The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a new report about the illegal wildlife trade and the trafficking of great apes from the forests of Africa and Asia. The authors of the report, Stolen Apes: The Illicit Trade in Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Bonobos and Orangutans, estimate that nearly 3,000 of the apes are traded each year.
The report was put together in collaboration with the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), and it highlights that since 2005 an estimated 22,218 individual great apes has been lost from the wild. It is the first report that has been published that looked specifically at the market and smuggling of the apes and was released during the CITES meeting in Bangkok.
Not all the 22,218 apes lost since 2005 made it to their ultimate destination with many expected to have died during the capture attempt and transport to their final destinations. About 65% of the trade in great apes is made up of the chimpanzees.
The figures are based on international research into the numbers of great apes actually caught being smuggled and confiscated during the period 2005 and 2011. Figures were gleaned from customs officials, law enforcement agencies and ape sanctuaries.
Over the past seven years, a minimum of 643 chimpanzees, 48 bonobos, 98 gorillas and 1,019 orangutans are documented to have been captured from the wild for illegal trade. These figures are just the tip of the iceberg, and extrapolating from this research the report estimates that at least 2,972 great apes are lost from the wild each year.
“The taking of great apes from the wild is not new – it has gone on for well over a century,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. “But the current scale outlined in this report underlines how important it is that the international community and the organizations responsible for conserving endangered species remain vigilant, keeping a step ahead of those seeking to profit from such illegal activities.”
At one time the impact of deforestation was the major concern for the great apes but now the growing trade is fuelled by the tourist industry, private collectors and unethical zoos. While private collectors seek the status symbol of owning an endangered and protected species the tourist and entertainment industry sees great apes as a way to make profits. tourist stalls offering photo opportunities with apes are commonplace and theme parks will even have boxing apes on display as entertainment.
Since 2007, standing orders from zoos and private owners in Asia have spurred the export of over 130 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas under falsified permits from Guinea alone, an enterprise that requires a coordinated trading network through Central and West Africa. A safari park in Thailand admitted in 2006 that it acquired at least 54 orangutans from the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.
“It is important to establish baseline figures for the illegal trade in great apes, even if these numbers only hint at the devastation,” said Doug Cress, coordinator of GRASP. “Great apes are extremely important for the health of forests in Africa and Asia, and even the loss of 10 or 20 at a time can have a deep impact on biodiversity.”
Profit margins are high for the criminal networks. The report found that a poacher may sell a live chimpanzee for US$50, whereas the middleman will resell that same chimpanzee at a mark-up of as much as 400 per cent.
Orangutans can fetch US$1,000 at re-sale, and gorillas illegally sold to a zoo in Malaysia in 2002 reportedly went for US$400,000 each.
“The illegal trade in apes has little to do with poverty,” said Ofir Drori, founder of the Last Great Ape Organization in Cameroon. “It is instead generated by the rich and powerful.”
Law enforcement efforts lag far behind the rates of illegal trade. Only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia in connection with great ape trade between 2005 and 2011, and one-fourth of the arrests were never prosecuted.
The connection between the wildlife trade and serious drug smugglers was highlighted in one incident in the report where a smuggler was found to have crammed a chimpanzee in with a load of sacks of marijuana.
The report recommends a series of actions for CITES members to consider putting in place:
- Establish an electronic database that includes the numbers, trends and tendencies of the illegal great ape trade, and monitor arrests, prosecutions and convictions as a means of assessing national commitment.
- Target organized crime by investigating traffickers and buyers, establishing trans-national criminal intelligence units targeting environmental crime to ensure that intelligence is compiled, analyzed and shared with national police forces, customs and INTERPOL, and prosecuting the accused to the fullest extent of the law.
- Utilize national and international multimedia campaigns to eliminate the trade/ownership/use of great apes and emphasize laws and deterrent punishment.
- DNA-test all confiscated great apes and return to country of origin ? if discernible ? within eight weeks of confiscation.
- Review national laws and penalties relating to the killing and trafficking of great apes and support efforts to forcefully implement and strengthen those laws.
- Increase enforcement of protected areas, to both reduce illegal trade in great apes and to protect their habitat.