From Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, by Gina Rae La Cerva©. 2020. Greystone Books. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
The conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Deforest is long and sprawling. It must be a slow day for illegal wildlife trafficking, or perhaps no one else had ever taken such an interest in his work. He has bright blue eyes, short bangs, and a goatee-mustache combo grown just past the stubble phase. There are two swords hanging on the wall behind him and a lamp of twisted wood on the filing cabinet.
Massive trade networks transport food products from Africa to the growing diaspora in Europe. Semi-legal container shipments arrive at European ports regularly, packed with vegetables, fish, and fruit. But wild game is brought to Europe in a much different manner. Each week, flights from Kinshasa and other African cities carry immense quantities of smoked meat, crammed into passenger luggage, smuggled by hand. Paris has become a hub of the illegal trade.
“We spend a lot of time going to grocery stores looking for fraud,” Deforest says. “Most manufactured products—80 percent or so—are legal. But the rest, there are issues with stickers and logos. Like French products with labels written in Polish. Not serious fraud, but something we are tasked with enforcing. The vegetables and fruits, those are often imported without sanitary declarations—so they might have pests or banned pesticide residue on the peel.”
He sits back and smiles, pausing only for a moment before continuing on. Behind him is a plaque from the Knight of the Brotherhood of Gastronomes of the Sea and Wine Companions, an organization that requires its members to say an oath of loyalty to Muscadet, a type of dry and fruity wine that pairs particularly well with seafood.
“Only some stores sell bushmeat, not all, and at 99 percent of those that do, it is hidden in the back office or underground storage. Most of the time, it’s on demand—you have to order it ahead of time. The meat comes mainly through commercial airlines, mostly Air France in hand luggage, so we’ve conducted systematic raids targeting certain flights from Africa. It’s a mix between people bringing meat on opportunity and more formal trafficking. But nobody cares about bushmeat in France, not in terms of the concern for wildlife. And if they do it’s because of fears about pathogenic agents—like Ebola.”
I had heard about this concern over Ebola from other Westerners as well, but it seemed more rooted in fear than reality. The highest risk comes from hunting the animals, as the hunters are exposed to blood and other bodily fluids. However, there is a slight risk that if the meat trafficked into Paris is raw or not entirely cooked, it could carry the disease. So far no one has gotten sick this way, though.
“In theory you get one year in jail or a €15,000 fine—that’s the CITES code for illegal trafficking of endangered species,” Deforest says, continuing his explanation of the law. “Although if you are part of an organized crime conspiracy, then it’s up to seven years in jail and a €750,000 fine. But wildlife crime really isn’t a priority of customs. They are more concerned with narcotics, contraband cigarettes, and counterfeit items.”
He turns his computer monitor toward me. “Here, I will show you some videos. For Africans, bushmeat has very symbolic value. It is tradition, yes, but almost religious, like spiritual.”
We watch shaky footage of recent airport luggage raids. One woman is visibly distressed—It’s my medicine, she cries as the masked scientists in lab coats and plastic gloves carefully unwrap hunks of meat, which have been packaged in black plastic, white paper, and tinfoil. I am sick! she says, over and over. A man in a police uniform tries to calm the woman down.
“Some of the meat we find, like fresh lizard meat, is red and nearly raw and you can see worms,” Deforest tells me. “In November 2012, the control at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport found a whole fresh fish, without the eyes, just superficially smoked. It measured four feet by two feet and weighed fifteen to twenty kilograms. Once they found the head of an antelope. Another time, an elephant tail.”
I watch the screen as another uniformed man, with a gun in his holster, photographs a jumbled collection of brown smoked pangolin and muskrats that had been confiscated from a different passenger.
“Besides the airports, we also did a raid in December in the Château Rouge neighborhood,” Deforest continues. “There were a lot of public order problems with that one. When we arrived, twenty or twenty-five women were lined up on the sidewalk waiting to buy bats. It is a meat that is quite appreciated during Christmas and Easter. So it is understandable, all the women shouting and crying, trying to prevent the confiscation of several dozen kilos of bushmeat. Imagine all the turkeys in New York taken away two days before Thanksgiving. There would be riots!”
“What do you do with the meat that you confiscate?” I ask.
“After we are done with it, food control takes it. At first, we were just throwing it away, destroying it by pouring detergent or washing powder on it, and putting trash bags of the denatured meat in front of the stores that were selling it. But then we started hearing stories of people taking the meat inside and washing it—that would produce loads of foam! So now food control has to take it. They burn it.”
And then the conversation meanders and Deforest is telling me about all the wildlife trafficking he has encountered in his job. He explains the underground market in France for the ortolan, the tiny songbird that is drowned and cooked in Armagnac, eaten whole, bones and all, while the diner wears a napkin placed over his head, so that, according to tradition, he doesn’t offend God with his luxury. He tells me about New Caledonia and French Polynesia and the turtle meat consumed by locals and French citizens. About the endangered glass eel, which is trafficked by highly organized, industrial-scale poachers, who send the live eels by cargo plane to China or Korea, although indirectly, with a detour first to Morocco, where the eels are fattened up before being sent back through Charles de Gaulle, but because they are in transit, customs can’t touch them. He tells me about black-market caviar, and Chinese caviar farms, and raids on caviar shops, and “caviar” made of agar-agar, and how the internet is full of fake caviar. He tells me that the iconic escargot snails have been so overharvested in France, they are no longer found in the wild, so they must be sourced from Poland or Hungary. He tells me about the farms for red deer and pheasant and roe deer and ostrich. About zebra farms in Eastern Europe and eating kangaroo, and how the American crayfish was accidentally introduced in France, wiping out the native river crayfish, and that because of heavy pollution and the drying of swamps, their edible frogs have almost disappeared, and now 99 percent must be imported from Turkey or Hungary, Romania or the Czech Republic; he tells me about the savage hunters in Japan and the Faroe Islands killing whales and dolphins, about crocodile farms and donkey sausage, and eventually we arrive at edible bird’s nest soup from Borneo, where the wildest, most traditional tribes still mostly eat nuts, fruits, and forest vegetables.
“I’m a crazy traveler,” he says. “They eat this jungle fern! It has become an urban delicacy. I tried it in Kuching. Very good!”
I can hear my stomach grumbling. It is time for lunch.
Jules Torti’s work has been published in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. With experiences as a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer, she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.