If I was hungry and my family was hungry and a tasty looking antelope skipped past it would be hard to resist the temptation to stuff it into the pot for dinner just because my government or a foreign NGO told me not to. Family comes first after all and, while I appreciate the need to conserve biodiversity and protect endangered species, I also appreciate the need to put a bit of protein on the table.
In many ways I don’t have a problem with this subsistence approach to bush meat harvesting. People need to eat and why shouldn’t they avail themselves of their country’s natural resources? It becomes a problem when the meat is taken, not for local subsistence, but for a wealthy foreigner who wants to eat it because it’s a bit different and a status symbol he can show off to his friends.
The global bush meat trade is now estimated to be at least $1 billion annually (http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/04/15/gorillas-in-our-midst/). As much as 25 million kilograms of meat is smuggled into the US each year, 30% of it primate, while 11,000 tons find their way into the UK (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/african-monkey-meat-that-could-be-behind-the-next-hiv-7786152.html). That’s a lot of illegal, probably endangered, meat. The irony is that because bush meat has now become a luxury food item that fetches high prices internationally (hundreds of pounds per kilogram of gorilla and chimpanzee meat in the UK, apparently) the very people who used to hunt it for subsistence can no longer afford it.
Primate meat in particular also carries with it a significant disease risk. Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) is closely related to HIV and one theory is that SIV passed to humans where it mutated into HIV because of the close contact that occurs during hunting. Numerous outbreaks of Ebola virus infections are also likely connected to the harvesting of wild primates, as are Simian Foamy Virus infections and yellow fever. The potential is certainly there for these diseases to leave their African homes and pop up in other countries via smuggled meat. “Outbreak” here we come.
Of course, it is not just meat that is the problem. Smuggled wildlife destined for the pet trade can be just as dangerous, as shown by the 2003 outbreak of monkeypox in the US, courtesy of some infected prairie dogs who caught it from imported Gambian giant rats (http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/monkeypox/qa.htm).
Unfortunately as long as we continue to desire the exotic, and are prepared to pay for it, and keep moving species around the world without adequate controls some sort of global pandemic is a very real possibility, not just a science fiction scenario.
Dr. F. Bunny