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September 2003
Stopping the Slaughter of Our Next of Kin

The Satya Interview with Karl Ammann



Karl Amman
Karl Ammann. Photo courtesy of

Bushmeat…it’s a subject one understandably shies away from: the slaughter of wild animals for food in Africa. As foreign logging companies penetrate deeper into the remaining African jungles, the animals and their habitats are growing more and more vulnerable to human encroachment, especially their appetite for meat.

Why do people eat apes? Neither the question nor the answer is simple.

In Eating Apes (University of California Press), author Dale Peterson [see the Satya interview in July 2000] grapples with this complicated and controversial issue. Peterson contends that humans are traditionally meat-eaters and crave meat, and that in much of Africa, a meal simply isn’t a meal without animal flesh. Moreover, meat is characteristically more expensive than non-meat food, adding status to and desirability for animal flesh. It is also an issue of access. In areas bordering the wilderness, bushmeat is more available than domesticated farmed animals. As the logging industry hacks its way deeper and deeper into untouched forests, logging trucks rumble through remote areas carrying the spoils of illegal hunters’ exploits, making access to customers immediate. But things are changing. More and more, you’ll find brokers buying exotic meat for resale to higher-paying urban or international customers. For many, ape meat—especially the hands—is a delicacy, and as people move away and become successful, demand is growing among the wealthy. Tons of bushmeat were confiscated last year at London’s Heathrow airport (and that’s just the stuff that’s caught!).

Most countries have outlawed poaching of endangered species. However, hunters will risk getting caught because the consequences are so meek—usually a slap on the wrist—and the profits so great.

Swiss-born Karl Ammann has been on the frontlines of this ‘trade’ for two decades, trying to get the world to pay attention before it’s too late. His life and work is featured in Eating Apes. An award-winning wildlife photographer, Ammann has made it his mission to document the ongoing slaughter of our closest ancestors—chimps, gorillas, and bonobos. His bushmeat photographs are profoundly disturbing: a gorilla head sitting in a frying pan on a table next to a bunch of bananas—tonight’s dinner; a family of gorillas—a mother, father and two adolescents—slumped against a tree and covered in flies, recently shot to death; chimpanzee limbs being unloaded from a logging truck like so many pieces of wood.

One inspiration that spurs ammann’s work is Mzee, a chimp he met when he first began investigating ape meat. Orphaned babies are the helpless casualties of a business that thrives on the flesh of their parents. As meat, babies don’t offer much and are usually kept alive and sold as pets, or to circuses, zoos or for medical research. Those not sold are fobbed off onto a sanctuary or simply dumped. Today, Mzee shares his life with another orphaned chimp, Bili, and likes to fall asleep between Karl and his wife Kathy, holding their hands. On a rare visit to the U.S., Catherine Clyne sat down with Karl Ammann to discuss the ape meat crisis and what we can do to help change things.

How urgent is the bushmeat crisis in Africa right now?

It’s just one of many problems confronting Africa. As such it is an uphill struggle trying to bring the issue to the attention of the public in the west, even though the big apes are involved—and the elephants and other charismatic flagship species. My hope is if we can get to the average taxpayer/voter in the rich parts of the world, then politicians running the show in the donor countries cannot afford to ignore the issue and can apply corresponding pressure to the leadership in the African countries.

There is also the issue of the people—people are worse off than animals in some parts of Africa. But you can’t separate the two. There are parts of central Africa where all wildlife has been pretty much wiped out. In the DR Congo, the huge Bateke Plateau outside Kinshasa is now devoid of wildlife so fish farming has suddenly become a viable alternative. In the southeastern part of the Central African Republic, the pastorialists from the north now bring in cows, slaughtering them every day. A few years ago, the local Azande people never ate beef, but they no longer have any choice because there’s no game meat left; they hate the idea of having to buy beef from the northerners but that’s all that’s left. If the forests are hunted out, in the end, the people will pay the price. So this is not about animals vs. people, it’s about doing it on behalf of the people as much as on behalf of the animals.

Some people ask, why are beef and meat considered the only viable sources of protein?
With soya and artificial meats and stuff like that I’m convinced that the average consumer, like in the west, could not tell the difference. If you could flood the market with artificial meats, if the average man in the street didn’t know better, he probably would accept it. However, that’s a pretty unrealistic short or medium term measure in the African context.

How did you first learn about the bushmeat trade?
In 1988, I was with my wife on a riverboat trip on the Congo River. There was a hell of a lot of smoked and fresh meat, and some live animals coming on board. It was staggering to see these quantities disappearing into freezers. I didn’t know how widespread it was and out of curiosity, I decided to investigate further: Is this really happening everywhere? If so, why is nobody aware of it, why is it not being documented?

The first trips showed that what’s happening on the riverboats were pretty representative of what’s going on in Central Africa. I thought ‘Hey, there’s a story here, the world should be paying attention to what’s happening.’ And I slowly got sucked in deeper and deeper.

You adopted a family member on one of those trips, right?
[Laughs] Yeah, Mzee, who is still living with us—and we have two chimps now. Mzee was a motivator for me. As we looked for a permanent home for him, it kind of all came together—seeing what sanctuaries existed, how they were run, and who was doing what.

So you saw that this was a big story—did it become one? Why or why not?
Initially there was quite a lot of resistance to the story. Editors were interested when they saw the images, but the few so-called experts would tell them it’s not really an issue, or I’m exaggerating, etc. So I had a heck of a time getting the story out. I think Natural History magazine was the first one to send a writer—they didn’t fully trust me either, they sent their own man. That became kind of a pattern, journalists traveling with me. Later on, I sent them on their own. So it became pretty well accepted that maybe I wasn’t sensationalizing, that it was pretty widespread. And once the New York Times ran a magazine feature, the barriers broke down.

This is naturally a story that someone like National Geographic or the Discovery Channel would pick up.
I think they’re better at selling “feel-good” conservation. They want to entertain people, not shock them. That’s the business they’re in.

It seems the major players, the real power keepers, are the international heads of state, along with donors, the World Bank, and the media; and they don’t seem to be getting the message sufficiently. Ideally, what would be a solution to get the message out and get people working on this?

[Sigh and long pause.] The very first step is to overcome our need for political correctness—who are we to tell Africans what they can and cannot eat? I read about bushmeat having been confiscated at an American airport; hundreds of kilos were being brought in for a wedding celebration—and there was no prosecution. I mean, either we believe that it’s right to eat apes or it’s not right. If we believe it’s not, then let’s make that point for all bushmeat, and let’s stick our necks out and maybe get called neo colonialists every now and then—to say: “If you want our donor money, this is something you’re going to have to look at.” But either we criticize cultures or we don’t.

Our own cultures are constantly changing and we do not seem to have a problem with that. I met a western scientist who said when he was a child, they would go to an asylum to watch the crazy people for entertainment. Obviously that’s no longer acceptable. In his lifetime, that had sufficiently changed—now a child would be told this is not entertainment. So cultures change all the time and we can help these changes along, and we can say change is necessary. But if we say, “We can’t really dictate cultural practices, that’s the way they do things,” then why do we try to teach them about condoms? They’re not part of their culture either. So, then let them die of AIDS? I mean, either we believe in what we’re saying, or we don’t believe in it and then fine, let’s not pretend we do.

Can you tell us about how you made connections between Ebola and HIV jumping the species barrier from apes to humans?
I had heard that several Pygmies had died of Ebola after eating apes in Cameroon in 1997. At the time I was befriended to Dr. Philippe Mauchlere of the Pasteur Institute, who had heard it too, but hadn’t checked it out. When I offered to, he said he would be very interested and gave me somebody to come along to take blood to test for antibodies. We found one Pygmy who confirmed that they had found several dead gorillas at the Gabon-Cameroon border and eaten them, and that 14 had died and he was the only survivor. While investigating a similar Ebola outbreak, I asked a survivor if he would still eat gorillas. He said no. I asked if it was because he was scared; he said no, there’s no longer any gorillas left. Ebola had affected the gorilla population that heavily.

Researcher Beatrice Hahn contacted me when she was about to publish her paper [linking HIV with a simian version in chimps]. She knew that I knew a lot about bushmeat and asked how often people eat it, what happens and so on. I showed her pictures and video material. She concluded that if there was a cross-species transmission of viruses from apes, a very logical way of transmission could be through the butchering process—it probably didn’t happen through eating. So there was a very clear avenue. The chimps were being butchered every day—probably more than ever before—so there was more potential for these viruses to be crossing the species barrier.

In Eating Apes, Dale Peterson portrays that moment as something of a shift for you, you thought it would be a good strategy to make ape meat a public health issue rather than appealing to sympathy for the apes.
Let’s face it, there’s a tendency for people to react to issues only if it affects their person. All of these problems could be due to a small group of people insisting that they have the right to eat our closest animal relatives. There’s a big majority that should say to a small minority, “Guys, you cannot expose us, the rest of the world, to these risks just because you feel it’s your cultural right and it’s good meat! The risks for mankind are just too big.”

Again, it comes to political correctness. After Beatrice Hahn published the data in Nature magazine for the world to decide if butchering chimps was the most probable cause of the transmission of HIV; she was attacked as being a total racist. And that’s the reaction we are so worried about. We shy away from calling a spade a spade—the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t pushed the issue for the same reasons. And I think that’s much of the problem.

Has information about the possible connection between HIV and Ebola and eating apes been distributed to African people?
No, the message generally does not reach the guy who pulls the trigger. I have seen WHO posters in Gabon showing possible ways of HIV transmission. There’re images of needles and all kinds of ways we know of, but there isn’t an image of somebody butchering a chimp.

To me, one of the most disturbing scenarios arose at the end of last year, when ECOFAC [an EU-funded conservation group], the World Wildlife Fund, etc., were working in the Cameroon/Congo/Gabon area. In December I heard of the first bunch of habituated gorillas that died. It was clearly Ebola and they knew it. Then by about February, people started dying, a total of about 80 or 90, I think. I know that area and very few people live there, maybe a few thousand in very remote villages. If you knew apes were dying of Ebola and you knew anybody hunting or eating an infected ape would result in the cross-species transmission, and you did not manage to get the message to these few thousand people that, now is not the time to eat apes—if that wasn’t possible, then the question is how will we ever get the message out there?

In the towns it’s easier. There was an immediate reaction—even in Kinshasa, nobody would buy apes or monkeys anymore coming in on the riverboats. In that sense the word Ebola had an impact—but we still didn’t get to the people in the forest.

I was struck by your conversation with the hunter who said he was no longer eating gorillas, not because he was afraid of Ebola, but because there are no more gorillas left to eat. You know first-hand what’s going on and for him, Ebola’s not the issue, it’s that the meat is gone.

When I brought it up with Joseph Melloh [a former bushmeat hunter-turned investigator], he said, “If you were right, I would be dead a long time ago. I’ve eaten dozens of chimps and I feel very healthy.” If you acquire a new strain of virus, it may mean passing through or over several generations before somebody will die of it. So maybe it’s further down the line, not you.

So what is a concrete answer?
I’m convinced that once the logging roads are in, once thousands of migrants have moved in, you can forget about it. The difficulty of controlling pretty much anything is disproportionately high. The answer is not to open the forests.

As an immediate response to what’s going on, you opened a sanctuary for orphaned apes in Kenya, right?

To me, the sanctuaries are a clear indicator to what extent conservation is failing. The orphans are essentially just a by-product, a mopping up exercise. I think soon the flow of orphans will start declining because the chimps and gorillas will all be gone. At the moment, they’re still on the increase—and more and more sanctuaries will no longer accept chimps. They take gorillas and bonobos because they’re “sexy” species, but they don’t want to hear the word chimp anymore.

What happens when nobody wants them?

They’re just ignored until they die. They might live on a street corner, tied to a post or something, and if nobody confiscates them or does anything about it, then one day they’ll no longer be there.

What do you say to people who ask why resources should go to help animals when so many people are suffering?

One of my standard answers is they didn’t do anything to get to this stage—it was us humans. At least within the species, it’s a scenario of humans doing it to humans (though I do feel guilty for some of the things humans do to other humans). But I feel guilty for what we’re doing to the chimps and the rest of the wildlife.

In the afterward of Eating Apes, you say that you feel guilty about this situation, so you try to bring this information to the attention of the world to sort of alleviate that. What are we supposed to do?

The African politicians won’t take it seriously without our politicians putting pressure on them—then we can actually get somewhere. But our politicians won’t take it seriously unless there’s a civil society backlash in our part of the world. So it has to start with the man on the street, and if we can get to him, we have a chance.

Some would say that foreigners have no business telling Africa what to do.
I know of a World Bank memo which states that in central Africa dysfunctional governments have to be considered a given. With dysfunctional governments you will not get functional development projects, sustainable logging operations or conservation initiatives. It is the root cause of the problem and not dealing with it will mean we are wasting our time and money trying to deal with the above mentioned related problems. If we want to see any real change we have to find much bigger carrots but also sticks. If we can not find the sticks we will not go very far. The west has ruled what is right and good for the East Timorese, the Afghans and now the Iraqis; in the context of the above Africa should be a priority.

But what can possibly be the justification to ask Africans to change culturally when Bush goes around saying the American energy problem is a question of supply, not demand, and you have to increase supply to deal with the issue. That’s an idiotic attitude to have in this day and age. It smacks of double standards for us to try to tell Africans they have to change if we are not willing to change.

When Jane Goodall does the talk show circuit, she always talks about the bushmeat crisis.

Yeah, now she’s talking about it. But she doesn’t combine it with radical solutions; she prefers the ‘quiet diplomatic’ approach. However, let’s evaluate the ‘quiet diplomatic’ approach in the context of Gombe Stream: you have two groups of chimps left who are genetically on their way out. Several decades of uncontrolled deforestation—largely due to population pressure—have resulted in Gombe becoming a small island of forest. After 30 years and millions of dollars of National Geographic money, they are the most famous chimps in the world, and this is the end result? I mean, that’s not something I’d be proud of, I’d shoot myself. Maybe the quiet diplomatic approach did not work, and is not working.

What is needed now, is to sit down and look back and ask is there any other way of doing things?

What gives you hope?
I think as it stands now, I have very little hope. The environment and wildlife is so much at the bottom of the priority list. If there’s any economic development in Africa, it will get even worse—more infrastructures, more roads, and more ways to get the meat to the market. There is very little hope the way we’re going, and have been going for the last 30 years. If Bush made the money available he did for the Iraq war for environmental issues, there would be hope.

To view his photos or learn more about Karl Ammann and bushmeat, visit or read Eating Apes. Please be warned the photos are very disturbing.


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