Nanyuki, Kenya – When Amisero was rescued, the young chimpanzee was standing in a pool of vomit and diarrhoea, close to death after spending her childhood locked behind bars in the home of a private collector in Burundi.
Believe it or not, she is one of the lucky ones. Conservationists say that growing numbers of chimps are dragged from West African forests each year and shipped abroad to spend their lives performing crowd-pleasing stunts.
In Asian zoos, illegally imported chimpanzees swing their fists in clumsy boxing matches or dress up in bridal gowns for mock weddings. Others complement the secret menageries of wealthy sheikhs in the oil-rich Gulf.
While the black markets in rhino horn and elephant tusk attract global media attention, guardians of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans say the great apes face a similar existential threat but are largely forgotten.
“It’s a serious problem. In 50 years, chimpanzees could be extinct,” said David Mundia, the keeper of Amisero and other members of the human-like species at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya’s central highlands.
“When Amisero arrived, she was dehydrated, on brink of death and had to be drip-fed to keep her alive. She’s doing well now, but chimpanzees are like humans. They suffer from post-traumatic stress and can take many years to recover.”
Spike in trafficking
This month, the United Nations and the Great Apes Survival Partnership (Grasp) released a provisional estimate of the scale of animal losses. They said almost 3,000 great apes are removed from the wild each year, two-thirds of which are chimpanzees.
For decades, the animals have been hunted as jungle food and lost their canopies to loggers, miners, oil drillers and ranchers. But researchers have uncovered a worrying spike in great ape trafficking in the past five years.
“Traditionally it was a by-product of the bush-meat trade. Now, poachers are entering forests because they have standing orders for chimpanzees and other great apes from clients in China, the Far East and the wealthy Gulf states,” said Doug Cress, coordinator of GRASP.
Chimpanzees typically fight off gun-toting poachers, meaning about 10 animals are killed for every baby chimp that is captured, often wiping out whole communities. Many orphans suffocate in cramped packing crates.
Researchers describe smart criminal networks underpinning the trade, bringing together wildlife hunters and the traffickers who bribe park wardens and corrupt customs men to sneak their quarry across borders.
In Africa, home to most of the world’s half-million great apes, there is growing evidence that the Lord’s Resistance Army and other militia are cashing in on the lucrative animal trade to finance their rebellions.
Poachers sell live baby chimpanzees for as little as $50. Middle-men multiply that price fourfold. At the top end of the market, orangutans fetch $1,000 at re-sale while trophy animals like gorillas carry a $400,000 price tag.
Once chimps outgrow their photogenic infancy, they become too strong, unpredictable and dangerous to handle and have been known to savage keepers. This perpetuates the demand for new chimp orphans from the forest.
All great apes are endangered and protected under the toughest rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Listed animals can only be traded internationally if they were bred in captivity, rather than from the wild.
But there is a loophole. Traffickers in West Africa falsify CITES permits to describe animals as captive-bred. Importers “turn a blind eye to the details because they have so many standing orders in their zoos, amusement parks and private collections”, said Cress.
Only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia from the great ape trade from 2005-11, said Cress. He calls for anti-corruption probes, better policing of CITES rules and the confiscation, DNA-testing and repatriation of all trafficked great apes.
Action is being taken. On the eve of this month’s CITES meeting in Bangkok, the 177-nation group slapped sanctions on Guinea because the West African state had issued fraudulent permits for great apes and other beasts.
But discussions in Thailand focussed more on the conservation of elephants, rhinos, sharks and manta rays than on boosting protection for chimps, gorillas, bonobos and the long-haired orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra.
“We’re late to the party,” said Cress. “The black market for elephants and rhinos has been analysed for years, much longer than for great apes. We had to catch up with other flagship species and put them in the same debate about illegal trade, crime and enforcement.”
Other conservationists are less sanguine about the animals’ survival. The wildlife activist Karl Ammann, who goes undercover to expose West Africa’s primate trading rings, describes sluggish global protection efforts.
“CITES is a toothless body. They want a smooth-running operation where everybody pats each other’s back and everybody has skeletons in their closet. I don’t expose yours. You don’t expose mine. That’s how it works,” he told Al Jazeera.
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“You have to remember who has these animals. Influential people in the Middle East who are too powerful to be prosecuted. Zoo owners in Asia will continue making thousands of dollars from exhibiting chimps because they know the chances of being caught are so slim.”
He calls for tougher curbs on the so-called “gang of eight” countries that are behind much wildlife trafficking. They include the supply states of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and consumers in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
‘Ticket back to the wild’
Conservationists highlight some gains, such as the growing numbers of mountain gorillas in Rwanda thanks to cash-flows from wildlife tourism, anti-graft efforts and national pride in the charismatic primates.
Things are different across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rangers are often blocked from their gorillas by clashes between government and rebel forces. Silverbacks have even been killed in the crossfire.
Peter Jenkins, a primate conservationist in Nigeria and Cameroon, describes pervasive corruption across West Africa combined with a rampant demand for farmland, homes and logging in booming economies with growing populations.
“In the worst-case scenario, we lose the vast tracts of forest that are home to large populations of wild animals and are left with pockets of wildlife in national parks, where they are protected and monitored, but little more than drive-through zoos,” he said.
Researchers also warn of a hidden threat from trafficking primates without proper medical checks, pointing to their genetic similarity to man and the inter-species migration of the Ebola virus and HIV/Aids.
“Every time a chimp is captured, we risk cross-species transmissions,” said Ammann. “Epidemics like HIV cost us billions and tens of thousands of lives. If that isn’t incentive enough for the world community to monitor relations with our closest animal relatives then I don’t know what is.”
Back at central Kenya’s chimpanzee sanctuary, wardens fling bananas through an electrified fence as 42 rescued primates shriek and bounce towards the fruit on all fours, propelled by their powerful forearms.
That is, except for Poco, one the saddest stories from Sweetwaters. He walks erect on two legs, his anatomy conditioned from spending nine years dangling in a cage that was so cramped he could only squat or stand upright.
For Cress, ill treatment of our closest animal relatives shows that mankind has “crossed a very sinister line”. His thoughts go with the great apes that languish in zoos where welfare is not a priority.
“It’s a living hell,” he said. “They’re a million miles from home. They’ve had their family slaughtered right before their eyes. They’ve been shipped in inhumane circumstances, where many die of thirst, illness or neglect. It takes years before they recover from their ordeal. They have nightmares.
“And only a tiny few wind up in sanctuaries or get a ticket back into the wild.”