a hunter sets a snare to trap animals climbing a fallen tree branch

Toward Safer Handling of Bushmeat

By Jackie Powder

When he's facing an audience of bushmeat hunters in Central Africa to discuss safe hunting practices, Matthew LeBreton likes to start with a joke. "We say first of all, 'Could you stop hunting wild animals?' Of course everyone laughs, but hopefully in the future that's something that could happen so they could reduce their dependence on hunting," says the ecological research coordinator for the Cameroon Project, which includes researchers from the Bloomberg School, the Cameroon Ministry of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

LeBreton acknowledges that it's unrealistic to expect forest-based hunters to stop killing wild animals any time soon—bushmeat typically provides a major source of protein in their diets.

So he and project team members are educating hunters in rural southern Cameroon about the dangers of killing and butchering great apes, gorillas and other non-human primates. Their efforts intensified two years ago, when Cameroon Project researchers documented for the first time the active transmission of a primate retrovirus to humans. 

Currently, in an effort to reduce chances of retrovirus infection, he says, "We have a number of staff whose full-time job is to go from village to village to do education work with hunters and help them to understand wild animal diseases."

At the education meetings, project workers advise hunters to avoid bites and scratches from wild animals and to avoid butchering if they do have cuts on their hands. They also recommend carrying cut meat in plastic-lined baskets to prevent animal blood from draining onto the hunters' clothes and bodies, and washing hands thoroughly with soap and water in the event of a cut from a butcher knife. To avoid contracting monkeypox or anthrax, educators also advise against handling dead or sick animals found in the forest.

Exposure to animal blood puts hunters at risk for becoming infected with simian foamy virus (SFV), the same class of viruses from which HIV originated, and two new retroviruses discovered by Cameroon Project investigators in 2004. 

The research, led by Nathan Wolfe, DSc, an Epidemiology assistant professor, was based on an analysis of 1,000 blood samples from hunters. It is not known if the viruses are harmful to humans. 

"We're finding that the hunters are fascinated with the problems of disease from wildlife, and some are a little bit concerned and want to find out more," LeBreton says, adding that some hunters have become research collaborators. "We're proposing that if they want to collect blood for us from the animals they hunt, we can analyze it in the lab and give them the results."

"That way we are not talking in generalities, and can say, 'This spot-nosed monkey you're handling has this type of infection,'" says LeBreton. "It just brings it a little closer to home to them that they have to take precautions to avoid getting infected."