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Study: Wild meat trade from Africa into Belgium a health and conservation risk

A deer catptured for bushmeat in the DRC.

A deer catptured for bushmeat in the DRC. Image by jbdodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

  • Up to 4 metric tons of wild meat is illegally entering Europe through Brussels’ international airport alone every month, a new study says.
  • The source for much of this meat is West and Central Africa, with some of the seized meat found to be from threatened or protected species such as tree pangolins and dwarf crocodiles.
  • The study comes more than a decade after the same group of researchers found an estimated 5 metric tons of bushmeat entering via Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris weekly, suggesting enforcement since then hasn’t been effective.
  • Experts are calling for better detection of wild meat trafficking and stricter enforcement of penalties against the trade in protected species, as well as more frequent checks of the legal trade to uncover illegal shipments.

Researchers studying “stop-and-search” seizures from Brussels’ international airport estimate that around 4 metric tons of bushmeat are trafficked into Europe each month through this gateway from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo and Cameroon. They say that this illegal trade, which includes threatened species, poses a threat to public health and biodiversity.

Between January 2017 and October 2018, 1 million travelers entered Brussels-Zaventem Airport from the target countries in West and Central Africa; around 1% were searched by the airport’s border control staff. Anne-Lise Chaber, first author of a study commissioned by Belgium’s public health service, FPS Health, and an epidemiologist with the University of Adelaide, Australia, report that 687 kilograms (1,515 pounds) were seized during the study period. Based on this, they estimate that around 80 metric tons of bushmeat entered in total, amounting to nearly 4 metric tons per month.

Chaber and her colleagues took confiscated meat away for analysis to determine the species. Among the seized meat — made up largely of livestock, bushmeat from rodents and mammals, and some fish — the researchers found threatened species, including endangered tree pangolins (Phataginus tricuspis), vulnerable African dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) and eight other species subject to protection under CITES, the international wildlife trade convention.

Importing CITES-listed species into Belgium can incur heavy fines and a prison sentence of up to five years. But enforcement of these laws is incredibly limited, the authors note.

In a similar study of seizures at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport over a two-week period in 2008, Chaber and her colleagues extrapolated that 5 metric tons of bushmeat were entering the French capital each week. “It is worrying to see that 10 years later, the international illegal movement of meat is still booming,” she said.

“Overhunting has the potential to cause local or global extinctions, while also affecting non-target species, species interaction and ecosystem structure and function,” Chaber said.

Bushmeat arranged on tables.
Researchers estimate that around four tons of bushmeat enters Brussels each month, including endangered species such as pangolins. Images courtesy of Anne-Lise Chaber.

A threat to endangered species and health

“From a public health perspective, the movement of animal products and close interactions between humans and wildlife also enables the spread of zoonoses and emergence of novel infectious diseases,” Chaber said. “The international movement of illegal meat products which bypass standard regulatory procedures therefore threatens animal and human health through the introduction of pathogens.”

“I think the main message is how surprisingly few checks are being made when people enter Belgium,” Vincent Nijman, head of the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group at Oxford Brookes University, U.K., who was not involved in the study, said in an interview.

“I think that the importation of any, often unprocessed or little processed, meat is of concern,” he added. “The parasites don’t know if they are legal meat or illegal meat.”

Chaber and her team say greater efforts are needed to control these imports, including better detection of wild meat trafficking and stricter enforcement of penalties against CITES infringements. They suggest the use of an import declaration card, similar to the system used in Australia, to simplify the process. “Giving false information on this card could incur a heavy fine, directly enforceable by border control authorities,” Chaber said. “It will need to be enforced in all European countries.”

“While implementing these suggestions may take some time, we believe that such a simplified system will assist in capturing more illegal trade activity and ultimately reduce the flow of illegal meat and wildlife products into the EU,” the study authors write.

Daan van Uhm, a researcher on environmental crime with Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study, said he agrees that such a system could increase awareness of existing import rules for both travelers and airlines. Support should also be given to airport security staff to identify bushmeat, and illegal imports of meat should incur heavier fines, “particularly if it is connected to wild species because of the risk of zoonotic diseases,” he added.

Nijman, however, said authorities’ main focus be on “proper checks of wildlife and wild meat that’s being imported legally, and then you’ll pick up things illegally as well.”

“If you look at how much is being checked during this whole period, it’s actually still relatively small,” he said.

Perceptions of illegal meat and the wildlife trade as a low priority in comparison to high-value contraband such as drugs must also change, according to Chaber, as it still poses a risk to public health and agriculture. “It is important to think in terms of risks and not in terms of items’ value,” she said. “Only considering the risk of pathogens entering a country is misleading. Hunting and butchering wild animals in source countries poses a high risk of disease transmission and it should be taken into account.”

Social media driving international trade in wild meat

— by Orji Sunday

(Left) A dead porcupine and a live pangolin. (Right) An alligator.
Wild meat is widely consumed by local communities in West and Central Africa, including protected species like tree and long-tailed pangolins (Phataginus tricuspis, seen on the left alongside a porcupine carcass) and crocodiles (right). Images by (left) Joel Abroad and (right) Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In a separate study, also published in One Health Journal, Georgia Moloney and other researchers point to seizures of African wild meat in Europe and the United States as evidence of the globalization of the trade, driving unsustainable hunting of often threatened species. They suggest that social media facilitates the wider promotion, sale and distribution of wild meat, and that new models of monitoring and enforcement are needed.

The researchers searched Facebook for the term “bushmeat” (“viande de brousse” in French) and analyzed 563 posts made on six publicly accessible pages between 2018 and 2022. They found advertisements for the meat of 25 species, including protected species like crocodiles, royal antelope (Neotragus pygmaeus) and tree and long-tailed pangolins (Phataginus tricuspis and P. tetradactyla).

Sixteen percent of the posts featured species of concern on the IUCN’s Red List; 16% were species whose trade is restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); and a quarter of species were animals protected by local laws in Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, where the Facebook pages were set up from.

They noted that five of the six pages they studied directed potential customers to the popular private messaging platform WhatsApp to discuss details of a purchase, allowing buyers and sellers to conceal their identities and incriminating evidence from law enforcement.

“This definitely presents a new and modern challenge,” Moloney, the lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate at the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Adelaide in Australia, told Mongabay over the phone.

She and her colleagues found no sign of wild meat advertised for sale on the deep web, which they say indicates sellers are not concerned with hiding their advertisements from either law enforcement or Facebook itself. The platform’s commerce and community standards policy forbids listings that promote trade or sale of endangered or threatened animals or animal products.

“Despite the policies and laws in place locally, nationally, and also on social media platforms, these products are still openly advertised,” Moloney said.

The study did not attempt to draw any conclusions over how social media contributes to increasing the volume of wild animals killed for their meat.



Survival and economics complicate the DRC’s bushmeat and wild animal trade


Chaber, A., Moloney, G. K., Renault, V., Morrison-Lanjouw, S., Garigliany, M., Flandroy, L., … Gaubert, P. (2023). Examining the international bushmeat traffic in Belgium: A threat to conservation and public health. One Health, 17, 100605. doi:10.1016/j.onehlt.2023.100605

Chaber, A., Allebone-Webb, S., Lignereux, Y., Cunningham, A. A., & Marcus Rowcliffe, J. (2010). The scale of illegal meat importation from Africa to Europe via Paris. Conservation Letters, 3(5), 317-321. doi:10.1111/j.1755-263x.2010.00121.x

Moloney, G. K., Gossé, K. J., Gonedelé-Bi, S., Gaubert, P., & Chaber, A. (2023). Is social media the new wet market? Social media platforms facilitate the online sale of bushmeat in West Africa. One Health, 16, 100503. doi:10.1016/j.onehlt.2023.100503

Moloney, G. K., Gossé, K. J., Bi, S. G., Gaubert, P., & Chaber, A. (2022). Is social media the new wet market? Social media platforms facilitate the online sale of Bushmeat in West Africa. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.4290761

Banner image: A captured duiker (probably Philantomba monticola congica) in the DRC. Image by jbdodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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