AR-News: Stopping the Slaughter of Our Next of Kin
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Sat May 8 23:12:08 EDT 2004
Stopping the Slaughter of Our Next of Kin
The Satya Interview with Karl Amman
its a subject one understandably shies away from: the slaughter of
wild animals for food in Africa. As foreign logging companies penetrate
deeper into the remaining African jungles, the animals and their habitats
are growing more and more vulnerable to human encroachment, especially their
appetite for meat.
Why do people eat apes? Neither the question nor the answer is simple.
In Eating Apes (University of California Press), author Dale Peterson [see
the Satya interview in July 2000] grapples with this complicated and
controversial issue. Peterson contends that humans are traditionally
meat-eaters and crave meat, and that in much of Africa, a meal simply isnt
a meal without animal flesh. Moreover, meat is characteristically more
expensive than non-meat food, adding status to and desirability for animal
flesh. It is also an issue of access. In areas bordering the wilderness,
bushmeat is more available than domesticated farmed animals. As the logging
industry hacks its way deeper and deeper into untouched forests, logging
trucks rumble through remote areas carrying the spoils of illegal hunters
exploits, making access to customers immediate. But things are changing.
More and more, youll find brokers buying exotic meat for resale to
higher-paying urban or international customers. For many, ape
meatespecially the handsis a delicacy, and as people move away and become
successful, demand is growing among the wealthy. Tons of bushmeat were
confiscated last year at Londons Heathrow airport (and thats just the
stuff thats caught!).
Most countries have outlawed poaching of endangered species. However,
hunters will risk getting caught because the consequences are so
meekusually a slap on the wristand the profits so great.
Swiss-born Karl Amman has been on the frontlines of this trade for two
decades, trying to get the world to pay attention before its too late. His
life and work is featured in Eating Apes. An award-winning wildlife
photographer, Amman has made it his mission to document the ongoing
slaughter of our closest ancestorschimps, gorillas, and bonobos. His
bushmeat photographs are profoundly disturbing: a gorilla head sitting in a
frying pan on a table next to a bunch of bananastonights dinner; a family
of gorillasa mother, father and two adolescentsslumped against a tree and
covered in flies, recently shot to death; chimpanzee limbs being unloaded
from a logging truck like so many pieces of wood.
One inspiration that spurs Ammans work is Mzee, a chimp he met when he
first began investigating ape meat. Orphaned babies are the helpless
casualties of a business that thrives on the flesh of their parents. As
meat, babies dont offer much and are usually kept alive and sold as pets,
or to circuses, zoos or for medical research. Those not sold are fobbed off
onto a sanctuary or simply dumped. Today, Mzee shares his life with another
orphaned chimp, Bili, and likes to fall asleep between Karl and his wife
Kathy, holding their hands. On a rare visit to the U.S., Catherine Clyne sat
down with Karl Amman to discuss the ape meat crisis and what we can do to
help change things.
How urgent is the bushmeat crisis in Africa right now?
Its just one of many problems confronting Africa. As such it is an uphill
struggle trying to bring the issue to the attention of the public in the
west, even though the big apes are involvedand the elephants and other
charismatic flagship species. My hope is if we can get to the average
taxpayer/voter in the rich parts of the world, then politicians running the
show in the donor countries cannot afford to ignore the issue and can apply
corresponding pressure to the leadership in the African countries.
There is also the issue of the peoplepeople are worse off than animals in
some parts of Africa. But you cant separate the two. There are parts of
central Africa where all wildlife has been pretty much wiped out. In the DR
Congo, the huge Bateke Plateau outside Kinshasa is now devoid of wildlife so
fish farming has suddenly become a viable alternative. In the southeastern
part of the Central African Republic, the pastorialists from the north now
bring in cows, slaughtering them every day. A few years ago, the local
Azande people never ate beef, but they no longer have any choice because
theres no game meat left; they hate the idea of having to buy beef from the
northerners but thats all thats left. If the forests are hunted out, in
the end, the people will pay the price. So this is not about animals vs.
people, its about doing it on behalf of the people as much as on behalf of
Some people ask, why are beef and meat considered the only viable sources of
With soya and artificial meats and stuff like that Im convinced that the
average consumer, like in the west, could not tell the difference. If you
could flood the market with artificial meats, if the average man in the
street didnt know better, he probably would accept it. However, thats a
pretty unrealistic short or medium term measure in the African context.
How did you first learn about the bushmeat trade?
In 1988, I was with my wife on a riverboat trip on the Congo River. There
was a hell of a lot of smoked and fresh meat, and some live animals coming
on board. It was staggering to see these quantities disappearing into
freezers. I didnt know how widespread it was and out of curiosity, I
decided to investigate further: Is this really happening everywhere? If so,
why is nobody aware of it, why is it not being documented?
The first trips showed that whats happening on the riverboats were pretty
representative of whats going on in Central Africa. I thought Hey, theres
a story here, the world should be paying attention to whats happening. And
I slowly got sucked in deeper and deeper.
You adopted a family member on one of those trips, right?
[Laughs] Yeah, Mzee, who is still living with usand we have two chimps now.
Mzee was a motivator for me. As we looked for a permanent home for him, it
kind of all came togetherseeing what sanctuaries existed, how they were
run, and who was doing what.
So you saw that this was a big storydid it become one? Why or why not?
Initially there was quite a lot of resistance to the story. Editors were
interested when they saw the images, but the few so-called experts would
tell them its not really an issue, or Im exaggerating, etc. So I had a
heck of a time getting the story out. I think Natural History magazine was
the first one to send a writerthey didnt fully trust me either, they sent
their own man. That became kind of a pattern, journalists traveling with me.
Later on, I sent them on their own. So it became pretty well accepted that
maybe I wasnt sensationalizing, that it was pretty widespread. And once the
New York Times ran a magazine feature, the barriers broke down.
This is naturally a story that someone like National Geographic or the
Discovery Channel would pick up.
I think theyre better at selling feel-good conservation. They want to
entertain people, not shock them. Thats the business theyre in.
It seems the major players, the real power keepers, are the international
heads of state, along with donors, the World Bank, and the media; and they
dont seem to be getting the message sufficiently. Ideally, what would be a
solution to get the message out and get people working on this?
[Sigh and long pause.] The very first step is to overcome our need for
political correctnesswho are we to tell Africans what they can and cannot
eat? I read about bushmeat having been confiscated at an American airport;
hundreds of kilos were being brought in for a wedding celebrationand there
was no prosecution. I mean, either we believe that its right to eat apes or
its not right. If we believe its not, then lets make that point for all
bushmeat, and lets stick our necks out and maybe get called neo
colonialists every now and thento say: If you want our donor money, this
is something youre going to have to look at. But either we criticize
cultures or we dont.
Our own cultures are constantly changing and we do not seem to have a
problem with that. I met a western scientist who said when he was a child,
they would go to an asylum to watch the crazy people for entertainment.
Obviously thats no longer acceptable. In his lifetime, that had
sufficiently changednow a child would be told this is not entertainment. So
cultures change all the time and we can help these changes along, and we can
say change is necessary. But if we say, We cant really dictate cultural
practices, thats the way they do things, then why do we try to teach them
about condoms? Theyre not part of their culture either. So, then let them
die of AIDS? I mean, either we believe in what were saying, or we dont
believe in it and then fine, lets not pretend we do.
Can you tell us about how you made connections between Ebola and HIV jumping
the species barrier from apes to humans?
I had heard that several Pygmies had died of Ebola after eating apes in
Cameroon in 1997. At the time I was befriended to Dr. Philippe Mauchlere of
the Pasteur Institute, who had heard it too, but hadnt checked it out. When
I offered to, he said he would be very interested and gave me somebody to
come along to take blood to test for antibodies. We found one Pygmy who
confirmed that they had found several dead gorillas at the Gabon-Cameroon
border and eaten them, and that 14 had died and he was the only survivor.
While investigating a similar Ebola outbreak, I asked a survivor if he would
still eat gorillas. He said no. I asked if it was because he was scared; he
said no, theres no longer any gorillas left. Ebola had affected the gorilla
population that heavily.
Researcher Beatrice Hahn contacted me when she was about to publish her
paper [linking HIV with a simian version in chimps]. She knew that I knew a
lot about bushmeat and asked how often people eat it, what happens and so
on. I showed her pictures and video material. She concluded that if there
was a cross-species transmission of viruses from apes, a very logical way of
transmission could be through the butchering processit probably didnt
happen through eating. So there was a very clear avenue. The chimps were
being butchered every dayprobably more than ever beforeso there was more
potential for these viruses to be crossing the species barrier.
In Eating Apes, Dale Peterson portrays that moment as something of a shift
for you, you thought it would be a good strategy to make ape meat a public
health issue rather than appealing to sympathy for the apes.
Lets face it, theres a tendency for people to react to issues only if it
affects their person. All of these problems could be due to a small group of
people insisting that they have the right to eat our closest animal
relatives. Theres a big majority that should say to a small minority,
Guys, you cannot expose us, the rest of the world, to these risks just
because you feel its your cultural right and its good meat! The risks for
mankind are just too big.
Again, it comes to political correctness. After Beatrice Hahn published the
data in Nature magazine for the world to decide if butchering chimps was the
most probable cause of the transmission of HIV; she was attacked as being a
total racist. And thats the reaction we are so worried about. We shy away
from calling a spade a spadethe World Health Organization (WHO) hasnt
pushed the issue for the same reasons. And I think thats much of the
Has information about the possible connection between HIV and Ebola and
eating apes been distributed to African people?
No, the message generally does not reach the guy who pulls the trigger. I
have seen WHO posters in Gabon showing possible ways of HIV transmission.
Therere images of needles and all kinds of ways we know of, but there isnt
an image of somebody butchering a chimp.
To me, one of the most disturbing scenarios arose at the end of last year,
when ECOFAC [an EU-funded conservation group], the World Wildlife Fund,
etc., were working in the Cameroon/Congo/Gabon area. In December I heard of
the first bunch of habituated gorillas that died. It was clearly Ebola and
they knew it. Then by about February, people started dying, a total of about
80 or 90, I think. I know that area and very few people live there, maybe a
few thousand in very remote villages. If you knew apes were dying of Ebola
and you knew anybody hunting or eating an infected ape would result in the
cross-species transmission, and you did not manage to get the message to
these few thousand people that, now is not the time to eat apesif that wasn
t possible, then the question is how will we ever get the message out
In the towns its easier. There was an immediate reactioneven in Kinshasa,
nobody would buy apes or monkeys anymore coming in on the riverboats. In
that sense the word Ebola had an impactbut we still didnt get to the
people in the forest.
I was struck by your conversation with the hunter who said he was no longer
eating gorillas, not because he was afraid of Ebola, but because there are
no more gorillas left to eat. You know first-hand whats going on and for
him, Ebolas not the issue, its that the meat is gone.
When I brought it up with Joseph Melloh [a former bushmeat hunter-turned
investigator], he said, If you were right, I would be dead a long time ago.
Ive eaten dozens of chimps and I feel very healthy. If you acquire a new
strain of virus, it may mean passing through or over several generations
before somebody will die of it. So maybe its further down the line, not
So what is a concrete answer?
Im convinced that once the logging roads are in, once thousands of migrants
have moved in, you can forget about it. The difficulty of controlling pretty
much anything is disproportionately high. The answer is not to open the
As an immediate response to whats going on, you opened a sanctuary for
orphaned apes in Kenya, right?
To me, the sanctuaries are a clear indicator to what extent conservation is
failing. The orphans are essentially just a by-product, a mopping up
exercise. I think soon the flow of orphans will start declining because the
chimps and gorillas will all be gone. At the moment, theyre still on the
increaseand more and more sanctuaries will no longer accept chimps. They
take gorillas and bonobos because theyre sexy species, but they dont
want to hear the word chimp anymore.
What happens when nobody wants them?
Theyre just ignored until they die. They might live on a street corner,
tied to a post or something, and if nobody confiscates them or does anything
about it, then one day theyll no longer be there.
What do you say to people who ask why resources should go to help animals
when so many people are suffering?
One of my standard answers is they didnt do anything to get to this
stageit was us humans. At least within the species, its a scenario of
humans doing it to humans (though I do feel guilty for some of the things
humans do to other humans). But I feel guilty for what were doing to the
chimps and the rest of the wildlife.
In the afterward of Eating Apes, you say that you feel guilty about this
situation, so you try to bring this information to the attention of the
world to sort of alleviate that. What are we supposed to do?
The African politicians wont take it seriously without our politicians
putting pressure on themthen we can actually get somewhere. But our
politicians wont take it seriously unless theres a civil society backlash
in our part of the world. So it has to start with the man on the street, and
if we can get to him, we have a chance.
Some would say that foreigners have no business telling Africa what to do.
I know of a World Bank memo which states that in central Africa
dysfunctional governments have to be considered a given. With dysfunctional
governments you will not get functional development projects, sustainable
logging operations or conservation initiatives. It is the root cause of the
problem and not dealing with it will mean we are wasting our time and money
trying to deal with the above mentioned related problems. If we want to see
any real change we have to find much bigger carrots but also sticks. If we
can not find the sticks we will not go very far. The west has ruled what is
right and good for the East Timorese, the Afghans and now the Iraqis; in the
context of the above Africa should be a priority.
But what can possibly be the justification to ask Africans to change
culturally when Bush goes around saying the American energy problem is a
question of supply, not demand, and you have to increase supply to deal with
the issue. Thats an idiotic attitude to have in this day and age. It smacks
of double standards for us to try to tell Africans they have to change if we
are not willing to change.
When Jane Goodall does the talk show circuit, she always talks about the
Yeah, now shes talking about it. But she doesnt combine it with radical
solutions; she prefers the quiet diplomatic approach. However, lets
evaluate the quiet diplomatic approach in the context of Gombe Stream: you
have two groups of chimps left who are genetically on their way out. Several
decades of uncontrolled deforestationlargely due to population
pressurehave resulted in Gombe becoming a small island of forest. After 30
years and millions of dollars of National Geographic money, they are the
most famous chimps in the world, and this is the end result? I mean, thats
not something Id be proud of, Id shoot myself. Maybe the quiet diplomatic
approach did not work, and is not working.
What is needed now, is to sit down and look back and ask is there any other
way of doing things?
What gives you hope?
I think as it stands now, I have very little hope. The environment and
wildlife is so much at the bottom of the priority list. If theres any
economic development in Africa, it will get even worsemore infrastructures,
more roads, and more ways to get the meat to the market. There is very
little hope the way were going, and have been going for the last 30 years.
If Bush made the money available he did for the Iraq war for environmental
issues, there would be hope.
To view his photos or learn more about Karl Amman and bushmeat, visit
or read Eating Apes.
Please be warned the photos are very disturbing.
the wild, cruel beast is not behind the bars of the cage. he is in front of it - axel munthe
"Never doubt that a small group of dedicated citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead
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