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Environment

Illegal bushmeat served up in Parisian restaurant

French health officials have expressed concern about the growing market for illegal wild animal meat. The meat often ends up for sale at the African market, in downtown Paris.

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There is an international trade ban on apes

Roger, a Congolese thirty-something, sits down to dinner in an African restaurant in Paris. He doesn't order anything listed on the menu. He has already called ahead to order porcupine in a black sauce with a side of cassava. The dish is twice the price of other menu items, but Roger says the unique taste of porcupine is worth it.

"To eat French food, it's like I eat the same thing all week," he said. "You can't make the difference between fish or chicken or beef in Europe, but in Africa, you can make the difference between porcupine and chicken."

Roger says he has tasted snake, crocodile and monkey and that each of these meats has a unique taste. Despite its steep price, he says he eats bushmeat twice a week. In addition to porcupine, his other favorites are snake and pangolin, a small, insect-eating mammal.

The meat in his plate is dark brown, suggesting it's a bush-tailed porcupine. It's one of a dozen species that are commonly smuggled into France to cater to the country's African community.

Illegal imports

In a report published last year, scientists from the Zoological Society of London estimated that five tons of bushmeat pass into airports in France every week. The meat often ends up for sale at the African market, in Paris' 18th arrondissement, near Chateau Rouge subway station. It's the place to go to buy difficult-to-find African ingredients like Jakato, gombo, tripe or goat.

Meat on a fork

The meat is destined for street markets, restaurants and private homes

Bushmeat is hawked by illegal market vendors. They tend to be older women, who sell a limited number of items from bags or baskets. The meat is rarely displayed and is often stored at another location.

Customers have to specifically request it and have an African face to get any kind of positive response. If caught, vendors risk a fine of up to 75,000 euros and four years in prison.

Health concerns

French health authorities have expressed concern about the country's illegal wild animal trade. "It's a problem, because the law isn't being respected," said Serge Hauteville, a health inspector for the City of Paris, whose beat is the 18th district. "Countries that import meat and fish have to respect certain hygiene rules - rules that aren't necessarily observed in (countries that export illegal bushmeat)," Hauteville said.

Air France jet tails

An estimated five tons of bushmeat passes through French airports every week

Health officials say controls are so strict that it has become very difficult for legitimate businesses to trade bushmeat. They believe most of it is sold informally, through friends of friends, making it impossible for health authorities to control.

In addition to the public health concerns, some environmentalists are worried about the effect of this trade on wildlife conservation. In a 2010 report published in Conservation Letters, a journal from the Society of Conservation Biology, scientists from the Zoological Society of London listed 11 animal species seized at French airports during a three-week period. Trade in four of the 11 species cited is banned under the Convention of on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. None of the meat seized was from threatened species, but the report argued that European demand has the potential to drive some of the animals to extinction.

Food security

Homeless people in Zimbabwe

Food shortages in Zimbabwe have led to widespread wildlife slaughter

However, millions of people in Africa rely on this meat for food security. They are a renewable resource that should be used sustainably, said Philippe Chardonnet, a wildlife veterinarian and the director of the International Foundation for Fauna Management (IGF).

Chardonnet believes the hunting of protected animals or those who reproduce slowly is a problem, but that the greatest proportion of species hunted are plentiful and can sustain hunting pressure. "It's interesting to realise that the first species are large rodents such as the brush-tail porcupine, the forest porcupine, or the grass cutter, or cane rats and others," he explained from his foundation headquarters in Paris.

"These species are considered pest animals, not just by farmers, but also government authorities and development agencies.”

For Chardonnet, there are no simple solutions. For example, encouraging Africans to grow more farmed meat would result in further deforestation. And further criminalizing the bushmeat industry would be counterproductive. He said some anti-poaching initiatives are necessary, but for them to work in the long-term, they have to be associated with positive measures that involve local communities.

"To be efficient, you have to have people on your side, not against you. You must understand their livelihood, their culture, their taste for wild meat," Chardonnet said.

Chardonnet's IGF foundation runs initiatives in the Central African Republic, Gabon and South Africa aimed at helping local hunters better manage wildlife reserves. Some involve raising wild animals or managing game hunting reserves with specific quotas.

Culture and tradition

"There is almost no bushmeat on the market," said the owner of the African restaurant in Paris, who prefers to go by the name Cathy. "It's very hard to find.”

French authorities would like France's Africans to eat the meat legally sold in France. But Roger, the Congolese aficionado, says bushmeat is far too important to African culture. And that when you are cooking for company, serving bushmeat is the best way to honour guests.

He says he trusts African hunters to use their ancestral knowledge to manage forest animals sustainably. And as long as he can find it, he'll continue to buy bushmeat in France.

Author: Genevieve Oger
Editor: Saroja Coelho