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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, September 14th, 2003


California Studies in Food and Culture #6: Eating Apes


If you can't eat them

A review by Deborah L. Manzolillo

The regular capture, cooking and consumption of bushmeat is an activity that has set our species apart from others. Humans prey on a greater variety of species than any other animal on the planet. Our diet comprises most species of mammals, including some very close taxonomic relatives and, occasionally, our conspecifics.

Bushmeat provided the major source of animal protein for humans, until we began to domesticate animals approximately 10,000 years ago. In areas where the environment permitted, the burden of supplying animal protein shifted to livestock species. But in places where it was inefficient to rear domestic animals, people continued to rely on wild animals for food.

An overwhelming advantage of domestic animals is that user rights, numbers and product quality are relatively easy to control. Wild species, however, are a different matter. Global forces, including an unprecedented increase in the number of human predators, are now threatening the existence of many species consumed as bushmeat: among the most seriously affected are non-human primates, apes in particular. The result is a conservation crisis that is becoming increasingly difficult to address, not the least because of the competing interests involved and the shifting basis of discussion, from economics and development to environment and ethics. And the clash between culture, economics, development and morality becomes even more of a "hot zone" when the issue of great apes is introduced.

Dale Peterson has bravely waded into this quagmire in Eating Apes, the most recent in a series of "Studies in Food and Culture" published by the University of California Press. Peterson concentrates on the use of apes for bushmeat, stating why on the one hand, apes are special and should not be eaten, but, conversely, why we have a politically correct obligation to tolerate this activity.

One of the most obvious objections to humans eating apes is their extremely close taxonomic relationship to us. But relativity is at work here, and humans do like to view "proximity" from an aspect that suits them best. I spent part of my childhood among people who, within living memory, had practised cannibalism on a more than occasional basis. But they set limits: they would not eat people they called "one-talk" (those who spoke the same language as themselves). Cannibalism only happened to people whose language was unintelligible. Cultural sensitivity, on the other hand, requires us to look away when people are busy boiling up gorilla heads and hands, because if we try to stop this we will be changing their culture and might cause offence. All cultures have value, and so should be allowed to exist.

A consensus on the problem is unlikely to emerge soon from the arguments surrounding culture or ethics. But Peterson doesn't stop at the obvious points of the debate; he sets his sights on a more pernicious aspect. This is where the really important material is to be found, because the lessons apply to a range of emerging environmental issues. Peterson takes aim at the wider set of protagonists in the bushmeat question: multinational companies and the environmental problems they create, conservation NGOs, "partnerships and collaboration" between the former and the latter, and the use and abuse of the concept of "sustainable development".

The ammunition is provided by Karl Ammann, a photographer. Ammann began taking the odd bushmeat picture in his travels in West and Central Africa. He became increasingly alarmed at how easy it was to find photo opportunities; and as his gruesome gallery piled up, he began to take an interest in the forces driving the growing quantity of meat coming out of the forest. After compiling photographic documentation, he was disappointed at the unwillingness of some conservation organizations to publicize the problem, and his attempts to draw attention to bushmeat issues have annoyed quite a few researchers and their NGOs, not to mention some of the logging companies. A second witness is a former gorilla hunter from Cameroon, named Joseph Melloh.

Melloh represents the small business end of the bushmeat saga, one step up the ladder from subsistence hunting. He has made a living both by trading in bushmeat and hunting bushmeat, selling contraband fuel in between, although hunting was most lucrative. All of these activities were illegal, but the authorities usually looked the other way. Melloh subsequently became a kind of eco-detective, documenting illegal bushmeat hunting and trading. For which, however, he ended up in jail.

There are some important lessons here that we should commit to memory, and then apply when considering the role of international investors in our own part of the world. One is that "development" in poorer countries often targets a certain sector of the population, while marginalizing and increasing the vulnerability of other sectors or groups. In many cases, the marginalized and impoverished communities live where the resources (minerals, timber or wildlife) to be exploited are found. These groups actually subsidize the large investors, by having to give up their resources in total. So while some jobs are created, other people lose their livelihoods. Job creation is a major "benefit" of investment, but the cost of unemployment at the same time is rarely considered. Some companies are truly shameless in shifting the costs of their operations onto everyone else, including the most vulnerable communities.

We are told of logging companies which promote the hunting of bushmeat, calculating it into the wage factor, so that they pay their workers less. This means that the owners of wildlife (either local communities, or the host government) pay a share of workers' salaries, boosting company profits.

The "partnerships" between these large companies and conservation NGOs require closer scrutiny. Apart from getting a pat on the back for handing back concessions that they never paid for in the first place, the logging companies are actually getting others (conservation agencies and donors) to foot the bill for cleaning up after them. So, explains Peterson, traditional hunters and local communities are providing the resources (at great cost to themselves) and in some cases the US taxpayer is underwriting the price of tropical hardwoods in Europe. Obviously, the principle that the "polluter pays" is being flagrantly ignored here.

Imprecise, easily misunderstood and prone to abuse, the concept of sustainability has become almost meaningless, while it confers an aura of respectability on any sort of activity.

In his afterword, Karl Ammann warns about "feel-good conservation". But we should all be concerned about "feel-good sustainability". We should be less gullible about claims of "sustainably produced/sustainably harvested" produce, and demand validation of such claims.

Peterson ends with a series of recommendations for actions by individuals, as well as concerned conservation organizations, which we would all do well to heed. Although the book concentrates on apes, it must be emphasized that over-exploitation affects other species as well (some of them quite desperately), and that we, as consumers, are responsible for this. It is imperative that we take responsibility for forest products that we purchase, and that we do without carvings, furniture, panelling or fence-posts if we are uncertain of their origin. If we ignore this warning, we will, instead, soon have to do without some of the most fascinating and wonderful species on earth.

Deborah L. Manzolillo is a primatologist who has lived in Kenya since 1976.

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