“There’s a live animal caught in a poacher’s snare!” yelled Isaac Maina as he took off running through the bush to reach it. Maina leads the African Network for Animal Welfare’s monthly “desnaring” operations, removing snares in areas of Kenya where poaching is rampant. Guns are illegal for most people in Kenya, so poachers seeking animals for bushmeat make simple wire snares that catch and strangle the animals as they pass by. (Poachers after elephants and rhinos for ivory and horns are a different story – they use guns).
Maina stopped short of the “snared” animal when he got a little closer. It was a Coke’s hartebeest and it was running in circles as if it was sick. Maina concluded that it was blind, as it did not appear to see him, but it seemed that the animal had something else wrong with it too – something that made it run in circles as if it was crazy. Perhaps the problem was neurological. After a phone call to the Kenya Wildlife Service vet, Maina reluctantly left the hartebeest to run in circles – knowing that a poacher would think it was his or her lucky day if he came upon such a vulnerable (albeit sick) creature.
In the U.S., all store-bought meat comes from regulated, government-inspected slaughter facilities. There are rules about using “downer” animals – animals that cannot stand up and walk to their death for one reason or another – in the food supply. But when it comes to African bushmeat, all bets are off. Poachers’ wire snares catch animals indiscriminately, without regard to the species snared or the health of the individual animal caught.
Poaching increases during dry seasons, when little work can be done on the farm, food left from the previous harvest may be running low and animals are easiest to snare because they must travel long distances – via predictable migration routes – to reach water. A desperate enough person may not think twice before eating or selling an animal that could have died from a disease.
Two recent outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus are now being linked to bushmeat. The virus, which kills up to 90 percent of its victims, first erupted in Uganda. By mid-August, the disease was under control – and 16 people were dead. Now, in an unrelated outbreak, at least 31 are dead from Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the epidemic is not yet under control.
Ebola hemorrhagic fever was named after a river in the DRC, where it was first identified in 1976. Monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees can also get the disease and pass it to humans. After coming in contact with blood or secretions from an infected person or animal, a victim will begin showing symptoms after an incubation period lasting from two days to three weeks. Symptoms like fever, headache, muscle aches, and a sore throat are followed by diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain.
Because the early symptoms could be indicative of several other, more common and less deadly diseases, Ebola might not be identified right away – particularly in the early stages of an epidemic. Family, friends and health care workers might become infected while caring for a sick person, causing the disease to spread quickly and claim more lives.
The recent epidemic in Uganda began with a baby and then killed eight other members of the baby’s family as well as a healthcare worker who treated the baby. The healthcare worker also spread the disease to her own baby and her sister before succumbing to the disease. At present, there is no known cure for Ebola. Thankfully, there have been no known cases of Ebola in the United States thus far.
A 2004 report found that outbreaks of Ebola in humans were often preceded by outbreaks among local animal populations in species like gorillas, chimpanzees and duikers (a type of antelope). The scientists linked nearly all human outbreaks in Gabon and the DRC to handling of dead animals by villagers or hunters. They expressed hope that future outbreaks of Ebola in humans could be predicted and stopped in the early stages by tracking animal mortality and then sending health teams into villages when increased animal mortality is detected.
So why would people still eat bushmeat if the risks of doing so are so great? Back in Kenya, where there has never been a known case of Ebola, the African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) works to educate villagers about other diseases one can contract from sick wildlife, like anthrax. But they know that no amount of education or risk will stop a desperately hungry person from eating a sick animal.
After all, would you prefer a 100 percent chance of death from starvation or a less-than-certain chance of getting sick or dying from eating infected bushmeat? And with the large sum of cash one can get from selling a wild animal carcass, a family can get by for quite a while. Hunting wildlife is illegal in Kenya, but it’s easy to bring bushmeat into a big city like Nairobi and pass it off as beef or pork.
ANAW’s end goal is animal welfare, not public health, but in the case of bushmeat, the two can be one and the same. In addition to educating villagers about the disease risks of eating bushmeat, they also work to help the villagers make an income with activities other than poaching. For example, helping them turn the poacher’s snares they find in the bush into small wire sculptures, which they market to tourists. Until Africans can meet their economic and dietary needs without turning to bushmeat, the bushmeat trade will no doubt continue – and so will outbreaks of zoonotic diseases that can jump from animals to humans.© Food Safety News