ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — As the deadly outbreak of Ebola has subsided, people in several West African countries are flocking to eat bushmeat again after restrictions were lifted on the consumption of wild animals like hedgehogs and cane rats. But some health experts call it a risky move.
Ivory Coast, which neighbors two of the three countries where Ebola killed more than 11,300 people since December 2013, lifted its ban on wild animal meat this month.
The meat of squirrel, deer, fruit bats and rats has long been a key source of protein for many in the region, but it is also a potential source of the Ebola virus.
Though bushmeat hasn't officially been linked to West Africa's recent Ebola outbreak, the deadliest in history, infections in Africa have been associated with hunting, butchering and processing meat from infected animals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The Ebola virus is then spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of victims or corpses.
"From a public health standpoint, this decision is unfortunate at best," said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. "The only source of Ebola in the world is infected animals, and there's good evidence that some of these animals, like bats, can be infected for a long time."
However, not all bushmeat is equal, he said. Bats pass on the virus and travel far. Some types of rodents can get the virus. Primate meat is likely not as much of a danger, given that they succumb to Ebola more quickly than people.
"There's a good case for banning the sale of bats as bushmeat. The other sources are a lesser risk," Neuman said. "I don't want to see it all legal, but we don't want to see people go hungry, either."
Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana all warned against, or banned, the sale of bushmeat in 2014 as the outbreak emerged. They began rolling back those restrictions after the World Health Organization said in March that Ebola was no longer an international health emergency.
Many in the countries are happy that they can now enjoy the meat they have always relied on. Some believe it is tastier than imported meats or chicken, and it's often cheaper.
"We weren't happy that the government banned us from eating bushmeat these past two years. But we did what we were told because of Ebola," said Lucien Douhan while shopping for bushmeat in the Yopougon suburb of Abidjan.
In the teeming open-air markets, vendors handled the stiffened meat in recognizable animal form. Bat wings competed for space on worn wooden tables with other meat, some tails and claws still attached. Flies buzzed. A machete hacked.
Those who sell the meat say they have been through hard times.
"We couldn't afford for our kids to go to school. It was hard for us. We had to sell frogs so the kids could eat, and we sold snails too," said Brigitte Gahie. "But today, thanks be to God, the meat is back and the people are coming back."
In Guinea, bushmeat sales are still illegal, said Mohamed Tall, the minister of livestock and animal production there. Despite the ban, people still consume it.
"We ate it before Ebola. We eat it after Ebola. Nothing can stop me from eating it," said Marcel Yombouno in Guinea.
Liberia issued a warning against the consumption of bushmeat during Ebola, but now the meat is being sold openly. In Sierra Leone, a bushmeat ban has been lifted.
Ebola first appeared in 1976 in Congo and has caused periodic outbreaks there and in other African countries. Its re-emergence is likely, said Neuman, given the densely populated areas where Ebola has occurred.
"Ebola will come again," he said. "Hopefully we will be ready this time."
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal; AP writers Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea; Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia contributed to this report.