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Gola communities return to eating bush meat

January 20, 2016  By Mohamed Massaquoi from Kenema

Report from communities around the Gola Rain Forest National Park has revealed that people living in those areas have reverted to hunting, trading and eating bush meat barely two months after the official declaration of the end of the Ebola virus disease outbreak in the country.

It is reported that residents of Jagbema, Njala-Senehun Buim, among many other villages, have once again returned to their hunting game for bush meat.

Acting Manager of the Gola Rain Forest, Mannah Swaray, would not comment on the issue despite his organisation managing the affairs of the forest.

Health experts believe that earlier outbreaks of Ebola in many countries emanated from people eating or handling Ebola-infected animals. Then they spread the virus to other people through contact with bodily fluids. Fruit bats, as well as primates such as chimpanzees, are frequently cited as potential reservoirs of the Ebola virus – animals many communities hunt for their meat.

Ebola is not generally spread through food, but the hunting, butchering, and processing of bush meat bring people into contact with blood and other fluids of a potentially infected animal.

Ebola infections in people have been associated with handling and eating infected animals. A research report was put together last year by five researchers from Njala University, including Paul Richards, Joseph Amara, Esther Mokuwa, Alfred Mokuwa and Roland Suluku, for DFID on the four villages on the edge of the Gola Rain Forest.

The aim of the research was to find out how the villagers viewed the Ebola threat, and how they coped with regulations designed to eliminate the disease. The four villages were being singled out for analysis because they belong to a trans-boundary region, connecting eastern Kenema District in Sierra Leone and Gbarpolu County in Liberia.

Historically, part of the bush meat trade from these villages had been aimed at the Liberian market. A clear connection between the earlier and most recent studies is found in the role of bush meat as an alleged source of Ebola infection.

“The present report draws on data from a randomised sample of village adult males and females (c. 30 per settlement, 50% female). These provide insight into the degree of local intellectual engagement with the disease. The remarks include some comments about the perceived weaknesses and inequities associated with the international and governmental Ebola response. Villagers also point to apparent illogicalities in the official discourse about the disease and its prevention,” the report said.

“So far as is known, all Ebola transmission in Sierra Leone has been person to person. Zoonotic transfer (an infection via bush meat) has not played a significant part. These communities of forest-edge hunters raise questions about the lack of empirical grounding for the zoonotic hypothesis, as applied to Sierra Leone.”

Many men in these four villages trap and hunt bush meat as an important part of their subsistence livelihood.

Two months after the WHO and the government of Sierra Leone announced the end of the disease in the country, a good number of these communities have reverted to bus meat eating and trading. 53-year-old Hawa Mustapha of Juru village said her earnings from bush meat keep her four children in school, and she lamented the sudden loss of business as public health officials warn that bush meat may be contaminated with the dreaded Ebola virus.

“We were advised by health experts not to eat bush meat, but now that the Ebola disease has subsided in our community, we have reverted to the trade. I usually eat it as a special food on Sundays,” she said.

Many restaurants in Kenema now prefer bush meat, of which a large rodent known as ‘grass cutter’ is the most popular offering.

While stemming human-to-human transmission is the main focus of governments and international health agencies, African communities that hunt wild animals for their meat “risk future spill-over from species that can carry the virus”.