To the foreign eye, it looks like a flattened, blackened lump of unidentifiable animal parts. To many Africans, however, bush meat — the cooked, dried or smoked remains of a host of wild animals, from rats and bats to monkeys — is not only the food of their forefathers, it is life-sustaining protein where nutrition is scarce.
And as it has been during past Ebola outbreaks, bush meat is once again suspected to have been the bridge that caused the deadly disease to go from the animal world to the human one. All it takes is a single transmission event from animal to human — handling an uncooked bat with the virus, for example — to create an epidemic. Human-to-human contact then becomes the primary source of infection.
“If you know that the Ebola virus is introduced in one area, it’s probably an extra good time to stop eating bush meat,” said Daniel Bausch, an associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
What is bush meat? It varies. It can be a chimpanzee, gorilla or monkey. It could also be a rat, deer or fruit bat. The animals come from the wild and are captured and sold for sustenance where other sources of protein from domesticated animals are scarce or prohibitively expensive.
West Africans say they have been eating bush meat for longer than anyone can remember. And even where it is outlawed and frowned upon by conservationists who decry the killing of protected primates and other animals, you can still find it readily available in markets and on street corners.
“Life is not easy here in the village,” Guinean Sâa Fela Léno told the Guardian. Authorities and aid groups “want to ban our traditions that we have observed for generations. Animal husbandry is not widespread here because bush meat is easily available. Banning bush meat means a new way of life, which is unrealistic.”
In addition, uneducated villagers have sometimes been more inclined to blame the presence of medical teams for the spread of the virus, rather than bush meat or contact with sick friends or relatives.
According to Bausch, the spread of Ebola in West Africa is a toxic confluence of unfortunate events. Poverty, weak governance, domestic unrest and perhaps even weather have combined to create the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
People hunt and eat bush meat when producing food by other means is challenging, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.
In the case of Ebola, fruit bats are thought of as the likeliest candidate to be nature’s reservoir for Ebola — that is, an animal that potentially carries the disease without any symptoms or signs of illness.
One might think that fear of the unknown might compel Africans to avoid the meat at all costs, at least until the outbreak has passed. But it likely hasn’t.
Cameroon Tribune reporters visited a market recently and found that:
In spite of the current ban in the hunting of all species of animals due to their reproduction period, traders in bush meat do not seem bothered by the fact that they are into a forbidden trade. Yesterday July 29, 2014 Cameroon Tribune (CT) visited the bush meat market at the Nkolndongo neighbourhood in Yaounde. Besides the enormous display of smoked bush meat of all sorts, the number of fresh meat available outweighs that which has been smoked.
While CT reporters went round the market showing interest in buying fresh pangolin, over 10 traders in pangolin, mostly women rushed forward with newly killed or life pangolin at different cost.
Hunters and preparers of bush meat are among the most at risk.
“If it’s cooked or smoked there is essentially zero risk,” Bausch said. “All the risk is to the preparer. So you have to have contact with the relatively fresh blood or bodily fluids of the animal.”
For hunters, bush meat can pose particularly acute dangers. Bites, scratches or contact with feces of bats, infected primates or other sick animals might transmit the disease.
Sick animals might be even more likely to end up in the traps of hunters because they are slower or might already be dead when they are found. Even in a dead but infected animal, the virus can survive — though only for so long.
“Some years ago, in Gabon, some kids ran into a dead chimp and proceeded to butcher and consume the raw meat,” Bausch said. Several children got sick from that incident, he said.
“We don’t want to exterminate bush meat, we just want to keep people from eating it,” he continued.
Of course, that advice is easy to give from the relative comfort of the resource rich world.
“If you’re out in sub-Saharan Africa and you need food for your family, there aren’t many options to get protein,” Bausch said.
If there is skepticism about the risk of Ebola among West Africans, it doesn’t help that before this outbreak, Ebola — particularly the strain that is currently spreading — had never before occurred in that part of the world.
“The only other place that we’ve seen this particular species of Ebola are in three countries in Central Africa,” said Bausch. “On a very broad level, any disease that is zoonotic, meaning it is maintained in animals, the distribution is limited to where you find that particular animal.”
Instead of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo and Gabon, the countries where this strain of Ebola is usually found, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have borne the brunt of this outbreak: According to the World Health Organization, 886 of the 887 deaths recorded in the current Ebola outbreak have occurred in those three West African countries. (The other victim died in Nigeria after flying from Liberia.)
So how exactly might Ebola-carrying bats have gotten from Central to Western Africa? Scientists don’t know yet.
It could be that migratory bats from one part of Africa traveled hundreds of miles over time, infecting other bats and animals along the way. And they might have created an infected population near Gueckedou, Guinea, the epicenter of the current outbreak.
Another source of the outbreak could well have been other bush meat animals, like primates, which can contract Ebola just like humans do.
The disease sickens and eventually kills them. If the timing lines up perfectly, a sick primate could still end up on the butchering block, before it dies from the disease.
In a recent paper, Bausch suggested that the timing of this most recent outbreak — during a dry season in West Africa — might have influenced the size of the infected bat population.
“Although more in-depth analysis of the environmental conditions in Guinea over the period in question remain to be conducted,” he and co-author Lara Schwarz wrote, “inhabitants in the region do indeed anecdotally report an exceptionally arid and prolonged dry season, perhaps linked to the extreme deforestation of the area over recent decades. At present, we can only speculate that these drier ecologic conditions somehow influence the number or proportion of Ebola virus-infected bats and/or the frequency of human contact with them.”