Illegal trade threatening great apes

International trade in illegal wildlife that has driven creatures like the tiger to near-extinction is also threatening the survival of great apes, according to a new UN report.

Endangered chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos are disappearing from the wild as private owners pay top prices for exotic pets, while disreputable zoos, amusement parks and travelling circuses clamour for smuggled primates to entertain audiences.

More than 22,000 great apes are estimated to have been traded illegally over a seven-year period ending in 2011. That is about 3,000 a year; more than half are chimpanzees, the UN report said.

“These great apes make up an important part of our natural heritage. But as with all things of value, great apes are used by man for commercial profit and the illegal trafficking of the species constitutes a serious threat to their existence,” Henri Djombo, a government minister from the Republic of Congo, said.

The UN report paints a dire picture of the fight to protect vulnerable and dwindling flora and fauna from organised criminal networks that often have the upper hand.

Apes are hunted in their own habitats, which are concentrated in central and western Africa, by sophisticated smugglers who transport them on private cargo planes using small airstrips in the African bush. Their destination is usually the Middle East and Asia.

In countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, great apes are purchased to display as show pieces in private gardens and menageries.

In Asia, the animals are typically destined for public zoos and amusement parks. China is a main destination for gorillas and chimpanzees. Thailand and Cambodia have recorded cases of orangutans being used for entertainment in “clumsy boxing matches,” the report said.

Lax enforcement and corruption make it easy to smuggle the animals through African cities like Nairobi, Kenya, and Khartoum, Sudan, which are trafficking hubs. Bangkok, the Thai capital, is a major hub for the orangutan trade.

Conditions are usually brutal. In February 2005, customs officials at the Nairobi airport seized a large crate that had arrived from Egypt. The crate held six chimpanzees and four monkeys, stuffed into tiny compartments. The crate had been refused at the airport in Cairo, a well-known trafficking hub for shipment to the Middle East, and returned to Kenya. One chimp died of hunger and thirst.

The proliferation of logging and mining camps throughout Africa has also increased the demand for primate meat. Adults and juveniles are killed for consumption, and their orphans are captured to sell into the live trade. Villagers also pluck primates out of rural areas to sell in the cities.

Humans also have been encroaching upon and destroying the primates’ natural habitats, destroying their forest homes to build infrastructure and for other purposes. That forces the animals to move into greater proximity and conflict with people.

Sometimes animals are even the victims of war.

Arrests are rare largely because authorities in Africa, where most great apes originate, do not have the policing resources to cope with the criminal poaching networks. Corruption is rampant and those in authority sometimes are among those dealing in the illegal trade. Between 2005 and 2011, only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates the trade of animals and plants to ensure their survival. Under the agreement, trade in great apes caught in the wild is illegal. But traffickers often get around that by falsely declaring animals as bred in captivity.

The orangutan is the only great ape found in Asia. One species, the Sumatran orangutan, is critically endangered, with its population having dropped by 80% over the last 75 years. Their numbers are in great peril due to the pace of land clearance and forest destruction for industrial or agricultural use.

The report estimates that nearly all of the orangutan’s natural habitat will be disturbed or destroyed by the year 2030.

“There are no wild spaces left for them,” said Douglas Cress, a co-author of the report and head of a UN sponsored program that works for the survival of great apes. “There’ll be nothing left at this rate. It’s down to the bone. If it disappears, they go, too.”

More in this Section

Hong Kong protesters mark brutal mob attack with sit-inHong Kong protesters mark brutal mob attack with sit-in

First Titanic expedition in 14 years uncovers ‘partial collapse of hull’First Titanic expedition in 14 years uncovers ‘partial collapse of hull’

EU to move evacuated migrants from Italy, but 350 still at seaEU to move evacuated migrants from Italy, but 350 still at sea

UK police called after suspected crocodile spotted in swampUK police called after suspected crocodile spotted in swamp


Lifestyle

Up your veggie curry game with this delicious recipe.How to make Jamie Oliver’s stuffed curried aubergines

Riccardo Tisci has unveiled his Tempest collection, featuring a diverse cast of models.Is this Burberry’s most inclusive campaign yet? See pictures from the autumn/winter shoot

In search of close animal encounters, Sarah Marshall joins ‘Bear Whisperer’ Gary Zorn on a new adventure in Canada’s Cariboo Mountains.Glamping with grizzlies: Would you spend the night camping with bears?

In Ireland, a cohort of exceptionally talented women are leading the way in the production of sustainable jewellery, crafting beautiful pieces with the minimum impact on our planet, says Paul McLauchlanThese gems really treasure our environment

More From The Irish Examiner