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Report: Widespread Trafficking of Great Apes

At least 3,000 great apes believed trafficked every year. Credit: GRASP
At least 3,000 great apes believed trafficked every year. Credit: GRASP

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Joe DeCapua
It’s estimated at least 3,000 great apes are illegally seized and sold every year. For every ape that is captured alive, many others are slaughtered. A new report Tuesday says law enforcement is undermanned and too poorly equipped to stop it.


The report, "Stolen Apes," was released in Thailand at the 16th meeting of CITES -- formally known as the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Doug Cress, coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Partnership, or GRASP, said the report is, what’s called, a rapid response assessment.

“We were aware that there were a great number of chimpanzees, for instance, going out of Guinea into China -- that there were a great number of orangutans moving out of Indonesia into Thailand. And yet we had no baseline data to really tell us how bad this problem was. And everybody who works in conservation of great apes had this sense of something terrible was happening, but we didn’t have any numbers to tell the story.”

The report said that over the past decade great apes have become a very lucrative commodity. For example, an illegally seized chimpanzee is worth about $25,000 in China.
International trafficking of great apes is on the rise. Credit: GRASPInternational trafficking of great apes is on the rise. Credit: GRASP
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International trafficking of great apes is on the rise. Credit: GRASP
International trafficking of great apes is on the rise. Credit: GRASP

“We’re talking about live great apes here. This is the issue that they have become such a commodity, for instance, in Asia and the Middle East. They’re prized as pets. They’re used in breeding centers. They’re used in bio-medical research. They’re used in tourist attractions. There’s such a demand for them that it’s worth the risk of trafficking in live great apes. When you talk of ivory you’re talking about a dead animal at that point. With great apes we’re talking about a living, breathing animal that is very much like a human being in what it needs to survive,” said Cress.

Cress said there is massive loss of life when a great ape is captured.

“He represents probably at least 10 others that died to get him that far because hunters can’t walk into a forest and pick up a chimpanzee. You have to kill every other chimpanzee in the group to get one – one baby – and take it away. Because chimpanzees, just like a human being, will fight to protect their groups,” he said.

The days of individual poachers are over. Cress says poaching of great apes is mostly done by sophisticated organized crime.

“It’s clearly driven by criminal networks that are far better armed, far better sourced, far better funded and far more creative, frankly, than law enforcement is. And in terms of great apes for sure they are winning that war right now. Between 2005 and 2007, we tracked 22,000 thousand great apes that were moved illegally around the world. Only 27 arrests occurred,” said Cress.

Traffickers often transport the apes from country to country in Africa before getting them off of the continent. Cress said it’s usually inhumane.

“They are stuffed into crates and labeled as dogs. They’re put into hidden compartments. They’re wrapped up inside bags full of drugs. They stuffed into cardboard cartons. We’ve had two that were end-to-end in a cardboard poster tube. And the only reason they were discovered is the tube began to move on a conveyer belt in an odd fashion in an airport in the Middle East. The guy opened the tube and two chimpanzee babies popped out.”

The report, "Stolen Apes," says it’s not enough to crackdown in countries where poaching occurs. The demand for great apes in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere must be stopped. It recommends poachers be arrested and prosecuted and given long prison terms if convicted.

It also recommends countries confiscate trafficked great apes and return them to their home countries within eight weeks. Home can be determined by DNA tests. Once returned they can be brought to sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers.

Cress said the great ape most likely to die from being trafficked is the seemingly fierce and powerful gorilla.

“Gorillas are actually the most fragile ape of all. And we find the numbers abnormally high in terms of gorillas that die as a result of illegal trade because they’re so stressed. They don’t handle the trauma of capture at all well. Gorillas tend to give up and it used to be said that they died of broken hearts. They just seem to give up hope and they just collapse,” he said.

Cress said that trafficking in great apes is morally wrong. But he also says it’s bad for the environment. For example, he says when chimpanzees disappear from a forest, the health of the forest declines.

The trafficking of great apes is nothing new. Apes are found in Egyptian hieroglyphics and they were valued even in the days of King Solomon.

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