Meat from monkeys, antelopes or pangolins is still eaten in the DRC despite the risk of disease

A monkey killed by poachers near Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of Congo, in April 2019.

Two porcupines, two antelope as tall as a greyhound, and three smoked monkeys. In the darkness of his cabin, Jean-Paul Ebao shows the fruit of his last hunt – three days ago “in the field”, in a forest in Ituri, a province in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A lively, lean body in a threadbare shirt, the man is a professional hunter. Armed with his rifle, “double-zero” cartridges or ammunition he manufactures himself from lead and sulfur from matches, he regularly walks through the jungle that stretches behind his village of Bayenga. “This week I walked four hours before tracking my first antelope”says the forty.

“When I was a child, animals would get close enough to sometimes enter the huts. Today, you have to go farther and farther to find the game. »

Due to overhunting and deforestation, bushmeat has become a rare commodity in recent years in the DRC. According to the latest “Living Planet Report” by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), published in September, wild animal populations have dropped by 65% ​​in Africa in the space of fifty years. In the Congo River basin alone, between 5 and 10 million tons of meat are harvested each year. Elephants, rhinos, okapis, primates and many other species are in serious danger of extinction.

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Until the 1970s, the low human density and the relative inaccessibility of the equatorial forest guaranteed some protection for the fauna. But demographic pressure has accelerated. In eighty years, the Congolese population has increased tenfold, from 10 million inhabitants in 1940 to 100 million today. With more than six children per woman, the fertility rate remains very high in the villages. The development of mining or logging operations has also contributed to increasing the population in previously isolated regions, where new trails are being made and new plots deforested, accelerating the destruction of natural habitats.

“There is no sanitary control”

This disruption of ecosystems has serious consequences for all living beings. The unprecedented promiscuity between men and animals in the deep forest breeds new diseases. The coronavirus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic that began in Asia is the most spectacular example. If, to date, no studies have clearly established a direct link with a wild animal, the SARS-CoV-2 genome, at the origin of the epidemic, has been identified as being 96% identical to that of a bat virus. RaTG13). It remains to be seen how he crossed the species barrier with humans.

The pangolin, a species hunted in the forests of the Congo Basin, was first suspected of being this “intermediate host”. But this track is called into question today. “The rate of identity between the SARS-CoV-2 and pangolin sequences is only 90.3%, which is much lower than the rates generally observed between the strains that infect humans and those that infect the intermediate host.”, declared in October virologist Etienne Decroly, a specialist in emerging viruses at the CNRS in Marseille. However, the risk of disease transmission from animals to humans remains high because of this new promiscuity. This was the case with HIV (the AIDS virus is said to have been transmitted through blood after a hunter was injured while cutting infected meat in the Congolese basin forest) or the Ebola virus, which is transmitted through bodily fluids.

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“Despite this, the Congolese say they are not afraid of getting sick from consuming bushmeat”, highlights Karen Saylors, an American anthropologist who has been working for several months on the transmission of diseases from hunting to humans. In her office in Kinshasa, the researcher explains:

“Residents do not believe that wild animals can transmit diseases, although there are no health tests for this meat. It arrives in cities informally and is sold directly without being examined by any veterinarian. »

Porcupines, monkeys, crocodiles…

To convince yourself of this, just go to the market at the river port of Ndolo in Kinshasa. Muddy alleys, spectacular crowds, rickshaws loaded with goods, hustle dockers, motorcycles cracking, smells of ripe fruit and salted fish, music everywhere. Under the colorful umbrellas, the tents display everything that can be produced in the interior of the country in terms of food, disembarked from bedded barges that circulate as best they can on the Congo River. In an alley, stalls sell porcupines, porcupines, quarters of buffalo, monkeys, turtles or even young crocodiles still alive.

“Our customers express no qualms about consuming these animals.said a saleswoman. Its meat has a strong, almost spicy flavor. It’s a lot of protein, it makes you strong. »

Above all, as bushmeat becomes scarcer, its cost increases. The demand, which is not limited to Kinshasa, encourages professional poachers to intensify their hunting campaigns, without respecting the breeding season or any rules for the sustainability of the species. Becoming more profitable, commercial hunting is developing to unsustainable proportions, namely with the aim of supplying a traffic that is intensifying on a global scale. WWF estimates that 3 million tonnes of game are taken each year from the Congolese forest just for this illegal trade. The rest is consumed by the inhabitants of forested areas or, more generally, of cities.

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“Hunting and the meat trade are the main threats to 85% of primates and ungulates”, says Belgian Alain Huart, coordinator of the WWF’s agriculture and forestry programme. For this specialist in rural development, the priority to protect wildlife is, if not limiting the consumption of animal protein, at least replacing the consumption of wild animals with farming and fish farming. “This option not only gives access to protein without harming wildlife, but farm animal manure can enrich the land and therefore improve crop yields without having to carry out new fires. »

“They shoot everything that moves”

President Félix Tshisekedi, in power since January 2019, has repeatedly mentioned his desire to develop the agricultural sector, and in particular livestock, to achieve food self-sufficiency. A grandiloquent “fishing and breeding strategic plan” was announced over the summer for the period 2020-2022.

“We don’t necessarily need large-scale projects”tempera Bodrick Boalé, student of environmental sciences, who participates in the Rural Agricultural Project for the Conservation of the Salonga Complex (Parccs), carried out with the Italian NGO ISCO and WWF:

“We prefer to encourage small farming carried out in family farming. They require little investment and are accessible to everyone, including women. If these initiatives are sufficiently numerous, they will be able to meet the demand for meat in the cities, while allowing the economic and social development of the rural world. »

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Meanwhile, Jean-Paul Ebao sees more and more foreigners crossing his corner of Ituri. “They come from far away, stay a few days or a few weeks and film everything that moves. They have only one goal: to bring back as much meat as possible to sell in the city.laments the hunter, forced to delve deeper and deeper into the forest.

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