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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Like many West African immigrants in New York's Park Hill neighborhood, Liberian Jacob Massaquoi has a story about bringing bushmeat into the United State -- in his case, three dried monkey carcasses.
Massaquoi listed "bushmeat" on his customs declaration form when entering JFK Airport around 2001. The meat was confiscated and Massaquoi, the head of an African community organization, was fined $250.
"It's like telling an Englishman, you can't have your baked beans," Massaquoi said. "Bushmeat is an integral part of our culture and something that we cherish."
U.S. health officials say a steady flow of bushmeat is brought illegally into the United States, largely by West and Central African immigrants. Officials say the imports are a serious public health hazard.
New York's state legislature may increase the penalties for smuggling, although immigrants say the dangers are overblown and the crackdown smacks of anti-African prejudice.
Officials say even a small amount of tainted bushmeat -- a staple of some African diets that includes chimpanzee, gorilla, antelope, birds and rodents -- could lead to an outbreak of Ebola, monkey pox or other infectious diseases.
"It just takes one piece of meat that's infected with Ebola virus for us to have a major disaster on our hands," said Pascal Imperato, a former New York City Health Commissioner and the former director of an immunization drive in West Africa.
"It spreads very rapidly. It is very difficult to contain and control."
Salmonella and food poisoning also are serious concerns.
Common ways of preparing the meat -- drying, smoking or salting -- may not always kill viruses that cause human disease.
Dale Peterson, scientist and author of "Eating Apes," said Ebola -- an incurable hemorrhagic fever with a high mortality rate -- can be spread through butchering chimpanzees and that a person could possibly contract Ebola after the meat is transported.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite a 2003 case in which monkey pox was spread from African rats to prairie dogs when the two species were briefly housed together before being sold into U.S. homes as pets.
There were no human deaths linked to the outbreak.
"There are definitely people making money out of smuggling bushmeat into the United States and selling it to their friends and their contacts and colleagues who want that taste of home," said Crawford Allan, director of the World Wildlife Fund's traffic program.
In December, U.S. Customs officials at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., discovered the charred carcasses of three monkeys in the luggage of someone arriving from Central Africa, local media reported.
Later this year, federal prosecutors are expected to make their case against Mamie Manneh, 39, a Liberian immigrant from Park Hill -- in the New York City borough of Staten Island -- who has been charged with smuggling bits of baboon, green monkey and warthog into the country.
"I understand why some may say that this is not exactly a pressing issue but if they were one of the 700 remaining mountain gorillas, they would realize it is a very important issue," said Assemblyman Greg Ball, sponsor of a bill that would increase fines for importing bushmeat.
Edward Lama Wonkeryor, a Liberian professor of African American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, said he remembers bringing bits of monkey, reindeer and lion to the United States while a student in the 1970s.
While he said he has personally forgotten the taste after living outside of Africa for decades, he says immigrants were being demonized while deforestation, mining and war were much more devastating for the environment.
"The practices of a small African community are being scapegoated for the exploitation of natural resources," Wonkeryor said.
For now, Massaquoi said he is resigned to eating smoked turkey, the U.S. product that he said most resembles monkey.
"Right now, I would pay anything for some bushmeat. I miss it so badly," he said. "It is very tasty, very delicious."
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh