infected rat imported from Gambia.
After the monkeypox outbreak, security at airports was stepped up. But smugglers got wise, and much of the trade was pushed further underground, explained Healy, the special agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast division.
Bushmeat is often discovered in "container cargo mixed in with legal stuff. … After the monkeypox scare a lot of it went underground," he said.
Last year federal agents found 33 pieces of bushmeat, including a monkey arm hidden under dried fish in the garage of a Liberian immigrant living in Staten Island, N.Y. Mamie Jefferson, 39, who is still awaiting trial on smuggling charges, says that consuming bushmeat is a religious practice protected by the First Amendment.
Despite the public health risk, Healy said, there are "very few" wildlife inspectors at U.S. ports of entry.
"There are 120 uniformed inspectors at 29 locations," said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Sandy Cleva.
Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Homeland Security Department, "currently employs 2,050 full-time agriculture specialists, and manages a total of 326 ports of entry," wrote department spokesperson Erlinda Byrd in an e-mail interview.
According to CDC statistics, from October 2005 to September 2006, inspectors reported 50 incidents of discovered bushmeat, with each shipment averaging about 9 pounds. That works out to about one shipment being caught every week.
But the amount of bushmeat discovered and confiscated by federal agents represents just the tip of the iceberg, said Heather Eves, director of the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force.
Based on "limited studies that we are aware of, it seems like [bushmeat sales on the U.S. black market are] on the order of 15,000 pounds a month," she said.
Anecdotal evidence suggests a variety of ways the meat is smuggled into the country, Eves said.