Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans are endangered, their habitats disappearing as forests are cleared for industrial-scale agriculture proceeds. But great apes — all of whom are endangered — could be disappearing at an even faster rate than we realize. As a new United Nations Environment Program report makes too clear, organized crime in the form of “sophisticated trans-boundary crime networks” is the real reason that almost 3,000 great apes are killed or captured in the wild every year.
The report, entitled Stolen Apes (pdf), says that, for all of the thousands of captured great apes found, many more have died during the trafficking process. All told, 643 chimpanzees, 48 bonobos, 98 gorillas and 1,019 orangutans have been confiscated for the illegal trade in the past seven years. Their numbers are only the “tip of the iceberg,” as at least 2,972 great apes are taken from the wilds every year.
Great Ape Trafficking “Has Little To Do With Poverty”
The U.N. report underscores that the illegal capture and trafficking of great apes has shifted from being a ”by-product of traditional conservation threats such as deforestation, mining and bushmeat hunting.” It has now become “a far more sophisticated business driven by demand from international markets.”
Ofir Drori, founder of the Last Great Ape Organization in Cameroon, says that illegal trafficking in great apes “has little to do with poverty” but is instead “generated by the rich and powerful.” While a poacher might sell a live chimpanzee for $50, a middleman can resell him or her for as much as 400 percent more. The price for an orangutan is $1,000. One gorilla was sold illegally to a zoo in Malaysia for $400,000 in 2002.
Captured apes who survive what must be a traumatic experience end up performing in circuses and amusement parks — taking photos with tourists on Mediterranean beaches and being made to box in matches in Asian safari parks — in “disreputable zoos” and as the pets of the wealthy. Since 2007, more than 130 chimpanzees and ten gorillas have been exported from Guinea under false permits. In 2006, Thailand admitted that it had acquired least 54 orangutans from the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.
Illegal Trade in Great Apes Is a Serious Crime
Despite the immense threat wildlife crimes pose for great apes’ survival, penalties for these offenses remain “relatively weak,” writes John E Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Between 2005 and 2011, only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia and a full one-fourth of the arrests were never prosecuted.
Scanlon calls for far steeper punishments to stop the pillaging of wildlife in a number developing countries, who are being cheated of their natural resources. Wildlife trafficking must be treated as a serious crime and the same techniques implemented as are used to fight the illegal trade in narcotics, such as “undercover operations and ‘controlled deliveries’ – meaning contraband is not seized but tracked to its destination.”
Doug Cress, coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), emphasizes that every great ape must be fought for. “Great apes are extremely important for the health of forests in Africa and Asia, and even the loss of 10 or 20 at a time can have a deep impact on biodiversity,” he says.
Besides vastly stepping up law enforcement efforts and criminal penalties for wildlife trafficking, the report also calls for authorities to eliminate the exploitation of great apes in entertainment facilities and to end the use of trained great apes in movies, television and advertising. When you keep in mind how bonobos and great apes are our close relations, and their vast intelligence (which we are still learning much about), killing, capturing and abusing them is simply a travesty, if not a tragedy of unfathomable proportions.
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