In the city of Mbandaka, “bushmeat” is a cheap, time-honoured form of food — monkeys, bats, antelopes, crocodiles and other species caught in the wild.
But local bushmeat hawkers say sales have slumped since an outbreak of Ebola was declared in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo on May 8.
While scientists say contaminated bushmeat carries an Ebola risk, local people are pointing to rumours of sorcery — that the bushmeat has been “cursed”.
“Takings have fallen,” said Sebastien Nseka Lokila, who manages the biggest market in the city of 1.2 million people, blaming a lack of supplies from Bikoro, a remote rural area that is the epicentre of the outbreak.
Far fewer shoppers than usual were in front of the bushmeat stands on Tuesday. Hawkers chopped up pieces of meat with gloveless hands, and many buyers, also without protection, touched and poked the meat as a prelude to haggling over the price.
“I love fresh bushmeat — it’s never caused any disease,” said Nelly Mboyo, a housewife in the market, but other women passed by the bushmeat stand without stopping.
Health experts say the virus that causes Ebola holes up in species of tropical fruit bats.
The bats themselves are asymptomatic — they do not themselves fall ill, but pass it on in their droppings to other mammals, including monkeys, which in turn fall sick.
The disease then gets passed onto humans if they hunt and butcher an infected animal. The virus may enter the bloodstream through a scratch or a cut, infiltrating cells and then multiplying.
Scientists say this risk — and that posed by eating smoked or cooked bushmeat — seems to be low.
They warn the problem amplifies when an infected human comes into close contact with another, helping the disease to spread through body fluids.
Since the outbreak was declared in Bikoro on May 8, 58 cases of Ebola have been reported with 27 deaths. Seven cases have surfaced in Mbandaka districts, the UN’s World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
One superstition that has spread in Mbandaka, said nurse Julie Lobali, is that Ebola began in Bikoro as “a curse on those who ate stolen meat.”
Blandine Mboyo, who lives in the district of Bongondjo, told AFP “a hunter put a curse on the village because his big game was stolen.”
“This curse is so powerful because it hits those who ate this meat, having heard about the theft or having seen the stolen animal,” said Nicole Batoa, a market vendor.
– Epidemic’s ‘ground zero’ –
In December 2014, a German-led team of scientists determined that the world’s biggest Ebola epidemic could be traced to a colony of free-tailed bats that lived in a hollow tree in a remote village in Guinea.
“The close proximity of a large colony of free-tailed bats… provided opportunity for infection. Children regularly caught and played with bats in this tree,” they reported in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.
Guinea, along with Sierra Leone and Liberia, bore the brunt of an epidemic that ran from 2013-15, with 29,000 recorded cases and 11,300 deaths.
Bushmeat, for many poor Congolese, is not an exotic food but a cheap and unpretentious part of their diet.
According to the Centre for International Forestry Research, people living in the Congo Basin annually eat five million tonnes of bushmeat — the equivalent of the cattle production of Brazil and the European Union.
Many anthropologists contend the risk from Ebola is relatively small and are angry with those who, they say, are harming poor people in rural areas by demonising the practice.
Conservationists, for their part, are deeply worried about bushmeat’s impact on biodiversity, which adds to habitat loss as a threat for vulnerable species.