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Monday December 31 9:09 PM ET

Monkey Brains Off the Menu in Central Africa

By Antoine Lawson

MEKAMBO, Gabon (Reuters) - Monkey brains and tender elephant trunks were off the Christmas menu in northern Gabon where an outbreak of the deadly Ebola (news - web sites) virus has deprived people of their traditional fare.

Bushmeat -- which includes gorillas, crocodiles, lizards, forest antelopes and even tortoises -- is prized by inhabitants of the central African country's lush equatorial forests.

It is a cheap and plentiful supply of protein in regions where meat from domestic animals is scarce and more expensive.

But in Mekambo, 310 miles northeast of the capital Libreville, bushmeat has been banned since the deadly Ebola disease struck at the beginning of December.

Scientists believe Ebola, which causes 90 percent of its victims to bleed to death, can be caught by eating meat from infected apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas.

The disease is also passed on through contact with body fluids but Gabon's government is taking no chances. There is no vaccine and no known cure.

Ebola is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo (news - web sites), where it was discovered in 1976 and killed more than 250 people in 1995. This is the third outbreak in Gabon.

Since the latest outbreak, which has killed 20 people in Gabon and the neighboring Congo Republic, controls on hunting have been reinforced, especially in the forests around Mekambo, where the first death was reported.

NOT VEGETARIANS

A ban on hunting bushmeat has long been in place in Gabon but until now enforcement has been lax. Ebola might be a horrific disease but some villagers are annoyed by the new measures.

``We are deprived of bushmeat when normally we could not do without it during the holidays. Even worse we can no longer supply our clients and our families in the cities,'' said tribal leader Isidore Nkoto from Ntolo, a small village near Mekambo.

``The medical teams are forcing us to live on a diet without bushmeat and in the dry season it is not easy to catch fish in the rivers. We are not vegetarians,'' Nkoto said.

An international medical team is working with local authorities in northern Gabon to try to stop Ebola from spreading.

Nkoto's village has been placed in quarantine and the bushmeat ban is strictly enforced.

``They are asking us not to eat bushmeat during the festivities. It's a punishment we really don't need,'' said an inhabitant of Etaka, a village some six miles from Ntolo on the border with Congo Republic.

One of the problems the government faces is informing people in remote forest villages. Advice about how to combat Ebola is broadcast every day on national radio but many people have no access to radios, and may not be aware of the bushmeat link.

The news has reached further afield, however. China has imposed an import ban on apes from Gabon, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, and their products. Passengers from the central African state will be subject to extra scrutiny, the official China Daily said on Saturday.

SIMIAN LINK

The authorities in Gabon are checking reports that many corpses of apes, gorillas and chimpanzees were found in a forest near the Mekambo region before the Ebola outbreak was confirmed.

When Ebola first struck Gabon in 1994, investigators were told many apes had died in a forest near the affected area, but none were found. In 1996, 13 people fell ill after butchering a dead chimpanzee they had found.

Despite such tales and the horrific fate that awaits Ebola victims, bushmeat of all kinds is still getting through to Gabon's big cities, where demand for a taste of the wild has been growing steadily.

During Christmas week, the discerning consumer in Gabon's capital could choose between monkeys, chimpanzees, gazelles, and even a family of rare wild boar, a protected species.

Anti-poaching brigades raid markets sporadically to catch offenders but this has done little to discourage the trade.

TASTE OF HOME

The new popularity of all things rare is a worry for groups like the U.S.-based Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (BCTF), an umbrella body of conservation organizations and scientists.

The BCTF estimates that one million tons of wildlife is killed for food each year in central Africa and says commercial hunting is the most immediate threat to the future of many species.

Activities such as logging have also helped boost the trade by opening up vast tracts of previously inaccessible forests. Loggers' families are a rich new market for hunters.

And while bushmeat may be the food of necessity for forest dwellers, in the city it has become a status symbol for wealthy Gabonese who see eating wild animals as a way of maintaining links with their home villages.

``The majority of people in Libreville like bushmeat because of its taste,'' said forest ranger Gaston Nzomo. ``Around 25 percent say they eat it out of habit and around 20 percent say they have a cultural attachment to this food.''

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