Is That an Alligator in Your Suitcase?

To the dismay of environmentalists, European tourists delight in smuggling black-market bushmeat.

Scientists estimate nearly 12,000 pounds of illegal bushmeat are smuggled into France from Africa every week, and the threat to endangered species is only getting worse.

An undeclared bottle of whiskey, a string of pearls bought on vacation and hidden inside a bra in the suitcase—sure, customs inspectors see that every day. But a nice haunch of crested porcupine? Some fresh cane rat or long-tailed pangolin? Red-river hog or Nile crocodile? Not so much.

But maybe customs agents at international airports should start looking more often. When Anne-Lise Chaber of the Zoological Society of London spent two and a half weeks with customs inspectors assigned to flights originating in sub-Saharan Africa and landing at Paris’s Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in June 2008, she found that bushmeat—the meat of wild animals—was being illegally brought in at an astonishing rate. Inspecting just 134 passengers arriving on 29 Air France flights (out of about 180 flights in all during the 18 days of the study, with a capacity of about 17,000 passengers per week), agents found 414 pounds of bushmeat and 288 pounds of livestock—including a nicely wrapped whole sheep and calves nestled in carryalls.

Conservation biologists have previously sounded the alarm about illegal sales of bushmeat by and to Africans living in Europe and the United States—Africans living abroad apparently want a taste of home just as Americans living overseas need their pizza fix—but the scope of the problem on a daily basis had never before been documented.

Chaber and her ZSL colleagues therefore decided to watch over the shoulders of the customs agents as they performed random inspections on passengers arriving from Africa. (To be precise, the inspections were random except in the case of passengers carrying ice chests, who were all chosen for scrutiny.) It was a grisly picture, and not only because among the contraband were the aforementioned sheep and calves. Based on this sample, the scientists estimate that 5 metric tons (11,550 pounds) of bushmeat is being smuggled into Paris from Africa every week, with Cameroon (8,000 pounds), the Central African Republic (2,100 pounds), and the Republic of Congo (1,300 pounds) the chief offenders. “We were surprised by the estimated volumes—5 tonnes” [11,000 pounds] per week, Marcus Rowcliffe of the ZSL told me by e-mail. And with one passenger “carrying 51 kg [112 pounds] of bushmeat and no other luggage, strongly suggesting a link with trade rather than personal use,” it is clear that supplying bushmeat to the African diaspora is a thriving concern.

It also poses a serious threat to endangered species. After years in which conservationists focused on the loss of habitat as a chief reason for the disappearance of species, it has become clear that illegal hunting is taking a horrific toll on tropical wildlife populations. (NEWSWEEK described this growing threat in a 2007 cover story on the poaching of mountain gorillas in Congo, and in a 2008 story on “the extinction trade.” “While there is anecdotal evidence of international trade in bushmeat, including seizures of African bushmeat at airports, and the occasional prosecution of traders in European cities, it is a neglected aspect of the issue,” Rowcliffe and his collaborators write in the current issue of the journal Conservation Letters.

It is also against the law. The European Union prohibits passengers arriving in Europe from carrying any meat or meat products, partly because they may harbor pathogens but also because of the threat it poses to endangered wildlife. Yet despite this ban, the ZSL scientists could have opened their own butcher shop with what the customs agents found. (As it was, much of the bushmeat carried for sale rather than personal use was apparently destined for the market near Château Rouge station on Rue des Poissonniers in Paris, where middle-aged bushmeat is sold in the open. Prices: €20 and €30 per kilogram—or $11 to $13.50 per pound—for primate, crocodile, cane rat, and porcupine.)

The bushmeat arrived dressed and often smoked, which made identification a challenge. Although the pangolins, porcupines, and cane rats were obvious, the monkeys had to be identified by skeletal analysis. “But even then we were only able to identify the monkeys to genus level,” says Rowcliffe: guenons (Cercopithecus sp.) or mangabeys (Cercocebus sp.). All species in these genera are listed as endangered or threatened by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that international trade in these creatures is banned or highly restricted—and in any case, illegal for individual airline passengers. Trade in the Nile croc and slender-snouted croc is also banned, while trade in the blue duiker and pangolins is restricted, yet there they all were. All told, 39 percent of the bushmeat carcasses passengers were carrying represent species whose continued existence is sufficiently threatened as to make it illegal to bring them into Europe.

Although the estimated amount of bushmeat imported from Africa to France is a tiny proportion of the total estimated kill (upward of 2.2 million tons per year in the Congo basin, say the ZSL scientists), “the volume and nature of import and trade suggests the emergence of a luxury market for African bushmeat in Europe,” they write in their paper. “Imports are supplying an organized system of trade and are not solely being brought for personal consumption. . . . The development of a luxury market, linked to increasing affluence of the consumer population, is of particular concern because of the potential for demand to remain high even as supply dwindles and prices rise, potentially driving the extinction of even relatively resilient species.”

And don’t look for it to stop any time soon. Detecting and seizing bushmeat, or other forms of vanishing species, is not a priority for customs officials, who find it time-consuming, unpleasant, and potentially dangerous. Unlike seizures of illegal drugs, intercepting the bodies of animals whose species is on the brink of extinction does not qualify for bonuses. To make matters worse, “most of the passengers carrying illegal meat were angry and outraged while the meat got confiscated,” Chaber (who is now the animal care supervisor at Al Ain Wildlife Park in theUnited Arab Emirates) told me by e-mail. “These bad reactions made customs uneasy about implementing fines as they felt confiscation was already a strong punishment for the guilty passengers.”

But even if European governments don’t care enough about vanishing species to change their airport policies, there might be one easy fix. One third of the passengers carrying bushmeat were flying on discounted Air France tickets, which go to family members of employees. If the airline imposed penalties, including the threat of dismissal, on the staff members through whom the tickets were obtained, that nice Nile croc might not seem like such a tempting carry-on in the future.