By Elizabeth A Kennedy
Nairobi, Kenya - James Akedi's plate is piled with fragrant strips of nyama choma, the entree of choice in much of East Africa whose name means, quite simply, roasted meat.
Akedi can only hope he's getting what he paid for: 1kg of government-inspected, disease-free beef.
Kenyan authorities say wild animals such as zebra and wildebeest are illegally slaughtered and passed off as beef - posing grave threats from diseases such as Ebola and anthrax linked to eating the flesh of infected animals.
"I have always been cautious when going out to buy meat," Akedi said. "But you never know."
Over the weekend, police recovered more than 200kg of "bushmeat" in an unrefrigerated minibus travelling from a wildlife dispersal area outside Nairobi National Park, Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman Paul Udoto said.
The driver said he was going to pass off the meat as beef at Nairobi markets, Udoto said.
Similar shipments have been entering Nairobi nearly every day for the past two months, the wildlife service said. Three people have been arrested and are charged with poaching and illegal trade in wildlife meat.
"This is a big threat to human consumption," Udoto said. "It has not been inspected by veterinary officials."
Human outbreaks of Ebola, a deadly virus that causes massive hemorrhaging, have been linked to handling carcasses and eating the flesh of wild animals infected with the disease. Anthrax and the hemorrhagic disease Rift Valley fever are also risks to people who are exposed to dead infected animals or eat tissue from infected animals.
The problem isn't limited to Africa, either: In southern China, authorities have cracked down on a burgeoning illegal civet cat trade to prevent an outbreak of SARS. Civet cats, mongoose-like animals, are considered a delicacy in China and are suspected of spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome to humans.
In many West and Central African countries, bushmeat - particularly from primates and elephants - is considered a delicacy. But in Kenya, the main reason is the lower cost. While beef sells for around $1 per pound, a pound of bush meat may cost 20 US cents.
The problem of bushmeat making its way onto Kenyans' dinner plates is not new. In 2004, a conservation group analysed the meat from 202 butchers in Nairobi, finding that 25 percent of the products surveyed were bushmeat and 19 percent a mixture of game and meat from domestic animals.
"The statistics suggest that nearly half the meat bought and sold from the 202 butcheries in the survey is either entirely or partly bushmeat," said the report by the Born Free Foundation.
Saturday's haul and the KWS investigation suggest that the trade is still thriving - something that Milton Njoroge, the officer in charge of Nairobi's popular Burma Market, freely acknowledges.
"For sure this is going on," Njoroge told The Associated Press from his office at the market, cow carcasses hanging outside the door. "They won't bring this meat in the daytime; they do it at night. They bring them inside sacks. They chop it up very fast. It becomes hard for us to know what has happened."
The market houses independently run stalls where small hotels, kiosks and individual customers can buy meat.
Veterinary and City Council officials are there during the day but at night, private guards patrol against theft. Njoroge said there are concerns that criminals could be paying off private guards.
Stall managers interviewed by the AP denied trading in illegal meat, saying they only deal with meat that is still on the bone so they know exactly what kind of animal it comes from. The problem arises from boneless meat, like that from zebra and wildebeest found last weekend.
Slaughtering wildlife is illegal in Kenya. The government banned sport hunting in 1977, but allowed limited hunting to cull animals and harvest game meat until 2003, when animal rights groups managed to shut it down.
Nairobi Mayor Dick Wathika said officials were investigating to ensure food safety.
"I wish to assure Nairobians that no meat will be served to them uninspected," he said this week.
Many Nairobi residents aren't so sure.
"Many people in Nairobi must have eaten this meat thinking it was beef," said John Njoroge, who owns a fast-food joint in Nairobi. "Just goes to show that what don't know can't hurt you."
But Njoroge, the Burma Market officer, isn't taking any chances.
When asked whether he would eat meat sold at his market, he balked. "No," he said. "I don't buy here." - Sapa-AP