Friday, May 17, 2013

Bushmeat in Canada

The April 22 issue of Maclean’s magazine carried a story by reporter Sarah Elton about bushmeat. I don’t know if she also came up with the title, Gorillas in our midst but it was a nice pun on the Diane Fossey book title and subsequent movie Gorillas in theMist

A similar article titled Monkeys on the menu  appeared in the April 15 on-line version of the magazine

A roadside bushmeat vendor in Cameroon. He\is just trying to make a living

It was good to see this important issue highlighted, but as someone who has witnessed the bushmeat trade first-hand and written about it in some detail I found that there were some missing elements that should have been covered.  I wrote the following letter to the magazine’s editor and in due course received a reply telling me that it had been forwarded to Ms Elton.

Of course I had the luxury, in my book The Trouble With Lions (U of Alberta Press 2008) of being able to explore the subject outside the restrictions of the kind of word limit required in a magazine article, but I believe that the disease issues I raised are important.

Here is the letter, unedited from what I sent, but with two of my own pictures slotted in at appropriate spots, as I cannot use the ones from the magazine.

Dear Mr. Stevenson,

Sarah Elton’s story on bushmeat, with its clever punning title Gorilla in our midst is, like the curate’s egg of Punch cartoon fame, good in parts. She misses a few really important points. I have worked in Africa for many years and also written books and blogs on the continent’s wildlife. I have three chapters in my book The Trouble With Lions that cover this subject in some detail. The third one is titled Bushmeat and Bureaucrats. Like the members of this corps worldwide it seems that Canadian ones are slow to act.

I realize that Elton was constrained by a word limit, but the Photoshopped image of the gorilla head on the meat counter made a nice point and was perhaps a worthy replacement for the 1000 extra words the article needed. She has however either missed out on or is misinformed about disease risks.

Foot and mouth disease is endemic in much of Africa and all cloven-hoofed species are susceptible. Canada’s last outbreak of this economically disastrous plague occurred in Saskatchewan in 1952. It was traced back to the importation of smoked meat from Poland. Bushmeat from Africa poses at least as great a risk.

Monkey pox is misnamed (not Elton’s fault). It is a disease of rodents – remember the outbreak in the USA that was linked to pet gophers in 2003. People in Africa, desperate for protein are eating species once considered taboo. The Wakamba of Kenya, a tribe famed as hunters, are amongst them.

Egyption fruit bats in a cave in Queen Elizabeth NP in Uganda
Fruit bats, a common bushmeat item, carry Ebola and the closely related Marburg virus. Both are deadly to humans. For several years I took senior veterinary students to Uganda and a highlight was a visit to a cave in Queen Elizabeth National Park that was the daytime home to an estimated 100,000 bats. That stopped after an unfortunate Dutch woman who had visited the cave contracted Marburg and died at home in Holland. The cave is now off-limits to all.

AIDS is a disease that crossed from primates into humans at least seven times in the 20th century. There are two main virus types, HIV1 and HIV2. 

A chimp feeding on fruit in Uganda
Beatrice Hahn, a professor at the University of Alabama showed that chimpanzees are the source of HIV1 while sooty mangabeys, a small almost uniformly grey monkey from West Africa are the source of HIV2. Even more fascinating is that the two viruses in humans are less closely related to one another than they are to their original primate hosts.

I realize that in this little précis I have exceeded the 300-word limit, but I do have lots of other examples and I also quoted Dr. Brashares in my book. I also have good pictures of those fruit bats and of a local bushmeat vendor with whom I had a couple of long chats. He is from rural Cameroon and is just trying to make a living in a forest region where livestock cannot be raised.

Yours sincerely

Jerry Haigh BVMS, MSc, FRCVS

I signed off using my Professor Emeritus status in the hope that I would be taken seriously. I just hope that foot-and-mouth disease does not get into Canada, or indeed North America, through the bushmeat route. This is a real case of my not wanting to be an accurate prophet. 

I have not heard another word, either from the magazine or the author.  Ah well!


Elliott Garber said...

Good effort to at least bring some more facts to the conversation! Have you tried connected with the journalist directly, on Twitter or her personal blog (if she has one)? Sometimes that can be more effective.

Anonymous said...

Good post helping to clarify the concerns of bushmeat and zoonotic diseases.