Captured, trafficked and enslaved – what Bua Noi’s liberation could mean

Bua Noi, meaning Little Lotus in Thai, has festered in a bleak cage on top of a Bangkok department store for the last 33 years, deprived of sunlight and natural vegetation. She has never smelled the scents of nature that would float in on a fresh breeze in her tropical forest homeland back in Central Africa. She has never experienced the joy of having a baby. I therefore empathized as she glared at me with a ferocious scowl through the bars the first time I saw her many years ago.

Bua Noi glared at me with a ferocious scowl through the bars. I understood why.

Bua Noi has the distinction of being the only gorilla in all of Thailand. This gorilla has become the standard bearer for all the thousands of captive wild animals exploited for commercial gain in Thailand. She might also be the key to freeing many more illegally captured and trafficked wild animals held in private zoos and safari parks and putting a halt to a thriving trade that threatens endangered species. A highly disputed question has been, was Bua Noi acquired legally? If not, there can be a legal case for freeing her.

Pata Zoo is the Guantanamo Bay of the world’s worst zoos – no amount of campaigning seems able to close it. Bua Noi is its star prisoner, the focus of campaigns by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Thai animal welfare crusader Sinjira Apaitan, who has launched a Change.org petition that is closing in on its target of 150,000 signatures requesting the release of Bua Noi. 

This mural is as green as it gets in Pata Zoo. One enters through a side door.

Background

Pata Zoo was opened in 1983 by Vinai Sermsirimongkol, a businessman who owned the seven-story high Pata Pinklao Department Store in the unfashionable west side of the Chaophraya River, which cuts through Bangkok, Thailand’s capital and largest city (8.2 million people). Vinai converted the top two floors into a zoo, with cabinets holding reptiles and amphibians on the sixth floor and mammals in cramped cages on the top floor, including chimpanzees, orangutans, tigers, other big cats, bears and a male gorilla that Vinai named King Kong, who arrived in 1984 with a CITES export permit from the Aachen Bird and Animal Park in West Germany. The Thai CITES import permit was issued to Siam Farm Zoological Garden, Bangkok. No further details are known, unfortunately, since this trade was not reported to the CITES Trade Database by either country, an infraction of CITES regulations, since Great Apes are Appendix I – no commercial trade from the wild. 

When Vinai died, his younger brother Kanit took over and has been fighting doggedly to keep “the world’s saddest zoo” open to the public. A 2010 story in The Guardian newspaper quotes Kanit as saying that, “…the zoo is a respite for people looking to escape the concrete jungle of Bangkok and to reconnect with nature. The animals are especially popular with children.” 

The zoo is popular with children, but what do they learn about the natural world seeing animals that should be wild in cages?

The comment about children is true, but there is nothing resembling “nature” in the concrete, barren zoo. I first visited the Pata Zoo in Bangkok in 2013 while attending the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties, a massive gathering of over 4,000 people concerned with the fate of the world’s wild plants and animals. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulates trade in over 37,000 wild species. I had been invited to attend because I was the lead author on a United Nations report on illegal great ape trade entitled Stolen Apes that was being launched at the conference. 

Stolen Apes was the first comprehensive study on great ape trafficking ever published by the United Nations.

I found the zoo to be a deplorable place to hold animals, with desolate cages marred by rusted bars and concrete floors. Big cats paced back and forth in well-worn tracks or slept, while great apes reached out for bananas offered by visitors or stared forlornly through the bars. Bua Noi seemed frustrated and angry at being cooped up for 26 years (in 2013) in a prison with no vegetation. King Kong had died in 2007, so the last six years she had been alone. 

Great apes reach out for bananas more out of boredom than hunger. 

I revisited the zoo in 2019 and found Bua Noi and the other great apes where I had left them six years earlier. It was heartbreaking to think that they had been there all that time, in addition to all of the years since they had arrived. There was even a bonobo (pygmy chimpanzee) in a dark cell above a chimpanzee cage, which I had not noticed before – perhaps arrived in the interim? No bonobo imports to Thailand are reported in the CITES Trade Database. No gorilla imports to Thailand are reported in the CITES Trade Database. So how could Bua Noi be a legally acquired import as the Bangkok Post reported in a 2014 story, repeated in 2020?

    There was a bonobo in 2019 that I hadn’t seen in 2013. Where did it come from?

I knew from personal investigations that a steady stream of orangutans were smuggled into Thailand to feed its commercial zoo industry, so it would not be surprising if gorillas and bonobos were as well. 

The Western Lowland Gorilla studbook indicates that both gorillas in Pata Zoo originated in the wild. The compiler erroneously entered Guinea instead of Equatorial Guinea. Guinea has no gorillas.

During the 2019 visit I was in Bangkok with a cameraman shooting footage for a film series on great ape trafficking entitled “Stolen Apes”. One of the series focuses on Bua Noi.  A man holding a monkey who seemed to be a supervisor came up to us and asked us to stop filming. I asked him, “Where does this gorilla come from?” He replied, “She was born in a German zoo, came here legally 30 years ago.”

The man holding a monkey, who seemed to be the manager, said that Bua Noi came from a German zoo.

I could elicit no more information from him. I decided to get to the bottom of the question of from where and how Little Lotus did in fact find herself at Pata Zoo. I combed through old copies of the very informative International Primate Protection League newsletters, exchanged emails with IPPL’s founder Shirley McGreal, scoured the gorilla studbooks, used Google to search out old stories on Pata Zoo and Bua Noi on the Internet, searched various NGO websites and social media accounts of individuals named who were connected with gorilla trafficking and reviewed the  TRAFFIC reports on great ape trade.

From the information amassed I have reconstructed a scenario that is consistent with known facts.

The Scenario[1]

Bibi received the order for four more baby gorillas in July 1987 from his father Walter, who was in Hohenstadt near Nuremberg in what was then West Germany. Walter Sensen moved back in 1985 from Equatorial Guinea, a former colony of Spain, to Hohenstadt because of a few brushes with the authorities, just as earlier in 1981 he had had to escape from neighboring Cameroon. Bibi replaced Walter in 1985 and now lived in Bata, a pleasant town on the Equatorial Guinea coast about 30 kilometers south of the border with Cameroon. Walter and Bibi were wild animal traffickers supplying shady zoos around the world with rare animals using their company African Animal Export. Bribes had secured them a five-year exclusive contract with the government for exports of gorillas and chimpanzees.

The Sensens’ company African Animal Export operated out of Bata, Equatorial Guinea, in red circle, from 1985 to 1991. They bought up gorillas and chimpanzees and exported them to zoos around the world.

Bibi, real name Bernd Sensen, sent out word to his contacts in the villages of Rio Muni (mainland Equatorial Guinea) and nearby Cameroon and Gabon that he needed baby gorillas. Kurt Schafer, a known bird and animal trafficker, and Dr. Daeng of Siam Farm in Bangkok had put in an order for the four infants. By early September Bibi had the four infant gorillas, two males and two females, all under a year old. The gorilla mothers ended up as bushmeat, killed and butchered in front of their terrified infants.

Equatorial Guinea was not a member of CITES at the time and the Sensen’s had an in with the Minister of Industry, Commerce and Promotion of Enterprise, Florencio Esoro Obiang Angue, who signed a ministerial export permit number 381 for the four gorillas. Bernd submitted the permit to the Thailand CITES Management Authority in Bangkok and requested an import permit. Thailand rejected the minister’s document as not equivalent to a CITES export permit. Since gorillas were listed as CITES Appendix I, protected from commercial trade, Bernd knew that without a Thai import permit they had a problem. 

Walter made some telephone calls to traders he knew and made a new arrangement. Only one gorilla would go to Thailand – it was too risky shipping all four now that the Thailand authorities were alerted – and two would go to Aritake Chojouten in Japan, a notorious animal trafficker. It wouldn’t be difficult to find a buyer for the fourth. Bibi got hold of Wabi Bello, a Nigerian trafficker who specialized in African grey parrots, to get him a certificado de origen. The Certificate of Origin had Wabi Bello’s name on it and showed that he was exporting one gorilla that weighed 10 kilograms to Siam Farm Zoological Garden, Bangkok, Thailand. The document had official-looking stamps on it, so Bibi was happy and paid Bello the agreed price.

Wabi Bello was arrested for trafficking parrots. He agreed to sign a Certificate of Origin for Bibi’s gorillas.

Bernd Sensen flew with the four gorillas as personal effects to Spain on Iberia airlines, using Minister Angue’s export permit. On 9 September 1987 he shipped the baby gorilla from Spain to Bangkok with the certificado de origen and two were shipped the same month to Chojouten in Japan, where he sold them to Chiba City Municipal Zoo for US$575,000. Fraudulent documents claimed that the two gorillas were bred in Ringland Circus, a modest outfit that toured Spain, it didn’t even have a permanent home.

The Iberia airlines waybill for Bua Noi identified the recipient as Dr. Daeng, Pata Zoo, Bangkok. The Pata Zoo owner, Vinai Sermsirimongkol, paid Siam Farm the agreed price for Bua Noi, just as he had paid them for Bwana in 1984. Vinai hoped that when Bua Noi became old enough she would mate with Bwana, now renamed King Kong, and give him valuable offspring to sell and recoup his expenses.

Bua Noi was shipped from Equatorial Guinea via Spain to Bangkok, arriving 10 September 1987.

Walter Sensen was convicted and jailed for 2 years on 14 March 1990 in West Germany for illegally shipping three gorillas from Cameroon in January 1987 to Taiwan. He was later freed on appeal and continued to export gorillas and other great apes from Central Africa, assisted by his son Bernd. The situation became so alarming that the CITES Secretariat had to issue a Notification in 1988 warning CITES Parties not to accept imports of CITES-listed species from Equatorial Guinea.

The Sensen exports from Equatorial Guinea became so alarming that CITES issued a Notification.

So Bua Noi was not born in a German zoo, was not imported legally from anywhere, but rather she was just one of many ill-fated gorilla and chimpanzee infants captured in the wild by bushmeat hunters who killed their mothers and sold them off to traffickers. In the 33 years that Little Lotus has been suffering in her concrete cage in Pata Zoo she has paid back the zoo owners many times over what she cost them.

Khun Kanit Sermsirimongkol, Pata Zoo owner, holds Little Lotus’s fate in his hands, as the Thailand government maintains that the gorilla entered the country legally. This article might change their minds. (Photo courtesy of the film Stolen Apes).

What now?

Recently, Sinjira joined forces with Polish activist Joanna Sobkowicz to launch the website freegorilla.org to raise awareness of Bua Noi’s story and give updates about the campaign to free her. 

“I met with Kanit in 2014”, Sinjira told me, “he promised to move all of the large animals from the rooftop by 2020. I am waiting.”

Sinjiri Apaitan, far right, and Joanna Sobkowicz have been speaking with Thailand government officials about the possibility of freeing Bua Noi. (Photo courtesy of freegorilla.org)

There are two possibilities of where Bua Noi could go, if freed. The first is to a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand, the second is to be repatriated back to Central Africa. As with most alternative choices, there are pros and cons with both.

In June the famous singer Cher came on board with her Free the Wild organization. Cher has written a personal letter to the Honourable Minister Varawut Silpa-Archa (Thailand Ministry of Natural Resources), requesting his urgent assistance for the rescue and release of Bua and the other primates kept at the zoo.

Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne, the co-founder of Free the Wild, said, “I can advise that things are looking very hopeful.” After the success of freeing Kaavan, a lone elephant in the Islamabad Zoo, Free the Wild should be taken seriously.

The famous American singer and actress Cher is campaigning to free Bua Noi with her Free the Wild organization.

Damian Aspinall of the Aspinall Foundation  is ready to sponsor and transport Bua Noi to a sanctuary in the Congo, which is actually in the general area from which she was stolen.  

Will Little Lotus be able to return to her native forest from which Bibi stole her? 

The alternative possibility is a wildlife sanctuary located not too far from Bangkok. The sanctuary has a good track record for looking after rescued wild animals properly and it will also accept other primates from Pata Zoo, including chimpanzees, orangutans and the bonobo. 

Back to Africa might sound like the ideal solution to Bua Noi’s plight, but transport from Bangkok to Brazzaville, with layovers and plane changes, could be quite hazardous for a 33-year old female gorilla. The stress would be extreme. The maximum age for females in captivity is about 40 to 50 years, so she is probably close to the average age for mortality right now. Adjusting to life in a forest, even one where she would be supervised, could be a shock for Bua Noi, who reportedly has become attached to her two regular caregivers at Pata Zoo. 

Transport from Bangkok to the sanctuary would take about two hours by road. The surroundings are pleasant, with plenty of natural vegetation, fresh air and sunlight. With luck, one or two of her regular caregivers could go with her, at least for a transitioning period, to help her adjust to her new surroundings. 

And Khun Kanit Sermsirimongkol, Pata Zoo owner, could come to visit her, as he cares about Bua Noi as well. It would be a generous gesture on Khun Kanit’s part, gaining him the appreciation and respect of the international community and the Thai people.

With the verification provided here that demonstrates that Bua Noi was acquired in the wild and shipped and imported illegally into Thailand, there are good grounds to justify that she be freed. 

Illegal capture of endangered species in the wild for commercial zoos and the exotic pet trade is an enormous problem. Added risks of zoonotic spillover events are only too evident with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Commercial zoos such as Pata and many others like it encourage human-animal interaction for a fee (framed selfie photos, petting, playing, etc.). Three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, transferred from animals to humans, facilitated by environmental destruction and wildlife crime. 

It is in the best interests of both humans and animals that commercial zoos and safari parks stop importing animals captured in the wild. Closing Pata Zoo and freeing Bua Noi would help current efforts to stop this type of wildlife trade and signal to the world that change is possible. 


[1] Walter Sensen has passed away, but a draft of this article was sent to Bernd Sensen asking for corrections or comments. None have been received.

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