Is it safe to eat bushmeat?
In Ghana, capturing wild animals is a tradition and a valuable source of protein. But there’s a fear it’s spreading diseases. The antelope looked exactly like a cartoon deer. It had rust-colored fur, white spots on its hindquarters, and an oddly regal bearing. Its throat had been slit, and it had just been dumped, rather unceremoniously, on the hard-packed black earth of the burning area at Atwemonom, the open-air abattoir at the center of Ghana’s commercial bushmeat trade. The antelope – a female bushbuck—arrived at dawn in a white plastic sack out of a rickety van. It was delivered along with 15 grasscutters (greater cane rats, which look like large guinea pigs and are about a foot long), eight giant rats, and two hares. The market woman supervising the delivery had the butchers count everything twice. Once the audit was done, a butcher singed the fur off the creatures over an open fire, then hauled the carcasses over to the nearby slaughter slab. That, by the way, is something of a misnomer. All the wild game that finds its way to Atwemonom is already dead. Nothing actually gets slaughtered here apart from the occasional visibly anxious goat. At the slaughter slab, the carcasses are scrubbed of singed fur and soot. Then, what happens next depends on the market woman who owns the meat. Some have it gutted and dressed. Some prefer to keep the carcasses whole, toss them in an industrial freezer and butcher them just before they’re sold. Atwemonom is in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city. It’s about 10 minutes from the Central Market. The abattoir sits by a road so choked with traffic that, for hours, nothing appears to move. That morning the meat market was a hive of activity. Women were setting up their stalls, laying out huge stainless steel bowls of whole grasscutter and small duiker antelope. Beyond the slaughter slab is a small lane, a thoroughfare for everyone from hawkers selling ice lollies to foreign salesmen peddling blenders on the never-never. On that morning it was the prep area for a street-food hawker who was hunched over a pestle and mortar grinding peppers, tomatoes and onions into chili sauce. The smell of charred flesh drifted over from an enclosure of timber and zinc roofing sheets: the burning area. Inside, there was a low charcoal fire smoldering between two engine blocks. It was slowly smoking some grasscutter. This, the butcher said, was for someone who was planning on taking the meat back home to Europe. Any wild animal from the countryside—the bush—that has been killed for food is bushmeat. It’s a contentious term. It remains unclear how the meat from the antelope delivered to Atwemonom is different from the wild venison being sold for extortionate prices in Knightsbridge in London. It’s also unclear why the term, from the French viande de brousse, is almost exclusively used to refer to wild game from West and Central Africa. In these regions, as more and more of the bush has been cleared by loggers, miners and farmers, the population of wild animals has plunged. Some species are near extinction. As a result, hunters are forced further and further into nature reserves and other previously undisturbed areas. The problem is, the further people venture into the bush, the closer they come to possible reservoirs of infectious diseases.
Around three-quarters of all new human diseases emerge from animals. Bushmeat is a massive but poorly understood industry. How large is the market for bushmeat? Why is it such an important part of so many people’s diets? And could animal products from places like Atwemonom pose a threat to people around the world? One man has been burning and butchering bushmeat for a decade, after learning the trade from his father. He processes between 30 and 70 carcasses a day for the market women, who pay a fee for each batch. It’s hard work, he says. The fire is hot and the cutting takes muscle. If you’re not careful, you’ll get burned or slashed. On top of all that, business is down. A few years ago he wouldn’t have had the time to stop and chat. Now the hunters just aren’t sending as much meat from the bush. He uses a machete to cut off the antelope’s head and three of its legs, before heaving the torso onto the fire, which starts to crackle. Another butcher takes over, rotating the carcass by its remaining leg with one bare hand, and scraping the charred fur off with the machete he holds in the other, sending a shower of scorched fur in every direction. You can smell the acrid odor of burning hair and flesh. After about 10 minutes, the rust-colored fur is gone. The butcher heaves the carcass up onto his shoulder and carries it out of the burning area and across the lane, trailing the smell of freshly cooked meat and a raw, metallic tang. He dumps the steaming carcass onto the blood-spattered slaughter slab. The bushmeat at Atwemonom comes from rural areas like Barekese (north of Kumasi), the road between Kumasi and Sunyani, and Konongo, which is on the way down to the capital Accra. Some is hunted as far away as the neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. The freshest specimens were caught during the darkest part of the night before, when the cane rats stepped on metal traps that snapped their necks, the antelope was shot and the hares caught the sharp end of a machete. Forestry Commission inspector Moses Akologu is in charge of keeping track of the catches he encounters, recording the species, method of death, sex, weight and price of each, along with whether the specimen was pregnant and where it was hunted. It is August, so Akologu is only counting the grasscutter that arrives at Atwemonom. Over 80 million greater cane rats are hunted in the region every year. Their population, he says, is pretty healthy: “Every three months, they give birth, and they can give birth to 10.” Hunters will occasionally deliver protected species like hyena and pangolin. “If you bring it here and I catch you, I will seize it all for the government. They will send you to court,” says Akologu. The only sanction for illegal hunting is being fined a (usually modest) sum of money. In Ghana, the Forestry Commission regulates hunting. They issue licenses to hunters and permits to the market women who sell bushmeat. They also set hunting seasons, says David Kpelle, Tourism and Commercial Manager at the Wildlife Division, at his office in Accra. When we speak it’s closed season, which runs from August 1 until December 1. During this part of the year hunters are only supposed to go after grasscutter, which are farm pests. During open season hunters can kill a rapidly shrinking list of species that are not on the endangered list (including bushbuck, duiker, civets, warthogs, and squirrels). “There are animals which are not supposed to be hunted at any time. We have the lions, the elephants, the black-andwhite colobus monkeys, the Diana monkeys—they are the ones that we consider as threatened species,” says Kpelle.
Those animals have been heavily hunted, or have had their habitats destroyed by growing farms and logging roads. To protect them, the Forestry Commission has established 16 reserves around the country. “But of course, wildlife knows no boundaries,” says Kpelle, and hunters don’t respect them, even going after elephants, he says—and not just for ivory. “The elephant is also good meat. The trunk is the best part.” Ultimately, it’s hard to convince people that hunting needs to be stringently regulated: People have been eating bushmeat for generations, and there is evidence that demand for it may be growing in some quarters. Climate change and illegal fishing by trawlers from other parts of the world mean Ghana’s fishing industry has all but collapsed. One researcher has found that when the catch falls, the amount of bushmeat on sale rises, Kpelle says. “Bushmeat is an important component of our dietary requirements in Ghana.” Protein is vital for the developing bodies and minds of children. A lack of it has stunted millions in the region. Wild game, which has long been a source of protein, has remained essential in many places because it can be difficult to rear domesticated farm animals. Parts of Ghana are prone to tsetse fly infestations, which cost cattle farmers in sub-Saharan Africa up to $12 million a year in losses. Fresh fish is only readily available near waterways or the shore. So Ghana imports an estimated 90 per cent of all meat sold in the country (about $200 million of frozen chicken meat alone was brought in in 2013), which makes it relatively expensive. In parts of Ghana, bushmeat is the freshest protein available. Farmers who would otherwise be struggling during the dry season can feed their families and bring in some extra income. Some consumers in Ghana— like in many other parts of the world—are increasingly willing to shell out for healthy, natural foods. Because wild game tends to be lean, locally sourced and—connoisseurs swear—delicious, it has started to command a premium price in cities like Kumasi, where it is more expensive than beef or mutton. In Ghana alone, the bushmeat industry generates about £105 million in revenue every year. For a lot of people, eating bushmeat is also about keeping traditions alive and maintaining a culture of living in harmony with nature that is rapidly being lost. At Atwemonom, the butcher who deposited the antelope carcass at the slaughter slab starts to scrub it clean with a wire sponge and a basin of water. There are no taps and the water comes from yellow jerry cans filled up around the corner. The tiled concrete floor is slick with blood and water made murky by the soot from the singed carcasses. Another butcher sweeps up bits of flesh and offal. Behind him, a woman pours a bowl of blood over a low wall, sending the bluebottles that had settled on it into a frenzied cloud. Once the bushbuck is clean, the butcher heaves the carcass back up on his shoulder and carries it past the burning area to a large wooden shed full of chest freezers. He dumps it in a blood-spattered deep-freeze, next to another antelope and a few grasscutters. The market woman is saving the animal for a day when business is brisker.