Great Ape Illegal Trade Information Exchange Meeting

On 9th November, 2015, PEGAS organized a meeting with several key people involved in great ape conservation and welfare. The purpose was to exchange information with a view to enhancing synergy and cooperation in all of our respective activities. The meeting elicited unexpected – for PEGAS – differences of opinion on the best way forward. More on this will be presented in future posts.

Please see below a summary of the discussions, which was sent for review to all of the participants.


Great Ape Illegal Trade Information Exchange Meeting 

9 November, 2015 

Introduction and purpose of the meeting 

GRASP and PEGAS welcomed the participants to the meeting.

The names of individuals who expressed various points of view or who shared items of information will in most cases not be given, and only a very general summary will be presented here.

PEGAS organized the meeting with considerable assistance from GRASP, for which we are most grateful. It was held at the United Nations Office in Nairobi on 9th November 2015 from approximately 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The meeting participants (list in the annex) introduced themselves and briefly summarized their interest in great apes.

The purpose of the meeting was to exchange information related to illegal great ape trade: how and why it persisted – supply and demand drivers; what the scale of it was and the trends; what measures could be taken at the national and international levels to halt it; the issues of corruption and law enforcement; where and how many great apes were in captivity and in need of relocation to a sanctuary; the question of sanctuary space and capacity to care for new arrivals; policy related to relocating captive great apes; databases to capture, analyze, store and report information on illegal trade and sanctuaries; CITES enforcement issues; and future plans.

Great Apes in need of rescue and relocation

It was proposed that a database containing the following information be established: the location and number of great apes in need of sanctuaries by species, the capacity and willingness of sanctuaries to accept or not new arrivals by country and species, and the policy that would apply to relocating great apes from one country or region to another.

The final outcome was that no database of this kind will be produced, there was insufficient support from participants.

GRASP has a list of captive great apes in need, but it is not freely available. Many of the participants spoke of large numbers of great apes known to be in deplorable conditions. PASA has protocols and guidelines of how to deal with such cases, but these do not seem to operate in practice. Each case has its own individual characteristics, and efforts to relocate apes can be very time-consuming and expensive to achieve. The case of the Taiping Four gorillas was presented as an example, which took several years and considerable effort and expense to complete. CITES stated in 2007 that it should stand as an example and act to prevent a repeat occurrence – which has not been the case. [The Guinea to China C-scam began in 2007, the same year.]

The consensus opinion of the group seemed to be that relocation should be attempted only in extreme cases. In most instances, because of multiple factors – expense, difficulty, opportunity costs (more important things could be done with the time and money), sanctuary limitations – the apes would regrettably have to remain where they were. The PASA policy, however, was that if great apes were seized or otherwise acquired in a country and presented to a sanctuary in that country, the sanctuary was required to take the ape(s) in; lack of space and funds was not an excuse to reject acceptance.

Repatriation of internationally seized apes would preferably only be done soon after seizure. Those apes trafficked years ago and held in captivity abroad for long periods are not high priority for limited sanctuary space in Africa, except at a non-range country sanctuary such as Sweetwaters. Chimfunshi was suggested as being included, but some felt that this sanctuary was not up to standard. If a relocation was proposed from outside Africa to a PASA sanctuary, it would have to come with sufficient funding attached to cover the expense of caring for the ape over the course of its expected life span.

More sanctuaries are needed in range State countries that do not have them (e.g. Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and CAR), and existing sanctuaries need to expand, but there was no master plan of how to achieve it. Each country and sanctuary seems to operate independently.

Status and trends of illegal great ape trade

GRASP is keeping records of seizures with various partners reporting to it. The average rate over the past 18 months (?) was 2.11 apes a week seized, which is a higher rate than the period before the Stolen Apes report (2005-2011). Anecdotal reports from the media and informed individuals suggest that trade, particularly of orangutans, is at a high level. A high level for apes, however, was still very low compared to many other species. This, and the fact that CITES only accepts formal seizure data from governments, the WCO, INTERPOL and other official sources, was suggested as one reason why the CITES Secretariat does not accord priority to great ape trafficking.

Considerable discussion ensued about the motivation behind lack of action by CITES in regard to great apes and its reluctance to allow creation of a WG within CITES. The following were offered as explanations: (1) CITES has 35,000 species to deal with, only those with high levels of illegal trade and economic value are accorded concerted attention. Great ape trade does not cross the threshold; (2) related to (1), since CITES only accepts official trade records, it misses much of the informal reporting on trafficking and defends its actions based on the official data; (3) CITES does not want to tackle great ape trafficking because it does not want to enter into conflict with influential import countries such as China, Russia and the wealthy Gulf states, and (4) most of the informal sector reports presenting data on the trafficking have been presented in such an aggressive manner that the Secretariat is biased against according the data a platform in a WG.

It was pointed out that the main demand motivations for great ape trade persisted: (1) pets, (2) entertainment, (3) private menageries for the wealthy, (4) commercial zoos and safari parks.

Pegas announced that Vietnam, China and the Middle East (Egypt and the UAE) were developing new safari parks, the former USSR countries and eastern Europe were emerging as markets for great apes in the pet and private menagerie area, the Middle East had many online great ape traffickers, TRAFFIC had found many great apes in commercial and private ownership in SE Asia, and even India was now implicated in illegal trade [one of the Dubai online traffickers operates in India and is Indian]. The Indonesian land-clearance fires were creating increased opportunities for orangutan trafficking.

Views were divided on whether the best approach to address illegal great ape trade was at the national level or internationally through CITES. CITES was recognized as being ineffective and there were loopholes in using CITES permits and government-to-government ‘Ambassador’ gifts. Some felt it was generally impossible to improve CITES enough, so the national level law enforcement and community education approach was the preferred course of action, while others thought that CITES could be reformed enough to be effective.

Corruption was recognized as the biggest hurdle to achieving effective national action. In Africa, EAGLE had made corruption the keystone of its law enforcement strategy. They had found that approaching high-level government officials to back their work had led to successes down the line through the courts and police. But it was a constant battle with the accused attempting to bribe their way out at every level. Prosecutions could not always be successfully completed, or even if they had been, keeping convicts in prison needed constant monitoring and action, as there were cases where they were let out in irregular fashion. In high-level cases, influential people could intervene to sway the police or the courts to drop cases. The Doumbouya case in Guinea was offered as a ‘success’ example. Will it succeed in the long run against efforts to divert justice? Will it serve to deter others? Time will tell, but it is an excellent example to break the common impression that impunity prevails with ‘connected’ individuals.

Some felt that creating awareness and education at the local level worked effectively to reduce bushmeat hunting, the consequent creation of ape orphans, and the resultant trafficking. JGI offered parts of eastern DRC and Congo-Brazzaville as examples of places where billboards, a TV programme and community meetings had reduced cases of ape orphans significantly.

A participant pointed out that as long as the demand remained, and end-users were willing to pay USD 20,000 for a chimpanzee and USD 150,000 or more for a gorilla, traffickers would operate a market for great apes that no amount of supply country law enforcement or community work alone could effectively deal with. The demand had to be cut off, which posed an equally huge challenge. There were signs in China that the young generation was producing people that could change attitudes towards wildlife exploitation from within, and this should be encouraged. Partnerships could be established to work with Chinese NGOs and the media to campaign against illegal great ape trafficking. EIA and WildAid had been approached about undertaking great ape work, but neither had shown much interest.

Some expressed the view that better data were needed on the trade. An inventory of great apes in captivity in various countries and their uses would be extremely useful. A baseline of numbers was needed from which to monitor future activity. Age and sex was needed and ideally some form of identification – DNA profiles, microchips, facial recognition from photos, fingerprints, were all suggested.

DNA data could indicate not only source area, but also the presence of international trade in Africa, which was of relevance to CITES. The numbers of illegally traded apes could be increased substantially by DNA data indicating the movement of great apes from one country to another, which CITES could not ignore. Some asked, who would pay for it? Others pointed out the difficulty of obtaining permission to take DNA samples.

GRASP great ape illegal trade database

GRASP briefed the meeting on the status of the database they intend to launch. It was consulting with various partners on how the database should be structured, what variables would be included and so on. The World Conservation Monitoring Centre will host the database. It should enter into operation in 2016. GRASP stated that it would consist mainly of seizure data, similar to ETIS. A participant advised that it should be compatible with other relevant databases as much as possible. Some participants would like to know the format and how best to report instances of illegal trade they knew of to GRASP. GRASP stressed that illegal trade reports it received would be closely vetted to establish accuracy and to eliminate multiple source reports of the same case, which it had already experienced in Indonesia, for example. There was some uncertainty about how non-seizure trafficking reports would be dealt with, for example the online great apes seen for sale or great apes turning up in safari parks from unknown sources with no CITES paper trail. These issues would be resolved over the course of the next few months.

GRASP would in future be reporting to CITES on great apes jointly with the IUCN Section on Great Apes, which should provide a higher profile for great ape trafficking. It was signaled that the CITES-MIKE illegal killing of elephants programme had been expanded in the new MIKES programme to include great apes in some monitoring sites. GRASP could perhaps liaise with them to see if any relevant data might emerge.

Plans to ensure that a Great Ape Working Group be created at CITES SC66

PEGAS has prepared a Working Document and an Information Document to appear on the Agenda item ‘Great Apes’ at the 66th CITES Standing Committee meeting in Geneva in January 2016. Doug Cress of GRASP, Mark Jones of Born Free, Ian Redmond of Ape Alliance and Solomon Kyalo of KWS have made valuable comments that are producing revised versions. The first recalls the history of great ape trafficking in CITES and demonstrates that it is still occurring. CITES measures to date to address it had been inadequate and the CITES Resolution Conf. 13.4 (Rev) that deals with illegal great ape trade needed review and strengthening. The Info Doc provided the detailed history in CITES of great ape trade and reports selected incidents that had occurred since CITES last took action and were still occurring. Both documents called for the creation of a working group to discuss the issue. The documents had also been sent to two NGO members who were part of the CITES delegations of Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville (a Standing Committee member) respectively, asking if they might be able to co-sponsor the submission, but no response had been received.

KWS, which is the Kenya CITES Management and Scientific Authorities, spoke to explain how they supported the submission of the documents and that they were seeking the co-sponsorship of Uganda, since Uganda is a member of the Standing Committee and is a great ape range State. KWS hoped that after the issue was discussed in a WG at SC66 that a range State consultative meeting could be held well before the 17th Conference of the Parties in late September 2016. The range State meeting would formulate a joint position with recommendations of what revisions should be made to RC 13.4 and any other actions that could be taken to control the trade.

Suggestions for strengthening CITES Resolution Conf. 13.4 (Rev.) Great Apes

This topic was included with the previous agenda item in a joint discussion session. Meeting participants pointed out that many of the areas that needed addressing to strengthen measures to control great ape trafficking were included in other CITES working groups. These included fraudulent permitting, lack of timely monitoring of improper permits, lack of timely reporting of illegal trade, failure of the Secretariat and Parties to enforce Articles of the Convention and national law, and so on. It was suggested that the new electronic permitting system that CITES intended to establish might deal with many of these problems.

Various participants advised that suggestions for RC 13.4 revision should be specific to great apes and not overlap with topics that CITES was dealing with in other WGs. One participant stressed that the WG would be important to act as a forum for bringing non-official reporting of great ape trafficking into CITES documents and therefore permit Parties for the first time to examine their significance. Up to the present, most of the NGO investigations that have revealed the extent of illegal great ape trade have not been discussed in CITES meetings. Even the UNEP Stolen Apes report findings have not been admitted into official CITES documents. This lack of examination of unofficial data allows the Secretariat to continue to maintain that great ape trade is insignificant.

Some expressed the opinion that if the attempt to create a WG failed that political capital would have been wasted. The same objectives might be able to be achieved in the other WGs. However, none of the other WGs seemed to present a forum for presentation of the unofficial trade data that was in the Information Document and information that would be created as the result of investigations in future. It was anomalous that every major species group, and some not so major, had a WG, except for great apes. Was this simply a result of the Secretariat wishing to prioritize species by trade scale, a cost-benefit approach motivated by limited staff and time, or was there something else?

In spite of the risks of failure with this strategy, many if not most of the participants (no vote was taken) thought it was worth a try. If no WG was established, another attempt could be made at SC67 or CoP17.

Possibilities for continued information exchange to enhance cooperation

The Ape Alliance, a network of dozens of NGOs and individuals concerned with great ape welfare and conservation, announced that it had recently created a Great Ape Illegal Trade Working Group ( The WG had not yet formulated a Terms of Reference or work plan, but it could very well act as a forum for continued information exchange. PEGAS will consult with Ape Alliance and Born Free/Species Survival Network to formulate a ToR in the coming weeks and communicate the results to everyone.

GRASP also offers a forum for information exchange and is already a useful source of information dissemination through its Newsletter bulletins (email to sign up), Twitter ( and Facebook page (

Recommendations for follow-up action

  1. Establish the ToR of the Ape Alliance Working Group on Illegal Great Ape Trade.
  2. Disseminate to participants.
  3. Engage other NGOs and interested parties in concerted action concerning illegal trade.

Participants were requested to send in any other recommendations they might think of (


Great Ape Trade Information Exchange Meeting

9 November 2015

Daniel Stiles           PEGAS, Ol Pejeta Conservancy,

Doug Cress             UN-GRASP,

Laura Darby           UN-GRASP,

Johannes Refisch UN-GRASP,

Theodore Leggett UNODC,

Javier Montaño       UNODC,

Mark Jones             Born Free Foundation,

Ofir Drori                 EAGLE,

Gregg Tully             Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA),

Franck Chantereau PASA,

Susan Lutter         PASA,

Becky Rose           PASA,

Debby Cox            Jane Goodall Institute,

Jim & Jenny Desmond Humane Society of the United States,

Solomon Kyalo      Kenya Wildlife Service,

Ian Redmond        Ape Alliance (via Skype),

Julie Sherman      WildlifeImpact,

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