Monkey heads, rats trigger probe of West Side store
Federal agents investigating possible ties to bush-meat smuggling
Federal authorities are investigating a 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.
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.
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.