California Studies in Food and Culture #6: Eating Apes
by Dale Peterson
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
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
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.
Manzolillo is a primatologist who has lived in Kenya since 1976.