Wildlife crime: Stealing animals to sell as pets

Poachers make tens of billions annually by abducting animals in Africa and Asia and selling them around the world.

A caged chimpanzee that had been smuggled and sold [Courtesy: GRASP/CRPL]

It is hell’s roll call. Wild chimpanzee numbers in Benin – none; in Burkina Faso – none; in Togo – none. More yet may join the extinction list. 

The illegal wildlife trade goes far beyond the dreadful story of ivory poaching.

The market across the world for live apes – specifically baby chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans plucked from their forest homes in Africa and Asia – is burgeoning.

Also being traded are the heads and skulls of the great apes, destined for markets from Nigeria to the United States. Some are used for black magic, others just as trophies for a mantelpiece.

Together with deforestation and the supply of bushmeat, the demand for live and dead ape parts is decimating and destroying populations where once they thrived.

“The live trade in apes particularly is growing,” said Doug Cress of the Great Apes Survival Partnership. “There are a few people in places like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar who just want a baby chimp or gorilla in their garden. It adds to their status. In China the demand comes from zoos and safari parks.

“And for one baby chimp taken from the wild, several adults have to be killed. We work on the principle that 10 adults die for every baby taken.”

An orangutan seized from a carry-on bag at an airport [Courtesy: Wildlife Conservation Society]
An orangutan seized from a carry-on bag at an airport [Courtesy: Wildlife Conservation Society]

Wildlife crime is worth tens of billions of dollars annually, and as well as threatening the very existence of species, it undermines ecosystems and strikes at the heart of poor communities.

According to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), one live gorilla brings Uganda about $1m a year in tourism revenue. Rwanda, a focal point for its mountain gorillas, made more than $300m in eco-tourism in 2014 – all money local communities can benefit from.

Elsewhere wildlife crime fills the coffers of armed militias and keeps the kingpins of the crime cartels rich; all cashing in on an activity that arguably ranks alongside human trafficking and the drugs and arms trades in its devastating effects.

On average somewhere around the world, twice a week, a live ape is confiscated at a border, a market, or in someone’s home.

“Do the maths,” said Cress. “In 2013 alone it was estimated that 3,000 apes were stolen from their habitats, which means thousands more died. And I reckon 3,000 is conservative.”

Orangutans are the most targeted of all. They represent 70 percent of all apes seized.

Kenya’s big bonfire of ivory

Live babies are usually smuggled in cabin baggage on regular passenger flights, Cress said. Sometimes they’ll be carried like a human baby wrapped up on a mother’s chest. Or shoved in a bag in the regular overhead compartments on the plane.

“A baby chimp in China will sell for $26,000,” he said. “A baby gorilla – something like $40,000. 

“And think about the Middle East where the apes are kept more as pets. That animal is going to grow pretty fast. Who wants a live adult gorilla in the front room? Then the animals are just disposed of.”

The extraordinary thing is that a trawl through social media reveals people posting pictures of themselves with their “pets”.


Elephant conservation: Kenya summit on poaching crisis

Campaign launched

The battle to end the crime, which is pushing some species to the brink of extinction, is being stepped up a gear. On Wednesday at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, a new campaign was launched. WildforLife aims to ignite a global movement.

“We will change only if we can get the whole world in on it,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UNEP. “This is not only a legal and a political response. This is the world coming together on an issue that speaks to every single one of us on the planet.”

But for some, the effort needs to go further.

“Is the UN leading the charge or following?” asked Winnie Kiiru, of Stop Ivory. “The UN needs to come down hard. It needs to impose sanctions to hit the kingpins of the criminal syndicates hard.”

Ofir Drori runs the Eagle Network in Cameroon – which actively pursues wildlife traffickers – their work has put 1,300 significant operators behind bars.

“There are three main problems in tackling the trade,” Drori said. “Corruption, corruption and corruption. The majority of our arrests are corrupt officials – corrupt police officers, corrupt military personnel, and corrupt magistrates. They’re enabling the trade to happen.”

He said that the world must focus on the big fish who run the crime syndicates. “In a way, with the illegal wildlife trade we must not think about elephants and apes. 

“Think instead about drug rings – about the sheer criminal nature of the cocaine trade. If you think that way, you understand how the wildlife trade is operating.”

John Scanlon of CITES, the organisation that imposes the legal framework on wildlife trade, said law enforcement must combine with a consolidated effort to reduce demand for these products.

“The trade is being driven by transnational crime groups,” Scanlon said. “We need to target the demand whether it’s ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales or rosewood.”

An orangutan seized from a basket [Courtesy: GRASP/BOS Foundation]
An orangutan seized from a basket [Courtesy: GRASP/BOS Foundation]

Source: Al Jazeera