CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC, Dec. 11, 2009— -- Wild elephants are one of the most aggressive and feared animals in the jungle, but that doesn't stop poachers from risking it all to hunt them.
Poaching has become the number one threat to iconic, endangered animals like elephants, gorillas, bonobos, hippos, zebras, antelope and monkeys. But it's not elephant tusks they're after. It's food. Africans are literally eating away their natural heritage.
Andrea Turkalo, a researcher for the Wildlife Conservation Society who's studied elephants in the Central African Republic for 19 years, has seen this phenomenon take shape.
"We have people coming into areas that were never exploited and there's an abundance of game and they just see it as an unending source of meat," Turkalo said.
It's called bushmeat, and even though it's illegal, we found it openly sold in public markets.
"I've seen elephant meat, gorilla meat, several times here," one man told us. "Their grandfathers started eating elephants' and gorillas' meat -- they find that it tastes good."
On this desperately poor continent with ever-increasing populations of people, it's estimated that a million metric tons of bushmeat is eaten every year. That's the equivalent of 9 billion quarter pounders.
And you'd be surprised by where this meat is ending up now -- Queens, N.Y.
A professional investigator, who asked us not to reveal his name, took us to a market where he found what he said were stacks of meat from an animal called a "cane rat." It was being sold for $20 a pound.
We showed the undercover video to Crawford Allen, who investigates the illegal animal trade for the World Wildlife Fund.
"We know that [bushmeat's] readily available, not just in Queens, but in parts of Washington, D.C., parts of Minneapolis, St. Paul -- other centers around the country," Allen said. "It's because people have a passion for bushmeat. They want that taste from home."
Bushmeat Poses Potentially Catastrophic Health Threat
The influx of bushmeat poses a potentially catastrophic health threat. The Centers for Disease Control told us they're alarmed.
Even as the nation deals with the swine flu, the CDC said bushmeat could be the source of an outbreak of monkey pox, ebola -- which is immediately and universally fatal -- or a virus we've never even heard of before.
"Particularly with primates, monkeys and apes, they can carry diseases like ebola, which is a very nasty fatal virus," Allen said. "They can carry HIV, all sorts of different viruses which can be fatal to humans as well as also viruses that can be damaging to the agricultural industry in the U.S."
"Nightline" went back to the owners of the store in Queens, where our investigator said he found bushmeat. The store manager denied ever selling bushmeat. When we told him we had an investigator with a hidden camera in the store, who claims cane rat from Africa was for sale, he reiterated that they sell no bushmeat whatsoever.
The federal government is cracking down on the bushmeat trade, stepping up luggage searches at airports. Mamie Manneh, an African immigrant and mother of 10, was recently sentenced to three years probation for smuggling bushmeat into New York City and selling it.
Back in Africa, bushmeat has created a much bigger crisis. Beyond the potential health risks, there is a very real and urgent danger -- a natural catastrophe that threatens not only animals, but humans, too.
Pygmies, an indigenous people who have lived in the forests for centuries, continue to hunt the ancient way, tying up nets and attempting to scare animals into their traps.
Though they know every corner of the forest, after six hours, their hunt proved fruitless.
One pygmy man we spoke to through a translator said, "I am very angry because I can't find animals. Before, it was much easier."
Groups, like the World Wildlife Fund, are launching public education campaigns to convince people not to eat bushmeat. They're also helping to pay for armed forest guards to protect the animals, confiscate guns and snare traps from poachers.
But conservationists say much more needs to be done -- both in the U.S. and in Africa -- to stop a trend that poses a mortal threat to some of the most spectacular animals on the planet and quite possibly to all of us as well.