AR-NewsFwd: (GAPNews) New York Times book review: Eating Apes

jim robertson wolfcrest at
Sat Jun 21 02:29:06 EDT 2003

>The following appeared in the June 15, 2003 New York Times book review
>'Eating Apes': Almost Cannibalism
>Cannibalism seems a quaint, titillating subject where we usually encounter
>it, in anthropological studies and spooky legends. Dale Peterson's ugly,
>important new book is essentially about cannibalism as construed more 
>broadly than
>usual, and in his treatment it's anything but quaint. Picture a gorilla 
>with a shotgun, butchered like a hog, its blood-dripping head tossed into a
>stewpot, its hands smoked like sausage, and you have the idea. That gorilla 
>is no
>metaphor. ''Eating Apes'' is an examination of the slaughter, for food, of
>humanity's four closest primate relatives.
>It happens in equatorial Africa, notably those countries (Cameroon, Gabon,
>and both Congos, among others) where chimpanzees, bonobos (also known as 
>chimps) and gorillas (now divided into two species by some experts) live in 
>wild but often find their way, dead, into meat markets, even restaurants.
>They are typically killed with a 12-gauge shotgun firing big-game 
>each cartridge containing nine heavy balls of buckshot. Joseph Melloh, a 
>Cameroonian poacher who at one time was shooting about 50 gorillas a year 
>the market, has testified that gorilla meat is ''sweet, very sweet.'' Each
>carcass was worth up to 30,000 Central African francs, roughly $50.
>Ape-eating may sound unambiguously loathsome to us, but it's part of a 
>and more complicated regional context. In the Lingala language of central
>Africa, a trading tongue that spans ethnic divisions, the word eyama means 
>wild animal and meat. Likewise, as Peterson tells us, the Hausa language of
>Nigeria and the Swahili of eastern Africa have their variants of the same 
>(nama, nyama), each connoting both flesh in the forest and flesh in the 
>The linguistic overlap reflects old traditions among hunting-based 
>to which the notion of domestic livestock, raised for food and distinct 
>what runs free on the landscape, was alien. In towns adjacent to the 
>forests of central Africa, even in capital cities of the region, those
>traditions remain strong. People eat wild meat when they must (for lack of
>alternatives) and when they can (preferring it to beef, poultry or pork).
>The trade is huge, amounting to more than five million tons of antelope,
>elephant, buffalo, bush pig, porcupine, rodent, monkey and other native 
>per year. Conservationists, concerned that African forests are being 
>emptied of
>wildlife even faster than they're being cut for timber, refer to this as 
>problem of bushmeat. For other folks it's just a fact of existence. Life is
>harsh, tastes vary and wildlife is edible. Anyone who has enjoyed venison, 
>barbecued elk steak or a poached filet of king salmon caught from the wild 
>is in
>no position to consider bushmeat unreasonable in principle.
>But there are reasonable limits. One is what forest ecosystems can sustain.
>Given recent increases in population, bushmeat demand, availability of guns 
>ease of transport, those ecosystems generally can't sustain current levels 
>kill. Although dead apes may account for only 1 percent of the bushmeat 
>in the Congo basin, that toll combined with continuing habitat destruction
>pushes chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas ever closer to extinction. Apes
>reproduce slowly, and their populations are already sorely reduced. Of the 
>gorilla (which includes the mountain gorilla subspecies), no more than 
>17,500 individuals remain -- possibly far fewer, given that an 
>number have been killed in recent years to feed miners in the eastern 
>Republic of Congo.
>Another limit is taxonomic. Eating apes, Peterson argues, is uniquely
>destructive and unacceptable ''because of who they are. They are our 
>sibling species,
>who share with us between 96 and 99 percent of their genetic code.'' Apes 
>''special beings,'' he adds, ''who observe the world through eyes and faces
>like ours,'' show similar emotions, live in similar social systems and 
>traces of humanlike intelligence, language skills, and humor. ''Killing and
>eating them amounts to killing and eating animals shockingly close to 
>Karl Ammann's lurid photos make the same point more bluntly. A severed
>gorilla head, on a kitchen counter, wears the sad, glazed expression of a 
>friend. What looks at first like a leather driving glove, on a table amid 
>bottles, is a severed gorilla hand. The juxtapositions may seem stagy, but 
>reality behind them is raw and unanswerable.
>A third argument against eating apes, if you need another, is medical and
>epidemiological. In a morbidly fascinating chapter titled ''Blood,'' 
>describes the scientific work and circumstantial evidence suggesting that 
>AIDS and Ebola are zoonotic diseases (that is, transmissible to us from
>animals), which have leaped from ape populations to humans on several 
>occasions, most
>likely during the butchery and consumption of hominoid bushmeat.
>The linkage of H.I.V. to simian immunodeficiency virus (S.I.V.) in West
>African chimps has been presented in journals like Nature. The case for 
>Ebola is
>more speculative, but Peterson recounts the story of a village called 
>2, on the Ivindo River in eastern Gabon, where a chimp found dead in the 
>was butchered, cooked and eaten, leading to an Ebola outbreak in which 21
>people died. I heard tales of Mayibout 2 myself, when I traveled in that 
>including one from a survivor who remembered not just the infectious chimp 
>also a pile of 13 dead gorillas in the forest nearby, all killed by some
>mysterious agent other than a shotgun. No one yet knows what species (a 
>rodent? a
>bat?) serves as the permanent reservoir of the Ebola virus, but patterns of
>gorilla and chimpanzee die-off suggest that our close relatives are capable 
>suffering from it and passing it along.
>The problem of bushmeat in central Africa is entangled with industrial
>logging, which brings roads, trucks, hungry workers and their families and 
>guns into
>forest areas once far less accessible. National laws against hunting apes 
>selling their flesh often go unenforced in frontier zones, where timber
>companies can function as sovereign authorities. Corruption is common at
>checkpoints and border crossings, and the trade in ape meat is largely 
>Consequently it's hard to pin down exactly what's going on. Academic 
>have studied the trade and published their findings. Dale Peterson draws on
>those, but in this book he attempts to make the ape-eating fraction of the
>bushmeat problem vivid, urgent, and outrageous to a broader public.
>In a section of an appendix -- he calls it ''What You Can Do'' -- he offers
>some answers, which for American readers must be far more attenuated than
>''Don't eat gorilla.'' Lobby your congressman for a law endorsing ape 
>Write to the president of the World Bank? Generate a roll of petition
>signatures for dispatch through the American Zoo and Aquarium Association 
>to African
>heads of state? O.K., maybe those little deeds would help. But at bottom 
>whole situation is so inextricably African that it can only have an 
>solution, and the first thing we might do is begin to inform ourselves, and
>to care about, how that wondrous continent, with all its variousness and
>travails, is facing the future. There's no fix for ape-eating that doesn't 
>fix other
>troubles too.
>Peterson, who has written or collaborated on four earlier books on primate
>behavior and conservation, including one with Jane Goodall, is an earnest
>advocate and a careful researcher. Here he relies much on Ammann, a 
>Swiss-born photographer who for some years has crusaded admirably, 
>with mixed effectiveness, against killing and eating apes. Ammann's 
>accounts of
>investigations he has made or attempted, situations he has witnessed or 
>about, give the book a strong, cranky voice of authority. But in some cases
>his righteous accusations -- against the ''feel-good'' brand of 
>campaigns marketed by certain international conservation organizations, 
>strategic compromises sometimes made by them, and against the magazines 
>have declined to publish his grisly photos -- sound like little more than
>suspicion, disgruntlement and innuendo. Peterson, when he joins in such 
>accusations, is not at his best or most persuasive.
>That's unfortunate, because there is, as Ammann suggests, a great deal of
>false optimism purveyed nowadays by conservation groups wishing to reassure
>members and donors that the big job of saving species, saving apes, saving 
>against the appetites of humanity is getting done. Between you and me, it
>isn't. The planet's human population continues growing, from 6 billion 
>today toward
>a projected peak of perhaps 11 billion in the next century, and Homo 
>has never been hungrier.
>David Quammen's new book, ''Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the
>Jungles of History and the Mind,'' will be published in September.

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