Bushmeat trafficking in Europe: a ticking time bomb?

27 October 2020

Thousands of tonnes of bushmeat are estimated to be smuggled into Europe each year, both for personal use and commercial trade. Bushmeat trafficking not only impacts wildlife populations in source countries; there are also proven risks of infectious disease spillover. European authorities should do more to tackle this illegal trade.



October 2020. The world has been bomb-shelled by a pandemic unprecedented in modern times, caused by a novel corona virus named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) or COVID-19. As of 27 October 2020, the virus has killed 1,160,389 people worldwide. The death toll is expected to rise further as countries experience second and even third waves of infections. Most countries in the world have imposed lockdowns, social distancing measures and travel restrictions in efforts to curb the spread of the disease. Economies have ground to a halt and many millions of people have lost their jobs and/or livelihoods. The International Monetary Fund foresees the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression of the 1930s, warning it may worsen if the outbreak can’t be contained.


The question where the virus originated has yet to be answered conclusively, however the most popular narrative, based on Chinese research published in January 2020 is that the virus spread from the Huanan Seafood and Wildlife Market in Wuhan, China, where various species of domestic livestock and wildlife were kept, slaughtered and sold in unhygienic conditions. Most scientists furthermore agree the virus most likely originated in a bat and may have been transmitted to humans via an intermediate host, possibly a pangolin, which was sold at the market.


The world’s leading biodiversity experts have predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be followed by even more deadly and destructive disease outbreaks unless their root cause – the unbridled destruction of the natural world – is rapidly halted. Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases.


The outbreak has certainly confirmed what epidemiologists have argued for decades: that the international trade in wildlife and domestic livestock are key vectors for disease transmission. It is estimated that approximately 60% of all human pathogens are zoonotic, with some 75% emerging from wildlife. Over one billion cases of human zoonotic disease are estimated to occur annually.


One of the key risk areas for infectious disease transmission is the consumption of bushmeat.



Bushmeat – some facts and figures


The term “bushmeat” stands for meat that has been sourced from wild animals and is meant for human consumption. The majority of bushmeat comes from West and Central Africa, but it can also come from other African regions as well as Asian and Latin American countries. All these regions have large tracts of undisturbed forest and known problems with bushmeat poaching.


Bushmeat is a critical source of protein, fat and micronutrients and provides a livelihood for millions of people across the tropics and subtropics. One global survey even estimated that more than one billion people depend on bushmeat.


In the last few decades the amount of bushmeat-offtake has increased drastically however, driven by population growth, more efficient hunting through the use of more sophisticated weapons and the increased accessibility of formerly isolated/remote forest areas. The bushmeat trade has become a highly lucrative business fuelled by demand from urban areas and diaspora living overseas. What used to be a means to self-sufficiency and feeding a family has become a global market with a growing demand.


Up to 11 million tons of wild meat are harvested per year in rainforests only; much more if other biomes are included (savannas, temperate and boreal forests). Four to five million tonnes of bushmeat are consumed every year in the Congo Basin, equivalent to half of the cattle production in the European Union. This level of offtake in the Congo Basin is unsustainable and threatening livelihoods of rural communities: hunters have increasing difficulty finding wildlife and have to go ever further into the forest to feed the demand.


Bushmeat harvesting and trade has become a major biodiversity threat for hundreds of species, including non-human primates and emblematic large mammal species.


Furthermore, as bushmeat is moved along the supply chain, the risks of spillover increase with the opportunity for human contacts (hunters, traders, butchers, cooks, and consumers).


As noted above, bushmeat is not only traded domestically. It is also smuggled to overseas destinations, including to cities in Europe for consumption by African (and other) diaspora. Although the last decade has shown an increasing interest from European researchers and media in this issue, the illegal trade in bushmeat to the EU remains under-highlighted. This blog explores what we know and don’t know about bushmeat smuggling to Europe, based on open source research and interviews with experts.



Smuggling via passenger flights


In order to prevent the introduction of animal diseases such as foot- and mouth disease and classical swine fever into the European Union, the EU has banned travellers from bringing in meat and meat products and milk and milk products into the European Union (EU) from non-EU countries. In addition, illegal imports of protected wildlife species are banned under the EU Wildlife Trade regulations.


Nonetheless, available information suggests significant quantities of bushmeat are smuggled on passenger flights into major European airports from key source countries in West and Central Africa. In the last decade, several studies have estimated the scale of illegal bushmeat imports by examining seizures of bushmeat from personal luggage of passengers arriving in European airports in France, Switzerland and Belgium:


  • A 2010 study estimated that around five tonnes of African bushmeat per week is smuggled through Paris’ Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Over a period of 17 days, 134 passengers from 29 flights were searched and almost half were found to be carrying fish or meat from livestock or wild animals. 39% of the bushmeat seizures involved species protected under the international CITES framework, including crocodiles, pangolins, and primates. Top countries of origin were Central African Republic, Cameroon and Republic of Congo. The study suggested the nature of the imports showed there was a growing luxury market for the meat and that it was being brought in for trade and not simply personal consumption.
  • A Swiss study which analysed seizure data from 2008 to 2011 in Switzerland’s airports Zurich and Geneva estimated a total annual influx of 8.6 tonnes of bushmeat. A follow-up study in 2012 conducted in the same airports over a one-year period showed that one third of the specimens seized involved CITES-listed species including pangolins, primates, duikers and tortoises. Top countries of origin: Cameroon, China, Ivory Coast and Benin.
  • In 2018 a Belgian study estimated that an average of 3.7 tonnes of bushmeat is smuggled through Brussels airport from West and Central Africa each month. The study targeted flights from Sub-Saharan Africa over a two-year period and searched all passengers’ luggage for both bushmeat and domestic meat (livestock). The top three countries of origin were Congo (19 seizures), Cameroon (9 seizures) and Ivory Coast and Togo (both 5 seizures). Ten CITES-listed species were identified, including primates, pangolins and crocodiles.


No such studies were found for other European airports, however most major airports are likely at risk. For example, UK Customs seized over 14 tonnes of bushmeat at Heathrow airport in 2001.


African brushtailed porcupine seized by Swiss Customs. Photo: Tengwood Organization


How is all this bushmeat brought in? Passengers arriving in European airports on flights from Sub Sharan Africa often carry delicacies from their home country with them, such as fruits, vegetables, dried fish, livestock meat and sometimes bushmeat. The Belgian and French studies have observed that legal goods are usually carried in iceboxes, whereas bushmeat is often concealed in suitcases, hermetically sealed in plastic to prevent leakage of juices and odours. This suggests passengers are aware that bushmeat imports are illegal.



Indications of organised crime involvement


Whilst there is no doubt many passengers bring in bushmeat as a ‘taste of home’ for their own use, there are also indications of systematic, organised smuggling. A 2018 VICE report obtained information from two women from Cameroon and Ivory Coast, who claimed to smuggle bushmeat from their home countries on a systematic basis to supply sellers in Paris. The Cameroonian woman professed to smuggle the meat through Paris’ Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. She earns €300/month with this activity, making sure to carry only small quantities to avoid penalties if the meat is discovered. The woman from Ivory Coast informed the reporter she had been smuggling bushmeat for years as her sole source of income. After she was arrested once by French Customs, she began to use Brussels airport as an entry point, noting that Belgian Customs officers are less concerned with arrivals from Ivory Coast. From Brussels, Paris can be reached in a few hours by train without any checks as internal borders within the European Union are open.


In recent years evidence of organized smuggling on passenger flights also emerged in Spain, at Madrid airport. Spanish Customs made three different seizures there in 2017, 2019 and February 2020 of suitcases filled with bushmeat. All three seizures included pangolins, a highly protected species threatened with extinction caused by relentless trafficking. On all three occasions the suitcases were carried by women arriving from Equatorial Guinea via Casablanca, Morocco. The large quantities and similarities in smuggling methods and routes are indicative of organised crime involvement.


Pangolins seized at Madrid airport by Guardia Civil


It is noteworthy all these carriers are women. It is possible women dominate the trafficking as the shopkeepers are often female. Another possibility is that traffickers prefer to use women to reduce the risk of detection, as women may be less likely than men to be selected for inspection by Customs.



Fraudulent certificates


Another interesting detail comes from the 2010 French study, which observed that about half the travellers carrying foodstuff presented sanitary certificates apparently issued by the veterinary authorities from their country of origin. These papers listed the foodstuff carried, such as ‘viande de chasse’ (bushmeat) or ‘divers’ (miscellaneous), and certified that they were fit for human consumption. The study noted these certificates did not follow European regulations for the certification of animal products and therefore held no legal value. It could even be questioned whether the certificates are issued fraudulently to facilitate smuggling. Bushmeat trade and consumption is illegal in many African source countries, therefore presumably such certificates don’t have any legal value there either.



Smuggling via cargo


The studies cited above provide important clues about countries of origin and species involved. They only looked at smuggling on passenger flights, however, and to date no such research has been done on cargo shipments, neither by air nor sea.


Evidence that bushmeat is shipped to Europe by cargo emerged in 2008, when UK Customs at the Port of Tilbury (London’s largest port) discovered a shipment of hundreds of smoked cane rats (340 kg) arriving from Ghana in a container hidden behind boxes of synthetic hair. The headless carcasses were wrapped in newspaper and believed to be destined for the London markets.


According to Adams Cassinga of Conserv Congo, a conservation NGO based in DRC, there is systematic trafficking of large quantities of bushmeat in cargo from Kinshasa, DRC, to Europe and the US: “Based on our intelligence we estimate that every week, about 5 to 10 tonnes of bushmeat are entering Europe from Kinshasa. Locally a piece of about half a kilo of bushmeat can trade for 20 dollars. That piece can easily scoop 100 dollars, once it has reached its destination.” Cassinga notes that Paris and Brussels are key hubs in Europe for bushmeat from DRC. He estimates that half the cargo from DRC to Brussels and Paris contains smoked bushmeat, hidden among other commodities. Bushmeat traffickers remove recognisable parts such as heads and claws to conceal the species. Cassinga points out that Congolese bushmeat traffickers consider themselves businessmen rather than criminals and pride themselves on keeping African culture alive. He ascertains that the African diaspora around the world consumes more bushmeat than locals in the DRC do.



Cross-border (intra-community) smuggling


Once in the EU, the bushmeat is easily smuggled across internal borders to other countries in the EU. As there are no Customs controls within the EU, such cross-border smuggling is rarely detected, unless through coincidence. Nonetheless coincidence struck twice in The Netherlands:


In 2013, Dutch military police by sheer coincidence discovered a bag with dead monkey parts in the back of a car during a traffic inspection in the south of the Netherlands near the border with Belgium. The bag caught their attention as two monkey hands were protruding from it. The driver, a Congolese man residing in Belgium, was probably carrying the monkey meat to a destination in The Netherlands or even nearby Germany. It is likely the meat was imported into Belgium or France.


Just one month after this incident Dutch police officers discovered a monkey carcass (its head missing) in the fridge of a Congolese man living in the Dutch town of Dordrecht. This find too was pure coincidence – the man proudly showed it to the officers who were in his apartment in response to a nuisance complaint. He appeared to be unaware it was illegal and was greatly upset when the police seized the monkey carcass. He informed them his flatmate had bought it for €100 at the African market Marché Dejean at the Chateau Rouge metro station in Paris (aka the Chateau Rouge market).


In the European summer of 2020, a Dutch TV documentary identified bushmeat for sale in an African grocery shop in Rotterdam, which the seller claimed came from Congo and was smuggled in via Brussels (presumably airport Zaventem).


These cases, as well as the report mentioned above about the woman from Ivory Coast smuggling African bushmeat through the Zaventem airport overland to Paris suggest bushmeat is frequently carried across European borders.



Sales in Europe


So, where does all the bushmeat go? Media reports indicate bushmeat is sold to Africans living in major European cities through exotic foods shops, markets and restaurants.


In Belgium, bushmeat has been found for sale in the African neighbourhood Matonge in Brussels. In 2018, Belgian journalists managed to buy monkey and duiker meat (all CITES II listed) in grocery shops in Matonge (average price of 48 EUR/kg). They furthermore identified an African restaurant in the same neighbourhood where bushmeat was served on a regular basis.


In France, the African markets of Chateau Rouge and Chateau d’Eau in Paris are also known outlets for bushmeat. The 2018 VICE report mentioned earlier, identified meat of various protected species for sale in these markets, brought in daily fresh from Africa. The report notes that sales continue to take place under the counter or from private residences, despite numerous raids by French Customs where meat was confiscated. The reporter was able to purchase meat of various species, including ungulates, monkeys and crocodiles. The report noted that most of the vendors and smugglers in Paris are from Cameroon. Even though bushmeat of protected species is illegal to hunt and trade in Cameroon, reportedly bushmeat sales in that country are prolific.


In Great Britain, London is a hub for illegal bushmeat sales. Over the years, there have been multiple radio, TV and newspaper reports that found bushmeat for sale in West African shops in Ridley Road Market. The market is situated in the London Borough of Hackney, which has a vibrant African community. In spite of law enforcement efforts and recurring media reports, the illicit trade has continued. For example, in 2001, a couple with a shop in the market was prosecuted for trafficking bushmeat, including chimpanzee, tantalus monkey, pangolin and python. In 2012, under cover BBC reporters found large quantities of bushmeat, including dead cane rats for sale in the market. In 2014, BBC reporters once again encountered bushmeat in the market. Whilst London Heathrow is a well-known entry point for bushmeat destined for English markets, a butcher selling bushmeat in the Ridley Road Market confided in them that the meat was coming from France via Dover.


As yet, little is known about the scale and nature of the bushmeat trade and consumption in The Netherlands. In 2019, officers of Dutch Customs and the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority stated that bushmeat is rarely found in inspections at Schiphol Airport and that they suspect bushmeat consumed in The Netherlands is mainly smuggled in via Belgium or France. This appears to be confirmed by the incidents in 2013 and the Dutch documentary mentioned above.


Bushmeat also arrives directly through Schiphol airport, however. In fact, research by Sandrella Morrison-Lanjouw, a bushmeat trade researcher at University Medical Center Utrecht interviewed by EcoJust, has established that bushmeat is frequently smuggled in directly through Schiphol airport via hand luggage, air cargo and possibly local ports. She was also told by a CITES law enforcement officer at the airport that wildlife parts such as elephant trunk pieces (considered bushmeat) have been intercepted in air mail. In 2019, Morrison-Lanjouw conducted a study of African wild meat consumption in The Netherlands, based on questionnaires and group discussions with people of West African origin residing in Amsterdam. The study (pending publication) found that people smuggle bushmeat from West Africa for their own use or for friends and family. There is also a small number of places in Amsterdam where bushmeat can be bought. Furthermore, people with the right connections can place orders directly with importers and go to Schiphol airport to pick up the meat when it comes, in which suggests a more organised trade structure. Morrison-Lanjouw informed EcoJust that a law enforcement officer she interviewed at the Dutch National Police informed her that there was a seizure of 37 dried bats just a few years ago at a local market in the Bijlmer neighbourhood of Amsterdam. A worrying find, Morrison-Lanjouw points out to EcoJust, as bats are known reservoirs for infectious diseases. “People have been eating wild meat – albeit different species – from the beginning of time, so there is no room for judgment about this in my research. However, African bushmeat is unregulated and rarely undergoes any level of veterinary or food safety quality checks”.



European airports are transit points for illegal bushmeat


It is a known fact that European airports are important transit points for illegal wildlife shipments. This is also true for bushmeat. For example, in May 2019, UK Customs confiscated a ton of bush meat from West Africa on a flight heading to the US.


It is however likely that bushmeat in transit largely escapes the attention of European Customs officers. US Customs for example are frequently seizing bushmeat arriving via Europe, including The Netherlands. Between 2005 and 2006 US Customs seized 50 shipments of bushmeat (including cane rats, bats, porcupines and monkeys), almost half of which (22 shipments) had transited in The Netherlands.



Introduction of infectious diseases


As noted in the introduction, the consumption of bushmeat carries health risks, as slaughtered meat has been linked to a wide range of diseases, including HIV, Marberg, and E.coli.


The health risks posed by the bushmeat trade are undoubtedly most acute in African bushmeat markets, where meat is often sold fresh and uncured. Bushmeat smuggled into Europe is usually smoked, which reduces the risk of pathogens surviving in the meat. Even so there have been several introductions of infectious diseases suspected to originate in bushmeat smuggling.


In 2001, Great Britain suffered an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which was suspected to have originated from the illegal import of bushmeat. The impact was huge : millions of animals had to be culled and financial losses amounted to billions of pounds.


In September 2016, a man died from Crimean–Congo haemorrhagic fever in Spain, reportedly the first case in Western Europe in someone who hadn’t travelled to areas affected by the disease.


The Belgian journalists mentioned above who reported on the sales of bushmeat in grocery shops and restaurants in Brussels in 2018 had the meat analysed for diseases. In three samples, traces of monkeypox virus were found, a pox virus strain which has been exterminated in Europe.


In 2019, DNA analysis by the Belgian Liège University which examined 61 samples of illegal bushmeat and domestic meat imports from Sub Saharan Africa included in the Belgian study mentioned above demonstrated the presence of pathogens, including African swine fever virus (1 sample) and several bacteria that can cause gastro-enteritic problems.


Morrison-Lanjouw, who participated in this Belgian study, in her interview with EcoJust points out that African wild meat leaving the continent often does not undergo any veterinary checks on its way out, nor is it detected in destination markets. “The pathogen risks to public health are unknown making this meat a possible Trojan horse for emerging infectious diseases such as Monkeypox, Ebola and retroviruses such as Simian foamy virus (SFV).”



Law enforcement challenges


Given the suspected scale of the trafficking, the potential risks and the damage inflicted on wildlife populations in Africa one might ask why European law enforcement agencies are not doing more to crack down on illegal bushmeat imports and sales in Europe? With all due respect for existing efforts in several countries to intercept bushmeat at airports and in sales outlets, the issue does not appear to be a priority for European governments. In some countries, when arriving passengers are caught with (suspected) bushmeat, the meat is confiscated, and the carriers sent off with a fine. In other countries, people caught with bushmeat only face confiscation of the meat, and fines are never issued. Prosecutions of bushmeat traffickers are rare: the research for this blog identified only two cases, in Great Britain. This mild response to bushmeat trafficking means the deterrent effect of criminal law enforcement efforts is small: people will continue to do it as long as the risks of detection and punishment remain low.


On the other hand, European law enforcement agencies face several challenges in tackling bushmeat trafficking to and in Europe. To name a few:


Firstly, judging from the quantities of bushmeat smuggled through European airports, intercepting bushmeat from the luggage of out-going passengers does not appear to be a priority in most African source countries. This is illustrated by the Belgian documentary mentioned above, which showed how a journalist purchased a piece of chimpanzee meat at a market in Kinshasa and carried it with him to Brussels. Interestingly, Customs officers at Kinshasa airport did find the meat in his luggage but let him pass through; in Brussels no one checked his luggage.


A second challenge lies in the difficulty of identifying bushmeat based on appearance. Given that recognisable parts such as the animal’s extremities (hands, legs, head) are often removed; the meat is cut in pieces; and often dressed, smoked or otherwise processed, it requires a trained eye to distinguish bushmeat from livestock meat. This issue was also observed in the Swiss study, which noted that in approximately 80% of cases Customs officers at Swiss international airports are unable to distinguish livestock meat from bushmeat. This is why actual bushmeat is often classified as “meat from third countries” or “meat from undefined animal species” and does not appear in the statistics of illegal bushmeat imports. Forensic analysis could be a powerful tool to assist in identification, but it is expensive and rarely used to identify suspected bushmeat.


A third challenge which was already mentioned, is that the cross-border movement of bushmeat within the EU is difficult to tackle due to the lack of border controls within the EU Customs Union. Once smuggled into the EU, bushmeat is easily smuggled across land borders to other EU countries. Furthermore, if controls are strengthened in one airport, there is a risk trafficking routes will be displaced, with traffickers choosing another airport with weaker controls.


Lastly, available information suggests that in places where law enforcement agencies have made an effort to crack down on the domestic sales of bushmeat, some of the trade has gone underground and transactions are conducted off the premises of shops or markets. This means that routine inspections of premises are less effective in detecting and discouraging sales. Rather, long-term investment in intelligence collection and in-depth investigations using covert investigative techniques would be required to identify individuals and networks engaged in bushmeat trafficking. This is costly and given that bushmeat trafficking is generally not considered a serious crime, the necessary resources are not allocated to investigating it.



A holistic approach is needed


It is hoped the growing awareness of infectious disease risks associated with bushmeat consumption will motivate European governments to step up efforts to reduce the influx of bushmeat. Countries affected should invest effort in improving their understanding of the trade and filling the information gaps (such as the smuggling in cargo shipments) in order to better target law enforcement efforts. They should collaborate and share information with other European countries (e.g. through EUROPOL) and work with source countries (e.g. through the World Customs Organisation) to enhance interdiction of bushmeat. Airline companies should also be engaged, e.g. through the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce, to raise awareness about the risks of bushmeat smuggling and inform passengers of the illegality of bushmeat smuggling.


However, even if governments did all of the above, it would probably not suffice to fix the issue, given how strongly bushmeat consumption is rooted in the cultural heritage of many Africans. Research has found that bushmeat is perceived as natural, tasty and healthy, and a rare luxury product that provides social status. Such social norms around bushmeat consumption don’t simply change by criminalising the behaviour.


Therefore, in looking to reduce bushmeat trafficking and consumption, governments should develop a holistic approach which takes onboard the sociocultural drivers of demand for bushmeat. This approach should involve all relevant stakeholders and include interventions aiming to engage consumers and change their behaviour, as a complement to enhancing law enforcement efforts.

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