A justified public outcry arose yesterday at news that some traders in east London’s Ridley Road market have been selling illegally imported meats, including Ghanaian cane rat. The bushmeat trade is a destructive and criminal operation, a potential threat to public health, to the environment and even to the security of certain species.
It was almost certainly west African hunters butchering chimpanzees for food that led to the relatively tame simian immunodeficiency virus jumping species and mutating into its monstrous, pandemic cousin, HIV/Aids. The Bushmeat Crisis Task Force has documented the environmental damage wreaked by some bushmeat hunting methods, such as people starting forest fires to smoke their quarry out. Many of the African animals commonly used for bushmeat, including gorillas and elephants, are endangered.
But much of the disgusted reaction to this news overlooks an important point. One tabloid headline capitalised “rat” as though the Ridley Road stallholders had been selling Cockney rodents hauled from the sewers. In fact, cane rat looks rather more like a cat-sized, short-haired guinea pig. Its meat is said to be lean, “succulent and sweet” , and low in cholesterol. In Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, where it’s more appealingly called grasscutter, people actually farm it.