Around 3.9 tonnes of illicit bushmeat is smuggled through Brussels airport every month – including parts of elephants, pangolins and crocodiles – posing a risk to biodiversity and human health
Customs at Brussels airport were left digging through luggage filled with charred meat, fish and insects as they tried to stop illegal meat from wildlife making its way into Europe.
Three flights from Africa and one from China saw hold luggage containing boxes of flies next to dead shrivelled up caterpillars and juicy live ones, as well as charred meat and fish, which left the airport smelling of dried seafood. One man was caught carrying an African antelope, known as duiker, including a 500g joint that he believed could be sold for $30 (£24).
But staff say they’re used to finding far worse — and at one point were met with a 1.5-metre basking shark folded inside a box with a whole smoked monkey. In many packages, the meat is already rotting and dotted with maggots or flies, posing a risk to biodiversity, and bringing in insect pests and potential pathogens to new environments.
Most of the meat passing through customs comes dried, smoked, charred and chopped, making it hard to identify. It means any hunk of meat could be confiscated, from a chunk of a cane rat or pangolin, to regular beef. Researchers estimate 3.9 tonnes of bushmeat — one of the main drivers of wildlife trafficking — is smuggled through Brussels airport every month, including parts of elephants, pangolins and crocodiles.
According to the first global assessment of hunting’s effect on terrestrial mammals, in some species, the trade has created a “significant extinction threat” to some wildlife populations, especially in Asia, Africa and South America. Millions around the world rely on bushmeat as their source of local protein, but for others it is used as part of a lucrative organised trade of luxury goods, pushing prices up.
A recent investigation to tackle illegal wildlife trade around Europe, known as Operation Thunder, saw more than 2,000 seizures of endangered animals and protected timber, reports the Guardian. Interpol warns that the trade is one of the most profitable areas for organised crime, and continues to grow, despite often posing a significant risk to human health.
Sandrella Morrison-Lanjouw, a biosurveillance researcher from Utrecht University in the Netherlands says: “Covid was a warning shot. Contaminated meat from a wet market in Africa can be in Europe in less than eight hours, but we won’t find what we are not looking for.”
While the scale of the illegal bushmeat trade is not known, scientific reviews indicate it is becoming increasingly commercialised. More demand has been in Africa, including Angola and Nigeria, with more people relying on the trade for income.
When meat is confiscated at customs, it is usually incinerated due to high costs and the difficulty of finding out what the animals could be. Providing scientific date on the extent of the issue in airports is therefore impossible. Authorities say some individuals carry as much as 80kg of luggage when they fly in.
Maarten Weyters, team leader of Brussels airport customs checks says: “For them, it’s an income. I think most of them know it’s illegal. It’s also illegal where they live.” Morrison-Lanjouw, who has written extensively on unregulated meat imports, says: “Very little is known about the true volume of this meat”, citing “biosurveillance blind spot for the EU” as the issue.
A key issue for airport staff is identifying the meat quickly, so that law enforcement can intervene. They use a machine called the MinION, developed by an Oxford University spin-off, to extract DNA. The kit can identify samples within eight hours. It is thought that the illegal meat trade seen in Brussels is happening in airports across Europe. “It’s coming in everywhere,” says Morrison-Lanjouw.
Anne-Lise Chaber, a researcher at Adelaide University says some customers believe bushmeat is healthier, while others prefer the taste. She says: “We have to work with the community and see what could replace bushmeat. I’m not against consumption of bushmeat locally, I am against the international trade.”