Monkey heads, rats trigger probe of Chicago store
...agents intercepted a container shipped by boat from Ghana
US Federal authorities are investigating a Chicago West Side store that received a shipment of monkey heads and two dozen dead cane rats in a rare criminal inquiry into what experts say is a robust but underground business: illegally smuggling meat to Chicago residents hungry for a taste from their African homelands.
Fish and Wildlife Service agents raided African Art and Objects in the Austin community last month, carting off animal carcasses, at least one chimpanzee head, ivory beads and computers.
Customers wishing to enter the store, which stocks African art, incense and soap, first must ring a doorbell. The store is registered to Doris Kuforiji, whose husband, Leroy, pleaded guilty in 2000 to charges of illegally importing elephant tusks, court records show. He was sentenced to six months of probation and fined $2,500.
On May 3, agents intercepted a container shipped by boat from Ghana and headed to the store. Inside, in a brown cardboard box labeled "Blue Brand Spread for Bread," agents found 14 cane rats impaled on sticks, six monkey heads, numerous impaled mice and a pit-viper skull, records show.
Experts say Chicago is one of the North American centers of the bush-meat trade, which conservationists say is partially responsible for the dwindling numbers of great apes and chimpanzees in the wild. There is some difference of opinion, however, on how much impact demand in the U.S. and Europe — where bush-meat prices are quite high — has on the widespread killing of primates in Africa.
The government has warned about the potential health dangers posed by monkey meat, which can contain diseases including the simian version of HIV. But other experts say there are no known cases of human transference and the disease risk is miniscule compared to risks associated with illegal U.S. imports of exotic pets.
Still, the amount of bush meat smuggled through international airports is "staggering," said Crawford Allan, director of the North American branch of TRAFFIC, an international group that monitors animal trafficking. A study published last month based on passenger searches at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris found that an estimated 273 tons of illegal bush meat is smuggled through that airport each year.
At O'Hare International Airport, U.S. Customs agents seize unidentified meats, typically smoked, wrapped in paper and hidden inside luggage every week, said spokeswoman Cherise Miles, who could not say how much is seized. The meat, much of it reptile or bush meat, is then turned over to Fish and Wildlife agents for identification, she said.
"It's an important subculture for a number of people," Allan said of bush meat. "But it just really isn't appropriate for this to happen in the U.S. There's a major conservation impact (on endangered species) with this kind of meat."
Allan said in the U.S. bush meat can be found in ethnic grocery stores, in restaurants where off-the-menu items like cane rat are available and sometimes even in private homes where people run "bush-meat restaurants" that serve endangered species.
There is at least one bush-meat marketplace in Chicago, operating outdoors part of the year, said Justin Brashares, an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley who is studying bush-meat markets in 40 cities across North America.
Brashares' research shows only an estimated 1 percent of bush meat harvested in Africa is sent abroad. He believes federal authorities should formalize a legal process for those who wish to import meat not linked to endangered species.
"It's fairest to say there is a deep African history of using wildlife that goes beyond just nutrition," he said. "(They're saying) 'You guys love turkeys for Thanksgiving, we want to keep this as part of our culture.' Many consumers would prefer (a legal process) than having to feel like criminals while eating (foods they grew up with)."
No charges have been filed since the June 8 raid. The Kuforijis, of Rolling Meadows, could not be reached for comment though messages were left by phone and at their store.