The New Yorker magazine described Nathan Wolfe as ‘the world’s most prominent virus hunter’, and showed how Wolfe spent much of his time in central Africa tracking emerging infectious diseases before they turned into deadly pandemics.
Though the article was written four years ago it resonates powerfully today: ‘in central Africa, where people live in wattle- huts and dine on bush-meat, viruses like Ebola and H.I.V. are not vague or distant horrors. They are present always, like an endless war, killing neighbours and destroying lives’, said the article.
In 1967, the Surgeon General of the United States, William H Stewart, said it was ‘time to close the books on infectious diseases’: since then, however, at least fifty dangerous new viruses have passed from animals into humans, and ‘some are so well known that their names are enough to make people anxious: Ebola, SARS, avian influenza’, the article continued.
Any suspicions about the cause of the outbreak beginning with the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has been loosely pinned to the bush-meat trade, focused on the fruit-bats which are both carriers of Ebola and popular local source of food.
However, an alternative scenario linking IWT to the Ebola outbreak has emerged, with even wider ramifications in terms of complexity, geography and bio-security.
Today’s pandemic is the first outbreak of the Zaïre strain of the Ebola virus seen anywhere in west Africa, and was first reported in Guéckédou, a village in the remote part of south eastern Guinea. Two key questions emerge: firstly, why is the Zaire strain breaking out now in west Africa, almost 40 years after the first recognized Ebola epidemic appeared in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)? Secondly, how would fruit-bats in Guinea be the carriers of an Ebola strain found 2,000 miles away (in DRC): put another way, it is highly improbable that the fruit-bats would fly those 2,000 miles.
Another possible answer lies within the well-established illegal great ape trafficking networks that connect from the DRC to Guinea’s capital, Conakry: gorillas and chimpanzees are well-known Ebola carriers.
A number of great ape traffickers are known to be based in Guinea, many of whom have family relations with wildlife traffickers in the DRC. These Guinean traders travel back and forth between Guinea and the DRC on a regular basis while arranging their mostly illegal wildlife trade deals. One of them could have become infected with Ebola and brought it back with them to Guinea.
As an example about the daunting bio-security issues involved, the CITES Trade Database shows that ten gorillas were exported from Guinea to China in 2010; but Guinea has no indigenous gorillas, nor does it have any breeding facilities for it. Karl Ammann, a wildlife trafficking investigator and photo-journalist, believes these ten gorillas originated in the DRC.
With the assistance of an NGO working in China, four of the gorillas were tracked down to the Changsa Zoo, and Ammann visited the zoo in January this year. A zoo-keeper told him (via an interpreter) that the keeper who was in charge of the gorillas when they first arrived became sick and was diagnosed with hepatitis.
In 2011, a CITES Secretariat mission in Guinea investigating unusual great ape trade activity found two export permits for bonobos to Armenia. Bonobos are indigenous to one country: the DRC. The CITES Secretariat did not follow up on it, but Ammann did and tracked down one of the bonobos to a private safari park called Jambo Park, located in Dzoragbyur.
‘The ape dealers in Conakry have collection teams that go into the forest, kill chimp mothers and capture the infants,” Ammann told mongabay.com. ‘ They bring them to Conakry. The dealers are the same guys with family connections in Kinshasa.’
In The New Yorker article, Nathan Wolfe, pointed out the threat posed by pandemics: ‘there is simply no greater threat to humanity than a viral pandemic. What is more likely to kill millions of people? Nuclear war or a virus that makes the leap from animal to man? If, tomorrow, I had to go to Las Vegas and place a bet on the next great killer, I would put all my money on a virus.”
With the obvious implications for the spread of Ebola, the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in central Africa presents a threat on a scale that was previously unimagined with daunting implications for both human and political security. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre