Bushmeat Trafficking in Switzerland

Categories: Journal no. 48, Bushmeat, Gorilla Journal

Head of a monkey confiscated at a Swiss airport (© Tengwood Organization/FVO)

Illegal meats for human consumption are smuggled daily into airports worldwide and some of this meat originates from wild species, including primates. The international movement of wild meat out of Africa and into countries in Europe, the USA, Asia and other economically growing regions is part of a black market trade that has not been well-documented. A study by Chaber et al. (2010) was one of the first systematic attempts to quantify species and amounts arriving at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France and estimated that up to 270 tonnes of bushmeat arrives annually in this one European airport. Our study was modeled after the Chaber study, with a goal of identifying those species at risk from the bushmeat trade in Switzerland.

What began as an independent effort by Tengwood Organization, a non-profit conservation initiative registered in Switzerland, became a collaborative effort with the University of Zürich’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, and representatives from the Swiss Federal Agencies responsible for monitoring the trafficking of wild species. Federal Veterinary Authorities (FSVO), Swiss Customs, and CITES facilitated the collection of tissue samples from suspected bushmeat confiscations arriving in two international airports in Switzerland: Flughafen Zürich and Genève Aéroport. Data were collected over an approximate one-year period (from September 2011 to January 2013). We also participated in controlled exercises at both airports to monitor illegal wildlife trafficking, and samples from all meats were collected on these days to characterize smuggled meats and provide a rough estimate of the scale of the problem in Swiss Airports. This article presents a brief overview of some of the findings in our study.

At the time of confiscation, passengers provide information to Customs officers about the origin of seized meats. While wild meats from any region were considered "bushmeat", Africa was the origin of 98.5% of the wild meat arriving in Swiss airports - only 1.5% of the total kilograms arrived from regions outside of Africa (Asia and the Middle East).

While a number of African countries were represented, the majority of bushmeat confiscated in Switzerland originated in West or Central African countries (91%), and Cameroon was by far the most frequent country of origin. The Chaber et al. (2010) study also found that the majority of the estimated 5 tonnes of bushmeat arriving weekly in Paris comes from Cameroon, suggesting that this country may be a hub for bushmeat exports to Europe. Our study also revealed an additional "cryptic" element to bushmeat smuggling into Europe; while in the Chaber study data were collected only from direct flights from West or Central African countries, Switzerland has very few direct flights from Africa. We looked at the departure point for all flights that carried bushmeat and found that most arrived with transit passengers on flights from within Europe, with Brussels, Belgium and Paris, France being the most frequent departure points.

Customs officers in ports of entry worldwide are on the frontlines of detecting and tracking the smuggling of wild meats. However, bushmeat is not always easy to recognize. Even when the origin of a meat is suspected to be non-domestic/wild, identification to the species level is difficult. For example, while some bushmeat arrived in Swiss airports as whole or partial carcasses, the majority arrived as pieced meat, making species recognition especially difficult. Also complicating identification is that most arrived smoked, which removes hair and further obscures identifying features. Close to half the sampled bushmeat arrived as smoked meat pieces.

Because of these issues, one of the main goals of our study was to identify species at risk from the bushmeat trade through the use of mitochondrial DNA, currently the most accurate standardized method of species identification in wildlife forensics (Hsieh et al. 2001). The use of DNA for species identification of seized meats is not routine in any country and illegal meats coming in at ports of entry are routinely destroyed to reduce the risk of disease introduction. In the process, important information about species threatened by the trade is being lost. In addition to species identification, we also documented some of the more generic characteristics of bushmeat that can help to predict if meat originates from a wild species and a booklet describing these features was created as a joint project of Tengwood Organization and the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Offices to aid Border agencies in bushmeat identification (Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office, Tengwood Organization, in press; available in English, German and French).

To identify species at risk from the bushmeat trade into Switzerland, tissue samples were collected from confiscated meats and analyzed at the University of Zürich, Institute of Forensic Medicine. Details of the methodology are available in Morf et al. (2013). We used primates as an indicator species in this study as all species of primates are listed in the CITES Appendices and we therefore propose that consistently finding them in developed world airports implies that the international component of the bushmeat trade could be having a substantial impact on vulnerable species. Due to the primate tendency to live in social groups, a large number of individuals may be killed at one time by hunters, making them particularly lucrative (Linder & Oates 2011). Great apes are especially vulnerable to the bushmeat trade because of their large body size and a suite of life-history characteristics that result in low reproductive rates (Kappeler & Pereira 2003). Primate bushmeat is also a known concern in regard to emerging diseases (Smith et al. 2011) and imports of meat into developed world countries can have serious implications for human public health by increasing the risk of disease introduction.

Surprisingly, approximately one-third of the bushmeat found during the study was identified in our DNA analysis as coming from CITES-listed species. Primates were indeed found as bushmeat in Swiss airports; while no great apes were recorded, at least 3 species of guenons (Cercopithecus spp.) were confiscated during the study. These were identified only to the genus level, as Cercopithecus species are underrepresented in the online gene databanks. Most are not well-studied in the wild and information to assess the level of threat to many species is inadequate, but a number of guenons are considered vulnerable or endangered by IUCN (2013). Despite protective measures, primates were the fourth most frequently found animal group in our study and represented 6% of the total bushmeat kilograms collected in Switzerland. All arrived on flights originating in <link 233 _blank internal-link Cameroon>Cameroon</link>, where market studies show from 1 to 16.9% of market catch to be primates (Nasi et al. 2011; Fa et al. 2006). To find primates in seizures of wild meats in Switzerland, in proportions similar to those in some local Cameroonian markets, is troubling.

Besides primates, other CITES-listed species found during the study include African pangolins, which were the most frequently found CITES-listed species in our study - at least 14 individuals and approximately 28 kg of pangolin were recorded in a one-year period. Pangolins are utilized for both their meat and body parts (scales, organs, etc.), used in traditional medicines in both Africa and Asia. The situation for pangolins is particularly dire, with international trade mirroring that for rhinos. There is some evidence that African pangolins are beginning to be smuggled to Asia, where pangolins are diminishing due to over-exploitation (Challender & Hywood 2012).

Duikers were also frequently found as bushmeat in Swiss airports, represented by all 3 genera (Cephalophus, Philantomba, and Sylvicapra) and 7 different species confiscated during the one-year period of this study, including two CITES-listed species (Philantomba monticola and Cephalophus dorsalis). Other CITES-listed species included tortoises (Kinixys erosa), and otters (Aonyx capensis). A number of non-CITES species were also found, including rodents (55% of the total kg), wild pigs, small carnivores, other antelope, reptiles, birds, and invertebrates.

Bushmeat is no longer a problem confined only to Africa. The demand by consumers in developed world countries is a key component driving the trade. While some of the meat smuggled into Europe is on a small scale (i.e. for personal consumption), some is likely being smuggled on a larger, trade scale, to be sold in specialty markets or restaurants; this part of the bushmeat trade is financially lucrative, as certain species or types of meat can bring much higher prices in Europe than they do in Africa. A market demand for vulnerable species guarantees that as they become rarer in forests (and subsequently markets), they are likely to become more expensive, and therefore more rewarding for hunters to procure, creating a harmful cycle for threatened species. A recent study by Brashares et al. (Brashares et al. 2011) defined the complex economics of bushmeat; stated simply, the further meat travels from the forest, the more expensive it becomes. The Chaber study looked briefly into Paris markets and found that bushmeat was part of an organized trade and considered a luxury item for buyers. For example, prices for a 4 kg monkey in a Paris market were 20 times higher than if the same monkey was bought in Cameroon - approximately euro 100 in France, compared with euro 5 in Cameroon (Chaber et al. 2010; Chaber 2009).

There may even be a preference in the developed world bushmeat consumer for primates; Brashares’ ongoing study of underground markets in developed world cities such as Paris, Brussels, London, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Montreal estimated that primates may represent as much as 30% of the black market bushmeat for sale (Elton 2013) – a figure much higher than that recorded in most African markets. Chaber also noted that cane rats and porcupines were available in Paris for euro 40, crocodiles for euro 20-30 per kg, and bushmeat could be found in Paris restaurants. The BBC uncovered sales of illegal wild meat in London’s markets (Lynn 2012) and Ogden (2009) priced cane rats there at ₤ 80/kg. Others have reported bushmeat in markets and restaurants in Europe and the USA and, while a list is not provided here, virtually every major international airport in Europe and the USA has recorded seizures of bushmeat. In Swiss airports, passengers smuggling wild meats carried 6-7 kg on average, while passengers who smuggled domestic meats tended to carry between 1-3 kg; confiscations of bushmeat weighed significantly more than all other types of meat confiscations.

Why is bushmeat from Africa being illegally smuggled into developed world countries? Growing immigrant populations contribute to the trade, as does the current trend in developed world consumers towards eating “exotic” meats. In Europe and the USA, it has become "trendy" to eat antelope steaks, kangaroo, lion, crocodile, etc. and exotic meats can be found in restaurants, shops, and online. While much of this meat is legal or farmed, lines can easily become blurred, especially in light of high profits. The recent scandal in Europe found horsemeat substituted for beef in numerous products and countries (U.K. House of Commons 2013), and seafood studies in the USA uncovered that a high proportion of fish in supermarkets, restaurants and sushi bars were not the fish labeled on the packaging (Buck 2010). These and other studies demonstrate that meat origin can be difficult to ascertain. The mislabeling of meats is currently a widespread problem, and while bushmeat is not commercially packaged, the growing popularity of "exotic" meats may make the smuggling of bushmeat more difficult for law enforcement to detect. Current penalties for smuggling bushmeat in most countries are minimal and need review. The trade is influenced by the same type of high profits that can be garnered for other types of illegal wildlife smuggling and have resulted in the involvement of more organized criminal elements (Haken 2011; Dalberg/WWF 2012). Profits for smuggled bushmeat may be worth more than the cost of the fines if caught, with the likely result being increases in the amounts being smuggled.

In comparison to other countries in Europe, Switzerland is a relatively small country. At the end of 2012, when this study was conducted, Switzerland’s permanent resident population approximated 8 million people (Swiss Federal Statistical Office 2013) and airport volumes are correspondingly small; approximately 24 million passengers moved through Flughafen Zürich and 13 million through Genève Aéroport (Flughafen Zürich 2012; Genève Aéroport 2012). These volumes are smaller than, for example, the Charles de Gaulle Airport, where 61.6 million passengers were recorded arriving in the Paris urban area in 2012, where approximately 10 million people reside. From data collected during our study, we created a model to estimate the amount of bushmeat imports into Switzerland; preliminary results from our most conservative model suggest that even in this one, small European country at least 40 tonnes are likely to be arriving annually. The details of our findings are currently being written up for scientific publication.

The international smuggling of bushmeat out of source countries and into developed world countries is contributing to the problems of species conservation in country, and could be having a substantial impact on animal populations of trafficked species, especially those already at risk inside Africa. While there is current international focus on the illegal trade in some high value wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, there is much less awareness of wild meat as a globally traded commodity. We hope this study will encourage similar studies in other airports and border points in Europe and worldwide. We further hope it acts as impetus for change in some of the policies and penalties in place for the protection of species at border points, and results in closer monitoring of the worldwide trade in wild meat.

Kathy L. Wood, Bruno Tenger, Nadja Morf and Adelgunde Kratzer


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