By Saliou Samb and Alphonso Toweh
CONAKRY/MONROVIA, March 27 (Reuters) - Bushmeat - from bats to antelopes, squirrels, porcupines and monkeys - has long held pride of place on family menus in West and Central Africa, whether stewed, smoked or roasted.
A visit to a traditional market in the region assails the senses with a huge variety of forest game - mammal, bird and reptile carcasses smoked and partitioned and the smell of singed animal hair filling the air.
But an outbreak of the deadly Ebola fever in Guinea has rekindled concerns about the health risks of age-old African hunting and eating traditions that bring humans into close contact with wild forest animals.
The World Health Organisation says about 86 suspected cases of Ebola have been reported, with 62 deaths so far. Guinean authorities put the death toll at 63.
Experts who have studied the Ebola virus from its discovery in 1976 in Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire, say its suspected origin - what they call the reservoir host - is forest bats. Links have also been made to the carcasses of freshly slaughtered animals consumed as bushmeat.
Bats - often served in a spicy stew called "kedjenou" - have long been a favourite in Guinea's southeastern Forest Zone, the epicentre of the current outbreak. But sales of these and other bushmeat delicacies have now been banned by Guinean authorities fighting the Ebola outbreak.
"We visited the markets in the region and there was no more bat meat on sale," Colonel Remy Lamah, Minister of Health, said from the area hit by the outbreak, which borders Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Liberia and Sierra Leone, which have reported suspected Ebola deaths, announced similar bans on the sale of bushmeat, spreading alarm and dismay among consumers and the many who make a living from the trade.
"PEOPLE WON'T BUY OUR MEAT"
"Our people here eat monkey and bat ... we have warned them about eating bushmeat," said Tolbert G. Nyenswah, a health official in Liberia. "We have warned them about coming into contact with fresh meat. We have also warned them about eating dead animals when they don't know what killed them."
In Ivory Coast's commercial hub Abidjan, signs at the Yopougon bushmeat market still offer rats, porcupine, agouti, squirrels, pangolin and bats "stewed or braised".
"We've heard the announcement and we're worried because people won't buy our meat now," said vendor Sophie Ouattara.
But specialists believe bushmeat bans will be ineffective, not just because of the scale of the traditional trade providing a valuable protein source to millions, but also because the link with Ebola is seen limited to very specific circumstances.
"You will not stop it ... I just think it's futile," said Bob Swanepoel, a virologist at the University of Pretoria's Zoonoses Research Unit, who has studied most of Africa's major outbreaks of Ebola and other similar haemorrhagic fevers like Marburg, Lassa and Crimean-Congo fever.
Swanepoel stressed that according to scientific evidence, the main risk of human infection by Ebola or Marburg is not thought to be from all bushmeat, only from infected animals and only from fresh carcasses.
"If you handle wet meat, there's a much bigger chance," he said, saying a 1996 outbreak in Gabon was believed to have been caused by local people eating the still fresh body of a dead chimpanzee they had come across in the forest.
Large primates, like chimpanzees and gorillas, also die from Ebola, Swanepoel said. They are also often killed by bushmeat hunters despite campaigns by international conservation groups battling to ensure their survival.
Swanepoel said cooking and smoking the meat was likely to reduced the chances of infection, but there was still a risk.
Besides local consumption, tonnes of African bushmeat finds its way each year to ethnic restaurants in Paris, Brussels and New York, where members of the African diaspora prize the dishes as a nostalgic treat from home.
In 2009, a Liberian woman caught smuggling baboon, green monkey and warthog meat into New York's John F. Kennedy airport was sentenced to three years of probation. Prosecutors cited the risk of disease and the need for wildlife conservation.
BEWARE THE BATS
Despite the fears over bushmeat, Swanepoel says study of Ebola and Marburg outbreaks since 1976 indicate it is close contact with bats in particular that seems to be behind the transmission to humans of the deadly virus that causes vomiting, diarrhoea and both internal and external bleeding.
"Ebola is likely harboured by bats living in the forest," Swanepoel said, citing suspected Ebola and Marburg infections in Congo, Uganda and Sudan traced to the presence of bats in caves, mines and factories frequented by humans.
This could also explain the dispersion of the outbreaks - Guinea, in the heart of West Africa, is thousands of kilometres away from the site of past outbreaks in Central and East Africa. Swathes of forest cover large parts of West Africa.
"These bats migrate vast distances," Swanepoel said, adding they could also infect other animals eaten by humans, such as antelopes. Bats are also hunted and consumed by some large animals such as baboons.
Swanepoel said three or four bat species were "under suspicion" for transmitting Ebola and scientists were still trying to pin down the specific reservoir host.
On his desk in Pretoria he keeps a model made of black beads of the Hammerhead Bat, Latin name Hypsignathus Monstrosus, to remind him of a likely carrier of one of the world's most lethal and feared diseases. "It's monstrously ugly," he said.
(Additional reporting by Alain Amontchi in Abidjan and Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Janet Lawrence)