the Slaughter of Our Next of Kin
The Satya Interview with Karl Ammann
Karl Ammann. Photo courtesy of karlammann.com
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
ancestors—chimps, gorillas, and bonobos. His bushmeat photographs
are profoundly disturbing: a gorilla head sitting in a frying pan
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
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
[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
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
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,
or read Eating Apes. Please be warned the photos are very disturbing.