Bushmeat: Curse of the Monkey's Paw

March 15, 2007 — -- 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.

Security Improved, but Smugglers Adjust

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.

Much-Smuggled Bushmeat Goes Undetected

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.

"Carrying it in duty-free bags through customs, in luggage, shipping it in the mail and carrying it on their bodies. On the commercial level, shipments are often embedded in dried fish," she said.

From there, it often finds its way into the markets of American cities that have large concentrations of immigrants from Western and Central Africa.

"We don't have a handle on how much is coming in. The perception is that we're only catching a fraction of what's actually entering the country. It is difficult to know where to search. … There aren't that many direct flights from Africa, but we're wary of connecting flights," said the CDC's McQuiston.

The risk of diseases jumping from animals to humans is very real. In addition to the SARS and bird flu epidemics out of Asia in recent years, "it is generally understood that HIV arose through contact with nonhuman primates," said Nina Marano, a veterinarian at the CDC.

Increased human contact with wild animals -- from butchering to eating -- increases the risk of infection for a host of diseases, some well-known, others less so. Simian foamy virus, a retrovirus in the same family of diseases as HIV, "is associated with people who butcher nonhuman primates," Marano said.

William Karesh, director of the Department of Field Veterinary Programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that meat itself was only one arena for contact. Everyone who handled the meat -- hunters, butchers, middlemen, smugglers, consumers -- and every person in contact with the handlers was at risk for infection.

"If 500,000 animals are killed in a given year and handled by hunters, middle people and consumers, that's 1.5 billion contacts. The risk isn't in how much you eat," he said.

"It's in the numbers," he said. "A hundred years ago there wasn't this level of consumption or international travel. … That's magnified the risk and changed the odds. The risk in the U.S. is lower than in Africa, where we've seen outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever and with SARS and avian flu in Asia. … But their problem is our problem and we need to first deal with the issue overseas."

Echoing that sentiment, Healy said, "the world's a lot smaller a place than it used to be. … People are used to eating the native foods from the places they're from, and they don't know the consequence of bringing [bushmeat ] into the country, especially when it's not cooked."

Even Cooking Doesn't Ensure It's Healthy

Much of the bushmeat entering the United States has been cooked or smoked, but the CDC warns that cooking meat in unregulated and often unsanitary conditions does not necessarily ensure the meat is free of pathogens.

In addition to the public health issues involved, the bushmeat trade also raises important conservation and socioeconomic issues.

In many parts of Africa, wild animal populations have been "devastated" by people who have no alternative source of protein, said Karesh.

"A lack of alternatives, a population boom and better access to forests along roads cut by logging companies" have given people the desire and means to kill a diversity of wild animals, he said.

"It's getting to the point in many places where there's little wildlife left other than rodents," said Heather Eves of the bushmeat task force. "We've entered a phase in the global market that open wildlife markets are indeed a global health threat."

All of the experts who spoke to ABCNEWS.com agreed that enforcement at America's borders alone would not stem the trade. Travelers need to be educated of the risks involved in bringing bushmeat into the United States, and Africans need to be given the tools to produce sustainable and safe alternatives to bushmeat.

"Other agencies are going after the smugglers," Marano said, "but the CDC is primarily concerned with education, and we're working with foreign ministries of health and with conservation agencies."

"We need a multisector approach," said Eves, "rather than focus on strict enforcement. … Understanding the drive would help us to get at solving the problem."