Monkey meat and its hazards

Hopkins researchers in Cameroon try to stop emerging viruses in their tracks

July 16, 2006|By SCOTT CALVERT | SCOTT CALVERT,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

AKAM, Cameroon -- The glow from the cooking fire danced on the walls of the smoky hut, and Luci Mbala knelt on the dirt floor to prepare dinner with the practiced swing of a machete. She was making a favorite meal for her family of 11, deep in the West African forest.

Her husband, Junior, had come home holding a monkey with white-milk-mustache lips, olive-brown fur and, now, a red patch from Junior's shotgun blast. She'll fry up the meat, add some salt, pepper, beef stock and bush mangos, then boil it into a stew.

But first she paused for science.

With her husband holding a piece of filter paper, she dripped onto it four drops of the monkey's blood. It will be sent to Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore as part of a search for viruses that lurk in monkeys or apes and could, conceivably, jump to humans.

Medical research and traditional hunting are converging in west-central Africa, not far from where chimpanzees decades ago planted the seeds of the global AIDS pandemic. The researchers' goal is clear but not guaranteed of success: to spot emerging diseases and keep them from spreading around the world.

Already a Hopkins team has shown that viruses in Cameroon have leaped to humans more often than previously thought. Among people who are in regular contact with primate blood, the researchers found last year, one in six had exposure to a simian strain of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The implications for human health are still being explored, but medical researchers see cause for concern as more guns and new logging roads put people and other primates into closer contact. The Hopkins team warns of the possibility of new types of "emerging HIV infections."

Hunters have been enlisted to help by providing blood spots and details on what they kill. The plan is to create hunter monitoring networks - the kind that experts say might have mobilized a quicker response to HIV and saved some of the 25 million lives claimed to date by AIDS. The researchers are also trying to overcome the villagers' skepticism of authorities and worries that hunting will be curtailed.

There is also something in it for the villagers. The researchers, mindful that bushmeat hunting is a way of life and largely legal, are teaching people how to handle monkey blood safely. There are important new lessons for the men who hunt in the forest, and for the women who, like Luci Mbala, wield sharp machetes in dimly lit kitchens.

A shout in the forest

Goats, sheep and chickens wander in Akam, but the 125 villagers rarely eat them, and do little to nurture the herds and flocks. One reason is that it takes land and feed to support them. Another is that many villagers say they prefer the taste of wild creatures and have always found their fill in the dense forest known simply as the bush.

Monkeys, porcupines, antelope-like duikers - they are the primary sources of food in southern Cameroon. Monkeys, far from being seen as a relative of humans, are just meat. Boys learn at a young age how to navigate the bush, becoming master trappers as teenagers before moving on to hunting with guns.

After a half-day of classes at the village school, and after sweeping up around the communal well, Andre Ngbwa, 17, ventured into the bush to check his traps, joined by two friends.

Andre led the way, moving quickly down a narrow, overgrown path into the forest, the air still and silent except for birdsong. He carried a wicker basket for holding his catch, and a 6-inch knife and a machete, occasionally hacking at a bamboo stalk or a vine.

The deeper the boys went, the denser the forest. Giant fronds of palm trees, like louver blinds, slatted the light, amid every possible shade of green. The forest floor is spongy from decay, except when it is quicksand-like mud or a cluster of tree roots. Despite past logging, many mature trees remain, their trunks vanishing into the leafy canopy like skyscrapers swallowed up by fog.

Andre moved briskly in flimsy-looking sandals, barely breaking a sweat in his red Coca-Cola shirt and blue sweat pants. After two hours, the boys reached their first trap.

The traps are simple but effective, as attested by the village's three-pawed dog. One end of a wire is attached to a branch and pulled taut, like a fishing rod. On the wire's other end is a ring gently fastened to a stick anchored in the ground, ready to grab the foot of a passing animal. While the researchers' interest is focused on primates, the boys and their elders trap whatever can walk or climb.

The first trap was empty. They checked a second. A third, fourth and fifth trap - all empty. Within minutes, 10 of the 50 traps were checked.

Then, a shout filtered through the forest. One of the boys found a live pangolin - an anteater - dangling dazed from one of the snares.

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