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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Eating Apes

Air Date: Week of

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The hunting of apes for food is a long-established tradition for certain tribes in the Congo Basin. In recent years, bushmeat has become an increasing source of food for loggers, and a delicacy in some African cities. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Dale Peterson about his book on the bushmeat crisis called "Eating Apes."


CURWOOD: The great apes of Central Africa are threatened on a number of fronts. Habitat loss and disease have cut into their numbers. But the bigger danger for the survival of the chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla comes from the bush meat trade. These animals have become an increasingly popular delicacy in cities throughout Africa and demand for their meat is on the rise. Some say the hunting of these primates is pushing them to the edge of extinction.

Dale Peterson has traveled through the jungles and meat markets of the Congo, tracing the path of the bush meat trade. And he's written about it in a new book called “Eating Apes.” He says there are a number of reasons why people who live in the Congo Basin eat apes.

PETERSON: Probably, you know, as long as people have been in this part of the world, that’s been part of their food source. But there’s a tremendous variety, actually, of traditions. In fact, a lot of people are offended by even the idea of eating apes, and they’ll say things like ‘we would never eat apes because they’re like humans.’ And then the other people will say almost the opposite, “well, you know, what’s your problem, they’re just like an animal, they’re just another animal.” So, there’s this great variety.

And there’s actually a third tradition, which is sort of that “they’re a special animal and we eat them because they’re special, because they’re sort of human-like but they’re really an animal. This is a meat that will give you strength.”

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been immersed in the topic of apes in the bushmeat trade for quite some time now. What are your thoughts on jut how closely related we are to these animals, to the apes?

PETERSON: Well, I think you can sort of see the relationship if you go to a zoo and look at an ape, and you discover the ape – you know, a gorilla or chimpanzee or bonobo – looking back at you. There is a sense that this is an animal that is somehow different from other animals, that is somehow more alert, more intelligent. The apes are, in fact, close to 99 percent genetically identical to humans.

If you see them in the wild, in my opinion, it’s a totally different experience because then you get much more of a sense of them in their natural life. And so, it’s less like, say, looking at a person in a jail. You see them in the wild and you see an animal that clearly, just from your own observations, has a lot of the emotional reactions of ordinary people.

You know, I’ve spoken to hunters who say that when you corner a chimpanzee in a forest and you’re about to shoot him, he’ll beg for his life. Chimpanzees have a lot of gestures that are really, really recognizable to people, including the begging gesture.

CURWOOD: So, what’s different? What’s changed? Why the concern about eating apes today?

PETERSON: Well, population growth. This is a part of the world where population numbers are doubling every 23 years. There has been, you know, the entry of modern weapons and modern hunting tools and technology into this part of the world. And then, the third thing, and the most important thing, has been the entry of European and Asian loggers, who have cut roads into the Congo Basin, and opened up what was previously a completely remote and very inaccessible part of the world. They’ve opened it up to hunting and trading and the commerce.

CURWOOD: In your book you have some pictures of the bushmeat trade. Could you open your book and describe some of these pictures for me, please?

PETERSON: Okay. I’ve opened this kind of randomly to a photograph of a gorilla head in a bowl in someone’s kitchen. And this was not a set-up photograph. I’ve spoken to Karl Ammann, the photographer, about this photograph. Karl met this hunter who had been hired by a police chief in southern Cameroon to kill a gorilla. The chief gave him a gun – lent him a gun – and the hunter went out and killed a gorilla, and then sent back the meat to the police chief. And since he was the hunter he was allowed to keep the head and an arm. Now it’s bizarre seeing this head on a plate, and it kind of looks like John the Baptist, you know. It has that sort of iconic quality to it. But in fact there is a lot of meat in a gorilla head, and this is food. But it’s a very disturbing photograph.

CURWOOD: Another picture there?

PETERSON: Well, right to the right of the gorilla head is a picture of a gorilla hand in a restaurant. This is not a high-class restaurant. This is a pretty rough restaurant in a rough logging town. And the hand has not been cooked so it’s just a disembodied hand by a group of beer bottles, and I’m sure it was going to be food, and Karl took the picture.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk a little about numbers. How many gorillas are there left? You say they’ll be gone in a generation.

PETERSON: The numbers are not encouraging. There are only about 120 thousand gorillas left in the world as far, as we know, maybe 200 or 250 thousand wild chimpanzees left in the world, and only somewhere between five thousand and 50 thousand bonobos. Those are extremely low numbers. Now, how many are being killed every day, nobody knows. So, a lot of it is anecdotal, it’s just looking. But, you know, when I can go in a single day, randomly, and visit a meat market in Libreville, Gabon, capital city of the wealthiest country in this part of the world, and find a chimpanzee leg laid out in the meat market for sale, we know there’s a problem.

CURWOOD: Dale, was there a specific experience that prompted you to write this book?

PETERSON: Well, I think, you know, this is the biggest conservation crisis in central Africa. And it’s been going on for 10 years, 15 years. Everybody knows about it and nobody’s been talking about it, and there was this amazing conservation news blackout on the subject.

CURWOOD: Why is that?

PETERSON: It’s a sensitive subject. We’re talking about people’s cultural traditions. We’re talking about a part of the world where people are very poor. You know, my friend, Karl Ammann the photographer, tried to get some of his photographs published ten years ago, in American Conservation and Natural History magazine, and they simply turned it down. It was too grim, too disturbing, too frightening, too this, too that. So, you know, in essence nobody was talking about this very important subject. And yet, we must face this.

CURWOOD: Perhaps the oldest zoological foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society, has now entered into an agreement with a German logging company in the northern Congo. They claim that by working together with loggers rather than standing by, that they can help preserve what’s left. What do you think about this?

PETERSON: Well, once again, when we get back to what is causing this explosion in bushmeat commerce, it’s the loggers. I think there’s no question about it, it’s the loggers entering the Congo Basin, building these roads, opening up these forests. Now, how do you deal with that? Well, the Wildlife Conservation Society has gone into this, at least, this one logging concession, a very large concession in northern Congo. And they’ve formed a partnership with the logger.

I think my main problem with this is that in developing partnerships with loggers, conservation groups are, in essence, greenwashing the situation. So that loggers who are still going into the Congo, who are still destroying virgin forests, can now turn to he public and say, you know, ‘What’s your problem? We’ve got these partnerships with these great conservation groups, therefore we’re green.’

CURWOOD: So, if you were in charge, what would be the solution that you would try to impose here?

PETERSON: The first thing you do is set aside some land – creation of parks, protection of parks, economic rejuvenation. Part of the reason that this problem is so great is that the bushmeat commerce has become an enormous business, so it’s a way to make money for impoverished people. And I’m not talking about ending the commerce, but the ape part of the commerce only amounts to about one percent. In other words, one percent of the meat that’s coming out of the Congo Basin is ape meat. So you could actually end the eating of apes and the crisis that’s affecting the apes, and have no effect, virtually no effect, on the larger meat trade in the Congo Basin

CURWOOD: Dale Peterson teaches at Tufts University and wrote “Eating Apes.” Dale, thanks for taking this time with me today.

PETERSON: Thank you, Steve. It was great to be here.

CURWOOD: For the viewpoint of the Wildlife Conservation Society on its bushmeat trade work in the Congo, and to see photos discussed in the interview, please go to our website, livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org.

[MUSIC: Kronos Quartet “OBO ADDY: Wawshishijay” PIECES OF AFRICA (Elektra – 1992)]

For a slideshow of photos from Mr. Peterson’s book, click here.(Please be advised—many of these images are graphic and disturbing.)



“Eating Apes” by Dale Peterson

The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force

Wildlife Conservation Society's work with a logging company in the Congo


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