Customs officials at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris say they have seized almost 400 skulls from protected monkey species over seven months last year.
Customs agents at the French capital’s largest airport said on Thursday that they intercepted 392 posted packages from May to December 2022 containing primate skulls mostly from Cameroon and destined for recipients in the United States.
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They also seized hundreds more packages with skulls or bones from other species. None of the items seized included any legal authorisations for the sale of protected species, customs said.
“Trafficking in protected species is one of the most lucrative trades after drugs, weapons and people trafficking,” airport customs chief Gilbert Beltran told reporters as he displayed hundreds of skulls, jaws and horns from protected species.
This “sordid” business generates 8 billion to 20 billion euros ($8.5bn to $21.3bn) per year, Beltran said.
According to news reports, the skulls were likely destined for collectors and hunting clubs in the US, where the skulls are presented as gifts or prizes.
Some of the packages also contained whole animals or forearms with hands.
Customs officials first became aware of the monkey skull trade in May 2022 when they discovered seven skulls that had been posted from Africa.
They intensified their search and found dozens more, mostly from the cercopithecoid family, which includes macaques, baboons and mandrills, and from chimpanzees.
The primates are usually hunted down for meat, said Fabrice Gayet, a customs expert in animal trafficking. “The sale of the skulls is a follow-on business,” he said.
The skulls of small primates fetch 30 to 50 euros ($32 to $53) each, larger ones 400 to 500 euros ($426 to $532) and chimpanzee skulls up to 1,000 euros ($1,065), he said.
There is also a flourishing business in the remains of other species, including otters, big cats, lizards and birds of prey.
The skulls will be handed over to the Museum of Natural History in Aix-en-Provence in southern France for scientific evaluation.
“I am stunned to think that our closest relatives, apes and great apes, are being decimated and rainforests robbed of their endangered biodiversity for a business that is as stupid as it is outrageous,” the museum’s ape expert Professor Sabrina Krief said.