We now know that HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, likely originated in chimpanzees and we also know that it likely spread from forest origins deep in Cameroon and then to the Congo during a period of Imperial expansion by Belgium at the beginning of the 20th century.
According to an investigation by “Unreported World,” those forests are once again being tapped for meat with supply lines out to the rest of Cameroon and on to the rest of the world — creating fears that another deadly pathogen will make its way from great apes or monkeys to us.
“Bushmeat” is 80% of the meat eaten in the Central West African country and many thousands of tons are illegally exported around the world.
In January, screenings at JFK International Airport in New York found a number of viruses which can be transmitted to humans in smuggled packages of meat from various monkeys — and from chimpanzees.
In Cameroon, “Unreported World” found once inaccessible forests in the same regions thought to be the source of HIV now opened up by logging tracks. There are a tiny group of brave wardens for one forest reserve, armed with little more than knives and now with little funding.
One warden tells them:
The only guns we have are WW2 French rifles. The government keeps promising us new weapons but they never come. If we do catch armed poachers it can turn violent and it’s every man for himself and God for everyone.
Hunting of great apes is illegal in Cameroon, with a possible three year jail term, but not of other forest creatures.
Reporter Evan Williams met local Baka, also known as pygmies, who take orders several times a week. A chimpanzee will earn them €25-30 — a vast sum. But if this meat makes its way to markets in Paris or London, it fetches many hundreds of euros per kilogram.
See video here of his trip into the forest with a Baka hunter who explains how and why he kills gorilla.
He discovers that eating gorilla led to the deaths of an entire village from an unknown cause, possibly ebola, save for one women who didn’t eat the meat. Apes host ebola, anthrax, yellow fever and other potential viruses yet to be discovered as well as an immunodeficiency virus believed to be the source of our HIV. The retroviruses found in that sampling at JFK Airport were simian foamy virus, cytomegalovirus and lymphocryptovirus.
According to Professor Dominique Baudon at the Pasteur Centre, it is certain that within the next two decades the eating of bushmeat will lead to the appearance of a new viral pathogen like HIV or Ebola.
Babila Tafon, head vet at the primate sanctuary Ape Action Africa (AAA), in Mefou, just outside the capital Yaounde, has detected simian foamy virus transmission to humans who are bitten or who have direct blood contact. The risk is lower, says Tafon, for cooked or smoked meat, but not eliminated.
Rachel Hogan from AAA also tells Williams that the bushmeat trade is leading to an explosion in the numbers of orphaned great apes.
Hogan says they are often suffering from terrible wounds and trauma when they arrive.
They grieve just like humans. We have had them where they will just sit rocking, grinding their teeth and they don’t respond to anything. You have to be able to win back their trust.
If this continues there might not be any wild populations of gorillas left.
The Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA) says it is the world’s only enforcement NGO. It focuses on investigating major wildlife slaughter and trafficking and now has more than 450 successful prosecutions under its belt in Cameroon alone.
Corruption remains one of the biggest enemies and LAGA warns of a major regionalization and internationalization of the illegal meat and live-animal trafficking in endangered species.
Here’s the story of one baby gorilla, Nona, who was left for dead by poachers and nursed back to life at the Ape Action Africa sanctuary (Warning: disturbing images):
Photo credit: Channel Four screen grab