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Tons of 'bushmeat' sneaked into Paris

Image: A species of primate which was smoked prior to transportation
A photo from the Zoological Society in London taken in June 2008 in France shows a species of primate which was smoked prior to transportation from Africa to France. Anne Lise Chaber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In France, where snails, frogs and horses are commonly eaten, it is perhaps unsurprising that monkey carcasses and preserved porcupines also are available. But this isn't a roadside market in Africa, it's the Chateau Rouge neighborhood in the middle of Paris.

For people in the know, so-called "bushmeat" can be found at a small green and yellow shop off the Rue des Poissonieres market. Madame Toukine, an African woman in her 50s, said she receives special deliveries of crocodile and other bushmeat on weekends. She declined to give her full name, fearing she could be arrested.

A new study published Friday found that more than five tons of bushmeat from wild animals — some of them endangered — arrive at Paris's main airport every week — and experts suspect similar amounts are arriving in other big European hubs. The illegal trade raises concerns about the importation of diseases ranging from salmonella to monkeypox or Ebola, and it is another twist in Europe's debate over integration and multiculturalism.

Like most of the continent, France is struggling to integrate a growing immigrant population, including many from Africa, and the traditions they bring, including ones that clash with French culture.

The study in the journal Conservation Letters by international researchers is the first time experts have documented how much bushmeat is sneaked into any European city, and it found the bushmeat trade is doing brisk business, at least in Paris.

Volumes 'surprising'
"Anecdotally we know it does happen ... but it is quite surprising the volumes that are coming through," said Marcus Rowcliffe, a research fellow of the Zoological Society of London and one of the study's authors. He said there were no data on bushmeat markets elsewhere in Europe, but he doubted Paris was an anomaly.

Bushmeat is widely eaten and sold across Africa, though it varies whether it is legal. The trade is typically allowed where people are permitted to hunt, as long as their prey isn't endangered and they can prove the animals were killed in the wild.

Bushmeat is eaten in central and western Africa, where hunters sometimes illegally stalk wildlife parks that aren't heavily guarded. Even after several outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus linked to eating bushmeat, the practice remains widespread.

For three weeks in June 2008, European experts checked 29 Air France flights from central and western Africa that landed at Paris' Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Of 134 people searched, 9 had bushmeat. Another 83 had livestock or fish.

But people with bushmeat had the largest amounts: one passenger had 51 kilograms (112 pounds) of it — and no other luggage. Most of the bushmeat was smoked and arrived as dried-out carcasses. Some animals were identifiable, though scientists boiled the remains of others and reassembled the skeletons to determine the species.

Monkey, rat, crocodile
Experts found 11 types of bushmeat, including monkeys, large rats, crocodiles, small antelopes and pangolins, also known as anteaters. Almost 40 percent were listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Scientists warned eating bushmeat was a potential health hazard.

"If you have intimate contact with a wild animal, and eating is pretty intimate contact, then you could be exposed to all kinds of diseases we don't even know about yet," said Malcolm Bennett of Britain's National Centre for Zoonosis Research at the University of Liverpool. He was not linked to the study.

Bennett said in an interview that bushmeat had a higher risk of normal bacteria such as salmonella but that it might also be carrying new diseases. AIDS originated in monkeys, and the global 2003 SARS outbreak was traced to a virus in bats and civets, arboreal mammals native to the tropics of Africa and Asia.

Nina Marano, the chief of the quarantine unit at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said similar underground markets for bushmeat exist across America.

"We have to be culturally sensitive and recognize this is important for some African communities," she told The Associated Press. "But there are no regulations for the preparation of meat from wildlife to render it safe."

The scale of Europe's illicit bushmeat trade suggests the emergence of a luxury market. Prices can be up to 30 euros ($37) per kilogram (35 ounces), almost double what more mundane supermarket meats cost.

"It's like buying the best cut of organically grown beef," Rowcliffe said, adding that bushmeat such as giant rats and porcupines, which he has tasted, has a strong, gamey flavor.

Europe's craving for bushmeat is unlikely to subside anytime soon.

In Paris' Chateau Rouge district, cautious traders say it is readily available. "Everyone knows bushmeat is sold in the area and they even know where to buy it," said Hassan Kaouti, a local butcher. "But they won't say it's illegal."