June 15, 2004
By TODD PITMAN
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) _ Crocodile, boa constrictor, tortoise and antelope top the menu, served up in banana-leaf sacks with french fries on the side. And for the willing, there's one dish that would make most carnivores squirm: monkey meat.
At Mama Ekila's Inzia restaurant, African bushmeat is flown in _ and fried up _ for discerning diners looking to put a bit of adventure on their plate.
"It's flown in fresh from Equator Province," says waitress Julie Ntshila, encouraging an unconvinced diner to try a delicacy from the northeast of the country. "I love it."
When it comes to figuring out what qualifies as food in Congo, most people follow a simple, unspoken rule: If it can move, it can be eaten.
Such carefree culinary spirits, though, make wildlife conservationists shudder _ particularly in Congo, where a thriving bushmeat trade is threatening to wipe out some species altogether. Two at risk are great apes found only in Congo _ eastern lowland gorillas and bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees.
"A few thousand commercial bushmeat hunters supported by the timber industry infrastructure will illegally shoot and butcher more than $2 billion worth of wildlife this year, including as many as 8,000 endangered great apes," according to the California-based Bushmeat Project.
Slaughter at the current pace means extinction of Africa's remaining wild apes within 15 to 50 years, the project says.
Viewing Africa's immense poverty, it's not hard to understand what's driving the trade.
Per capita annual income in Congo averages just $100 a year, according to the World Bank. By contrast, bushmeat hunters can earn up to $1,100 annually, the U.S.-headquartered Bushmeat Crisis Task Force says.
With Africa's burgeoning population growth, and logging and mining companies moving ever further into Central Africa's forests, demand for bushmeat is expected to grow by 2 percent to 4 percent a year.
In West Africa, wildlife populations have been so depleted that "rodents have replaced the over-hunted and now scarce antelope and primates as the most commonly eaten wild animals," the Task Force says.
In Central Africa, an estimated 1 million tons of wildlife is consumed annually by some 24 million people, 80 percent of whose meat diet comes from the bush.
Consumption of infected bushmeat has been linked to several outbreaks of Ebola, one of the world's deadliest viruses. The disease, which kills through massive blood loss, has claimed more than 1,000 victims in Africa since it was first identified in 1976.
Some experts also theorize the HIV virus first made the cross-species jump from primate to man through consumption of infected bushmeat by hunters in West Africa.
In Congo, profound poverty and years of conflict have deprived most of the option to be picky.
During Congo's 1998-2002 war, for example, residents unfortunate enough to live near the front lines were reduced to eating rats, even grass. Aid workers estimate the conflict may have killed more than 3 million people, mostly through war-induced famine and disease.
In peacetime, the Congolese diet can be equally hard to swallow.
At an open-air market in the northeastern jungle city of Kisangani, flies swarm around severed goat heads and hooves, stacked up like scene from a horror show.
Pulsating white palm grubs are sold en masse, wrapped into large green leaves for take away. Serpents, too, lie sprawled across wooden tables, burnt to a crisp. There are slimy snails, bush-pigs and muskrats.
"We eat everything here. Nothing gets wasted," says Diner Folo, a 35-year-old resident cruising the gritty, crowded market.
On a table, two dozen blackened macaque monkeys are piled high, the sticks they were smoked on still jutting from their mouths.
Dodo Basila, 28, hacking several up, is selling heads, tails, arms and limbs for about 70 cents a piece.
"You can have the whole thing for 2,000 francs ($5)," she says, pushing forward a limp, bloodied corpse.
Back at the restaurant, Mama Ekila says she doesn't sell endangered wildlife and the monkey dishes are primarily macaques, a common species found from Africa to Japan.
Though resident expatriates and tourists often sample the more bizarre items on her menu (chicken and beef are also available), it is the Congolese for whom the bushmeat is most popular.
"In Africa, we have to sell things that Africans want to eat," Mama Ekila says. "Every country has its specialties. In Italy, it's pasta. In America, it's hot dogs. In Congo, monkey meat is just one."
Copyright 2004 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
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