Need to Curb Appetite for Bushmeat -- An ENN Commentary
Last week, the journal Science reported the discovery of a new species of monkey in Africa. Coincidentally, the satirical magazine The Onion also wrote about the discovery of a new, rare species of monkey - and how it was so delicious that it would not last long.
Sadly, The Onion is not that far off.
Hunting for primate "bushmeat" in Africa is on the rise, and unless work is done to reduce the demand for primate meat, many species could disappear within a few short years. The latest animal to be added to the threatened list is the "kipunji," a type of mangabey recently found in the forests of Tanzania. It is the first new monkey species to be discovered in 20 years and it immediately went on the threatened list. Researchers estimate there are no more than 1,000 of the animals across its entire range, which encompasses just 120 square kilometres.
As habitat disappears and hunters use logging roads to push deeper into the remaining jungle, they are encountering more species of primate, more often. So the monkeys like the kipunji face a double threat; first from the logging that destroys their homes, then from the hunters who have easier access to remote and formerly inaccessible areas.
But the hunters themselves are also facing increased risks. A new study reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that the transfer of viruses from monkeys to humans is a relatively common event. Researchers surveyed a group of 1,000 bushmeat hunters in Cameroon and found two viruses never before seen in humans. The researchers suspect that the viruses, called HTLV-3 and HTLV-4, jumped to people from primates. Last year, the same team discovered that simian foamy virus had made a similar leap.
While some of these viruses are relatively benign, others that have migrated from primates to humans have proven to be anything but. For example, Ebola, a deadly type of hemorrhagic fever, is believed to have originated in primates and now haunts several regions in Africa. Last week, authorities in the Congo quarantined two districts and confined thousands of residents to their homes to prevent an outbreak of Ebola from spreading.
And then there is HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS. Its viral ancestor is believed to have originated in monkeys before leaping to chimpanzees and then finally migrating to humans - again thanks to the bushmeat trade. Since then, it has spread around the world, killing more than 20 million people.
Hunting primates may certainly seem distasteful to many people - especially those in the developed world. After all, these creatures do share up to 99.4 per cent of our DNA. But the fact is, bushmeat represents a cheap source of protein for an impoverished people. If primates are what is available, then that's what people will hunt.
And while the developed world may disdain hunting for primates, wealthy countries have been implicated in a major expansion of the bushmeat trade. European fishing fleets have been hammering fish stocks along the West Coast of Africa for years, supported by $350 million annually in subsidies. Studies have found that, as fish stocks have disappeared, locals have increasingly turned to bushmeat as a source of protein. The result has been a massive reduction in the number of large mammals - especially primates - in the area's nature reserves.
Bushmeat hunting may seem like a distant problem, but as the spread of HIV has shown, it can affect us all. If we want to avoid the transfer of new diseases from primates to people and protect our closest cousins, we have to work much harder to give the people of Africa other options.