Tom, Joe and all the rest of the wildlife traffickers who use social media platforms to market nature’s bounty are still out there, operating almost with impunity. U.S. law gives Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and all of the other Internet service providers immunity from responsibility for whatever third-party users post, even if it breaks the law, because of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act.
A compounding problem to putting a stop to the rape of nature that exotic pet trade epitomizes is the fact that most countries consider wildlife crime relatively unimportant. Even though the Royal Thai Police put a lot of effort into pulling off the Kid Op sting, the prosecutor’s office apparently did not think the case important enough to investigate further and gather all the evidence needed for a court case. For example, who was “Joe” at Samutprakarn, who supposedly owned the orangutan infants?
Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm & Zoo, not far from Bangkok, is a horror show of abused animals, including an endless string of baby orangutans, chimpanzees and tigers that pass through there, used as photo props and for degrading performances for fee-paying visitors. There are several similar facilities in Thailand that rake in money from the suffering of wildlife, most of which originate in the wild from criminal capture. Were the ‘kids’ held at Samutprakarn from the time they arrived in the Bangkok area up to their seizure in the sting of 21st December? We will probably never know.
Samutprakarn often keeps orangutan or chimp juveniles chained to the floor to attract visitors.
The seized kids were named Nobita and Shizuka and are still, three years after their seizure, being held at the Khao Prathap Chang Wildlife Breeding Centre in Ratchaburi province. At the time of the sting funds were available for their repatriation to Sumatra, where they were originally captured, but three years later those funds are gone. I was repeatedly told they could be relocated to a sanctuary when the case was closed. There never was a case.
Nobita and Shizuka are still at the Thai government facility three years after their seizure. (Photo courtesy of Edwin Wiek)
These are just some of the emojis PEGAS sees in great ape pet posts on Instagram, accompanied by comments such as, “I want a monkey [sic]”, “I love these guys”, “Where can I get one”, and so on.
Instagram users show their approval of a post with emojis
Well-meaning posts of loved pets’ photos, especially when made by influential people, unwittingly stimulate others to emulate them by acquiring their own pet, usually through illegal trade.
Paris Hilton and a famous footballer shown with great ape pets serve to stimulate the illegal pet trade
Showing children with great ape pets drives the trade, as both parents and children who see the posts will get the idea that it acceptable, even desirable, to acquire a chimpanzee or orangutan baby pet.
Children increasingly are driving the great ape pet trade
Other posts are more insidious, with “For sale?” being common. The question is often answered instructing the potential buyer to communicate through a WhatsApp number or direct messaging. Occasionally, actual prices will be given in plain view of any observer.
Some posts openly show the selling of great apes, even sometimes showing the prices
Some posts might even promote others going into the business, as they show dealers with expensive cars and nice houses.
Posts of traffickers with expensive cars can encourage others to go into the trade
Many posts create the impression that the ape is having a wonderful time and is enjoying its role as a pet, but other posts capture the reality, the despair and loneliness that the ape experiences, and its end destination when it ceases to be cute and cuddly – a cage.
Some posts capture the look of despair on the apes
While others show where they end up – in cages
The development of the Internet and access to hundreds of millions of new users in recent years, coupled with social media platforms and the ability to create closed groups and private accounts, has resulted in the burgeoning ability of live animal suppliers, middlemen dealers and buyers to engage in active illegal trading of protected species. The markets can be much larger than physical markets, because thousands of group members located in many countries can be involved. For example, TRAFFIC documented 70,000 members affiliated to just 14 groups on Facebook in one country selling a wide variety of CITES Appendix I animals.
PEGAS began monitoring social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook in March 2015, after reading a Zoo News blog about a wildlife trafficker using social media to sell exotic animals in the UAE.
Starting with that one trafficker, PEGAS checked out the Instagram followers, Facebook friends and people making comments to posts to establish an ever-widening network of fellow animal dealers, and those buying them as pets and prestige display trophies. There is nothing like driving around the streets of Dubai or Doha with a chimpanzee kitted out in designer clothes and sunglasses to make a statement: “Look at me, I’m cool.”
Owners commonly flaunt their expensive pets by driving around with them
Even with their children
A few months later Patricia Tricorache of the Cheetah Conservation Fund contacted PEGAS and provided a wealth of additional information regarding online exotic animal trading. The CCF and PEGAS have been collaborating since then, building up a cheetah and great ape database of online wildlife trafficking. We see many other endangered species being trafficked as well in the course of our investigations. More recently, Alexandra Russo volunteered to help and she has found several new great ape and cheetah social media dealers.
PEGAS conducted an update count of the individual great apes that it has seen posted on Instagram and Facebook accounts as of early January, 2017. Only those apes that were in the possession of the person posting were counted. Many exotic pet dealers and owners know each other and reposts of their respective photos on two or more other account sites are common. Care was taken to count only the ape in the original account photo or video. Some great apes are pets that owners have posted many times, sometimes over the course of two or three years. PEGAS recorded the names of the pets and took care not to count the same ape more than once. In addition, some people have more than one Instagram or Facebook account and post great ape photos and videos on them all. For example, PEGAS has seen the exact same post on up to ten different accounts, due both to repostings by the same person on different accounts they own, and/or by friends or followers on their respective accounts.
To complicate matters, some people have closed accounts – or had them closed by Zuckerberg’s people after complaints about illegal trading and/or abusive posts – and opened new accounts. PEGAS has found some, but not all, of the new accounts (if new accounts were created). Care must be taken not to count new sites of already counted traffickers as different ones. For example, @dubai.tiger closed down and reopened as @uae.tiger. This should be counted as one dealer, not two. The two sites have posted the same chimpanzees and orangutan, PEGAS tried to identify them and count each only once. The fact that owners usually put the apes in children’s clothes helps with identification, particularly with reposts. PEGAS has even seen dealers repost great apes from another account and offer them for sale. It is unknown whether these were scam sales offerings or were done with the owner’s knowledge and permission.
This chimpanzee belonged to someone in the UAE and this photo was posted on his site, but a dealer in Indonesia put it up for sale with a repost on his site. Did the owner know?
PEGAS classed accounts as dealers (D) or owners only (O). Some dealers are also great ape pet owners (D/O). PEGAS was surprised to see cases in which dealers would sell great apes that they had named and kept as pets for themselves or their children for several months, and for whom they had shown great affection.
This dealer kept these four chimpanzees for weeks, showing great affection for them, then sold off three of them
Traffickers also made reposts from sites not engaged in trade, whether to mislead investigators or just for fun is not known. Traffickers posted great apes from International Animal Rescue, from various sanctuaries, from zoos and safari parks, from animal-theme websites, and even of Koko the gorilla. Most exotic animal dealers know now that a number of investigators are watching them. One dealer in particular has started doing this fairly recently, along with making reposts of his posts made originally two or three years ago. PEGAS thinks he is doing this to confuse the watchers.
In spite of trying to take care to avoid the methodological pitfalls described above, the figures presented should be considered as plus or minus about 10 percent, as a certain amount of guesswork was involved in deciding whether a post was a repost of the same ape, or which account was the actual original account making the photo/video post. This type of work is enormously time-consuming and further work is needed to figure out who actually owns each account and who first posted each ape seen. Few Instagram accounts provide the name of the owner and some Facebook accounts have fake names or nicknames.
The posts go back to 2011, but the great majority have been made since 2014.
PEGAS has been monitoring social media accounts in thirteen countries. PEGAS knows of other countries where online dealers are based, but time is not available to extend to them. In fact, PEGAS does not have the time to monitor properly the thirteen it is currently looking at.
The most active region for great ape trafficking is the Middle East, followed by Southeast Asia. Africa is not well represented because they rarely post photos of great apes on personal accounts, knowing that their sale is illegal and that there are investigators watching their accounts. For whatever reason, African dealers do not seem to use Instagram as much as the other dealers do, preferring Facebook. There may well be closed member Facebook groups where dealing takes place that PEGAS hasn’t found yet.
Thus far, approximately 94 individuals have been found posting photos of great apes that they have at one time possessed personally. Of these, 51 are dealers and 43 are owners only, and 7 are both. It should be understood that even the owners only are also engaged in great ape trafficking, as it takes two to tango, so to speak. Trafficking consists of a seller and a buyer. Both are engaged in illegal trade (although the CITES Secretariat made an exception for China in one infamous trafficking case involving up to 150 great apes). The actual names and contacts are known for 45-50 of these.
The 94 individuals posted approximately 162 chimpanzees and 88 orangutans that they held in their possession, 250 in all. Although photos were seen of bonobos and gorillas, none of them appeared to be in the possession of the person posting them. A few of the dealers were either known or suspected of dealing in bonobos or gorillas from other sources, but the social media sites have not offered evidence to date.
Many of the dealers and owners know each other, and a few tight networks have been unearthed. For example, the principle supplier of Asian species to a large Gulf exotic pet operation was found in Indonesia. There is much more research to be done to work out the networks of suppliers, middlemen and buyers.
The 250 great apes seen in the thirteen countries is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many accounts and groups that have not been fully researched or even found yet. Some of the more active dealers, particularly in Southeast Asia, remove the posts from their accounts after the animals have been sold. So if an investigator does not monitor the account for the days or weeks that it is up for sale, it will not be seen.
There is also the problem of law enforcement. Even when the names and contacts of traffickers are known and reported to the relevant authorities, with copies of the incriminating posts, they will not take action. They claim it is too much work to gain a conviction and they have higher priorities. Some NGOs and individuals campaign to have the social media sites closed down, but that can be counter-productive as the trafficker then simply establishes a new site and increases his security settings and is much more careful about whom he lets gain access to it. Shutting down an account does not stop the trafficking.
About the only way to be sure of law enforcement is to set up a sting, as occurred in Thailand last December. The police were involved at the outset and there was close cooperation between the person setting up the operation, the police and the collaborating local NGO. This is expensive and can take months of work to achieve. Until laws are in place to make it easier for the police and legal system to arrest and convict traffickers on the basis of posts alone, the undercover sting will remain the only option.
It took weeks of undercover work to set up the sting
But the work and expense paid off with the arrest of a trafficker. The basket carrying the two babies can be seen in the lower left
A Thai police photo of the rescued infants
If one considers how many great apes were killed during the capture of the infants and how many infants would have died during transport, the 250 successfully smuggled great apes probably represent about 2,000 killed.
This article was published in Mongabay.com on 10th May 2016. https://news.mongabay.com/2016/05/great-ape-trafficking-expanding-extractive-industry/
There are two main uses to which trafficked young apes are put: as pets or as attractions in commercial wildlife facilities (such as disreputable zoos, safari parks, circuses, hotels and use as photo-props).
The trade is facilitated by celebrities who pose with great ape pets in the press or in social media posts, which act as advertisements that say that owning an ape is “cool.”
Stiles has been investigating great ape trafficking for the past three years, since being invited to be a co-author of the United Nations report Stolen Apes, released in March 2013 at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties in Bangkok.
Today his name is Manno and we believe he recently turned four years old, though he is small for his age. Manno has bright, inquisitive eyes, has a penchant for pumpkin seeds and loves to run and play. He has been living alone as the solitary chimpanzee in a small, private zoo in Duhok, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq for about three years.
“Manno turned up in 2013 with wildlife dealers in Damascus, Syria, as a traumatized baby orphan,” Spencer Sekyer told me. Spencer, a teacher in Canada, volunteered to help animals kept in the Duhok Zoo in Kurdistan in late 2014. He fell in love with Manno. “His mother was no doubt killed for bushmeat somewhere in Central Africa and the poachers sold him off to animal traffickers.”
Spencer has been trying to get Manno freed for over a year now.
Spencer showed me a colored piece of paper with prices written on it. “The owner of the Duhok Zoo paid US$15,000 for Manno, and the little chimpanzee has repaid the investment by becoming a very popular attraction. People come from all over the Duhok area to play and have their photographs taken with Manno… spending money.”
The zoo owner dresses the little chimpanzee up in children’s clothes and visitors shower him with food and drink that kids like — junk food. This probably explains why Manno is small for his age.
Manno eating pumpkin seeds bought for him by adoring zoo visitors. (Photo: Spencer Sekyer)
Two chimpanzees captured in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Manno very likely endured this before being smuggled to Syria. (Photo courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute)
If Manno stays in the zoo, the day will come when he stops being cuddly and playful. He will grow in strength and in aggressiveness, as is normal with chimpanzees. If he is not caged up permanently first, he will attack and no doubt seriously injure someone. His future is not bright.
No bright future
In fact, the future is not bright for any great ape that is trafficked. There are two main uses to which young apes are put: as pets or as attractions in commercial wildlife facilities (such as disreputable zoos, safari parks, circuses, hotels and use as photo-props).
The trade is facilitated by celebrities who pose with great ape pets in the press or in social media posts, which act as advertisements that say that owning an ape is “cool”. The coordinator of the United Nations Great Ape Survival Partnership, Doug Cress, warned that celebrities do not realize that many of the apes were obtained illegally.
“These pictures are seen by hundreds of millions of fans, and it sends the message that posing with great apes — all of which are obtained through illegal means, and face miserable lives once they grow too big and strong to hold — is okay as long as it’s cute. But it’s not. It’s illegal, and it contributes to the destruction of already endangered species,” Cress told The Guardian newspaper.
I have been investigating great ape trafficking for the past three years, since being invited to be a co-author of the United Nations report “Stolen Apes,” released in March 2013 at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties in Bangkok. The report documents an alarming situation in which more than 1,800 cases were registered of trafficked chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans being lost to the forests of Africa and Asia between 2005 and early 2012.
This is only a fraction of the real number, as documented cases are those involving seizures by the authorities, and the vast majority of incidents go undetected. More tragically, for every live ape that enters the trade, at least one — the mother — and more than ten can be killed as collateral damage. The number lost is multiplied again because many infants die before reaching the intended destination.
I’ve traveled to West and Central Africa, the Middle East, and most recently made a trip to Thailand, Vietnam, and China, gathering information on this 21st century slave trade. I have also been discovering and monitoring a growing network of online wildlife traffickers, who post photos of their prized wildlife acquisitions and those for sale on social media sites. Unfortunately, recent publicity naming those involved in the illegal trade has resulted in them closing Instagram and Facebook accounts and going underground.
Great apes are becoming increasingly expensive. Of a trade in December last year, Patricia Trichorache from the Cheetah Conservation Fund told me, “Right now there are two baby chimps about to be shipped to Dubai … $40,000 each.” An owner flaunting a $40,000 pet on Facebook or Instagram gains instant prestige. It is common to see friends’ posts saying, “I want one sooo bad,” followed by a string of heart emojis.
Dealers also use social media sites to market their wares. The usual routine is to move to the encrypted WhatsApp or Snapchat to conduct the negotiations after the initial contact is made on a photo post.
In the Gulf countries, infant chimpanzees and orangutans are commonly dressed up in designer clothes, made to wear sunglasses and baseball caps to look cool, and are fed junk food and taught to smoke. I’ve even seen chimpanzees, orangutans, gibbons, and lion cubs all playing together in videos posted on Instagram. Sometimes the play goes too far and the little apes are terrorized, which only elicits laughter from the owner and his friends who gather in carpeted livingrooms to watch the “fun.”
The typical road a slave-ape takes in a commercial zoo or safari park starts with being used as a photo prop. When they get older they are usually trained to perform in some kind of entertainment show and after they reach puberty they are caged up to become a zoo attraction and to breed. Increasingly, dealers and zoos are breeding their own animals.
The Egypt excess
Traffickers in Egypt were amongst the first to see the financial advantages in breeding great apes. A woman with dual Egyptian and Nigerian nationality had been trafficking chimpanzees and gorillas out of Kano, in Nigeria, and Guinea since at least the early 1990s, assisted by family members and an Egyptian pediatrician. Two of her clients run holidaymaker hotels in Sharm el Sheikh that used young chimpanzees as photo props with tourists.
Both hotel owners have since the early 2000s established wildlife breeding facilities for great apes and other animals. Chimpanzees and even gorillas are now being smuggled from these breeding centers to other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. They often go to Damascus first to pick up a CITES re-export permit, which corrupt officials issue for a price, so that they can arrive in the destination country with documentation that makes it look like a legal trade.
A baby chimpanzee from one of the Egyptian breeding facilities was seized in the Cairo airport last year during the security check, being smuggled to Kuwait, where infant great apes are in high demand.
Dina Zulfikar, a well known Egyptian animal welfare activist, followed the case of little Doodoo, as they named him. Dina told me, “The authorities did not follow procedure. They let the trafficker go and did not file a case with the police, as the law requires.” This is an all too typical story in countries with lax law enforcement.
Poor Doodoo now languishes in the Giza Zoo in precarious conditions. Dina recently informed me that his cellmate Bobo died of unknown causes, after another chimpanzee Mouza died some months earlier. The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya offered to rescue the little chimpanzee and provide him with lifelong care, but the Egyptian CITES authorities thus far have not responded to the offer. Little Doodoo could join five other chimpanzees at Sweetwaters that were seized in Kenya in 2005 after being refused entry into Egypt, trafficked by the Egyptian-Nigerian woman.
Ian Redmond, head of the U.K.-based Ape Alliance, worked with Dian Fossey and mountain gorillas in the 1980s, before Fossey’s untimely murder, recounted in the film Gorillas in the Mist. I work closely with Ian on the problem of great ape trafficking and he has tried, without success, to rescue the chimpanzees and gorillas held illegally by the Egyptian breeding facilities.
After a visit in 2015 to meet with the great ape breeders in Egypt, Ian told me, “Recent shipments out of Egypt seem likely to be infants bred at G. O.’s [name withheld] facility – if so we are faced with a different problem: essentially, a chimpanzee baby farm where infants are pulled from their mother and bottle-fed to be sold.”
The situation has been reported to the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), based in Geneva, but they reply that “it is up to the national CITES Management Authority to take action.”
The number of great apes trafficked internationally every year is not large compared to some other species, but when the collateral damage is factored in we are talking about up to 3,000 lives lost from the wild each year, which is close to one percent of the great ape global population.
One important fact is overlooked when simply numbers are used to assess the significance of this extractive industry. Great apes are unlike any other species group. We humans share millions of years of evolutionary history with them and our genetic makeup is surprisingly similar — about 97% with orangutans, 98% with gorillas, and almost 99% with chimpanzees and bonobos. We all belong to the same biological family called Hominidae.
Increasingly, as more behavioral and genetic research is conducted, we are accepting more easily the fact that great apes are very much like humans in so many ways. Just recently, Jane Goodall was quoted as saying, “Chimpanzees taught me how to be a better mother,” indicating just how much great apes are similar to us.
Ian Redmond, who studies ape behavior, says that “Great ape mothers are incredibly protective of their children, which is why they are always killed when poachers go out hunting for infants to sell.”
Beginning in the 1960s, the National Geographic Society was instrumental in funding the research of the Trimates — Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas. These three exceptional women carried out long-term research respectively of chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans. They made known to the world the surprising fact that characteristics previously thought of as exclusively human are shared by these intelligent, emotionally sensitive great apes.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by attorney Steven Wise, has been leading a mission in the United States “to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.”
The project is focusing on freeing captive chimpanzees, because a chimpanzee (and other great apes), as Wise argues, “is a cognitively complex, autonomous being who should be recognized as having the legal right to bodily liberty.”
A documentary film about Wise’s work, Unlocking the Cage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to a packed house and a standing ovation. It will be shown around the world on HBO in July. This film could very well be the hominid version of Blackfish, the film that brought the suffering of captive killer whales in marine parks to the world’s attention, and which has launched a campaign to halt this appalling practice. Sea World announced recently that it would halt killer whale breeding and phase out its theatrical shows using them.
Wise and his colleagues have been battling in court to free the chimpanzees Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo from inhumane captivity, and recently they gained a huge victorywhen it was announced that not only Leo and Hercules, but all of the 220 chimpanzees at the University of Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center, will be freed and sent to a sanctuary. Argentine courts have already ruled that an orangutan named Sandra deserved the basic rights of a “non-human person” and can be freed from a Buenos Aires zoo and transferred to a sanctuary. Likewise, New Zealand and Spain have extended personhood rights to great apes.
Legal systems are increasingly recognizing that it is immoral for nonhuman hominids to be bought and sold, put into captivity and suffer abuse for any reason. Currently, CITES treats great apes like any other animal or plant species. Although classified in Appendix I, which means that commercial trade is prohibited, great apes can be traded for “non-commercial” purposes if they satisfy certain criteria.
Creating exceptions to the prohibition on international trade in great apes tacitly accepts that it is appropriate for humans to own and imprison them. Once in captivity, it is very difficult to monitor whether they are being used for commercial purposes or are being abused in other ways.
Already, hundreds of great apes are being freed in Europe and the U.S. from biomedical research laboratories, and very soon chimpanzees from private commercial zoos in the U.S. will be liberated, due to changes in laws and understanding of the uniqueness of great apes. This is creating a huge problem of where to put them, once liberated. If all commercial wildlife facilities stretching from the Middle East to the Far East are included, it quickly becomes apparent that all great apes cannot be immediately emancipated after changes in law might come into effect.
CITES must act
So what is the answer? Change should be planned, gradual, and move in stepped phases. The first step is stopping the illegal trade, which adds every year to the number that eventually will have to be freed. CITES could be instrumental in achieving this, but it is not implementing what needs to be done. Other organizations concerned with great apes also are not doing all that they could be doing. Attempts to strengthen CITES actions to crack down on great ape trafficking at the last CITES Standing Committee meeting in January 2016 were actually undermined by organizations that profess to be helping great apes.
CITES needs to put teeth into the resolution that deals with great apes. There should be a system of registration and monitoring of institutions and individuals that possess great apes, so that new arrivals and movements can be detected. Currently, great apes arrive illegally in countries and are internally transferred and re-exported with little monitoring. Zoo studbooks are often out of date and inaccurate, as my research has found. The CITES Trade Database records only a small fraction of great apes that are traded internationally.
Will Manno and others like him ever be freed to live with others of his kind in a sanctuary, enjoying social life, natural vegetation, and security? Will the day ever come when unthinking people will realize that chimpanzees and orangutans are not playthings and objects of entertainment? They are our family members.
As Dame Jane Goodall says, “In what terms should we think of these beings, nonhuman yet possessing so very many human-like characteristics? How should we treat them? Surely we should treat them with the same consideration and kindness as we show to other humans; and as we recognize human rights, so too should we recognize the rights of the great apes.”
Author’s note: All social media photographs in this article are screen shots from accounts open to the public. In May of 2014 I began working with a project funded by the Arcus Foundation called the Project to End Great Ape Slavery — PEGAS for short. The project is sponsored by the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and it works in association with the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. See FreeTheApes.org. I am also Coordinator of the Ape Alliance Great Ape Trade Working Group. I invite readers to visit our page and sign the pledge to never use a great ape as a pet.
We will call him FS. In November 2014, FS flew to Accra, Ghana, to meet with local wildlife dealers to set up a deal for three infant chimpanzees, no doubt captured in the forest after their mothers had been killed. It took some time to arrange their shipping to Dubai, where FS is based, as they arrived in March 2015. He soon found buyers, since baby chimpanzees are favoured pets in the Middle East. Buyers pay USD 20,000 and more for baby chimpanzees in the UAE. They arrive without CITES documents.
The places and dates were reconstructed by the Project to End Great Ape Slavery, which Ol Pejeta Conservancy sponsors. PEGAS and has been following this wildlife trafficker for almost a year by monitoring his Instagram and Facebook accounts, where he posts photographs of his travels – and the animals he trades.
An Instagram photo showing that FS was in Accra in November 2014. There were others as well.
The three chimpanzees FS came to Ghana to buy.
The chimpanzees are held with the African trafficker in the ‘blue room’ before departure in March 2015, frightened and traumatized.
After arrival in Dubai, FS put the chimpanzees up for sale and no more posts of them appeared on his Instagram page.
Dozens of wild animals have appeared on FS’s Instagram and Facebook pages since March 2015, most recently a baby orangutan. PEGAS has traced FS’s travels to India, Thailand, Russia, Ghana, Kenya and possibly China. His Instagram account has now gone private.
FS is just one of many such wildlife traffickers that PEGAS has found, working in close collaboration with a Cheetah Conservation Fund investigator. Cheetahs and other big cats are even more popular than great apes in the Gulf.
Just knowing who the dealers are at the end of the trade chain is only part of the story, however. If the networks are to be shut down, the suppliers and transport routes and methods also need to be known.
PEGAS went to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, in late 2014 to track down addresses that had been put on CITES export permits, to see if any could be verified as illegal great ape exporters.
Working with a local assistant provided by the environmental law NGO Juristrale, PEGAS set about finding the addresses. In the course of driving around the bustling and chaotic Kinshasa city, the team passed a stretch of roadside where primates, birds and other animals were displayed for sale. PEGAS ordered the taxi to pull over and soon two men approached to ask what they wanted. PEGAS recounts what transpired:
“I instructed Fiston, my assistant, to ask them if they knew where I could buy a chimpanzee. I told him to tell them that I was from Dubai on a buying trip. On such short notice it was the best cover story I could come up with. It seemed to work, as they said that, yes, they could get me one. We agreed to return the next day and took their names and mobile phone numbers.
“Further down the road we encountered three more wildlife dealers and repeated the routine. After several visits with the two sets of traffickers, some carried out by Fiston alone, we learned quite a bit about how they operate. I used undercover video recording during some of the questioning sessions.”
The roadside where the animals are displayed is located next to a military base. The traffickers are all middlemen who sell the displayed animals on behalf of officers in the military base. More important, they take orders for protected species that cannot be displayed openly and make arrangements for the animals to be procured. In the case of great apes, they may have to be captured in the wild, but on occasion chimpanzee infants turn up with itinerant traders visiting Kinshasa from the interior.
The red circles show monkeys and the blue ovals are around soldiers that protect the middlemen.
The middlemen were protected by soldiers from the base who patrolled in the vicinity of the traffickers. “In fact, soldiers came to look at us while we were speaking with the middlemen,” said PEGAS. “Making sure we weren’t trouble-makers.”
The middlemen are constantly on their mobile phones taking orders and putting out commands to their suppliers to bring in various species that they have received orders for. Note the soldier coming to see that everything is fine.
Chimpanzees and bonobos were usually shipped down the Congo River on boats from Mbandaka, and western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees were captured in the coastal Mayumbe Forest and driven to Kinshasa from Boma. A bonobo was even found in Boma and rescued by Ian Redmond in 2013. PEGAS saw her in Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary.
The red lines show the main trade routes from the Mayumbe Forest in the west and Mbandaka down-river in the north east.
Prices for chimpanzees in Kinshasa ranged from USD 500 to 800, for bonobos USD1,000 to $2,500, and gorillas USD 2,500. Obtaining CITES export permits would be an additional USD 3,000-5,000, depending on species.
Great apes are shipped by air in crude boxes like this one. It is not uncommon for fatalities to occur during transport.
PEGAS found no chimpanzee during the brief visit to Kinshasa, as it takes two to three weeks to acquire one on order, but Fiston was notified of one that had arrived soon after PEGAS left the DRC. Before arrangements could be made to have it seized by the authorities, it was sold and disappeared. Perhaps it ended up in Dubai.
Fiston sent PEGAS a photo of the chimpanzee that was offered for sale in Kinshasa soon after PEGAS left the country.
Perhaps the Kinshasa chimpanzee is a pet of a wealthy Emirati today.
PEGAS has prepared a report naming some of the Gulf area online traffickers, including FS, and providing their contacts. The report has been sent to national authorities, the CITES Secretariat and to INTERPOL. Now to see what happens.
Chimpanzee mothers are very protective of their infants. The mothers always have to be killed or incapacitated to capture the infants for trade.
Richard Vigne CEO, Ol Pejeta Conservancy Stephen Ngulu Deputy Manager, Ol Pejeta Conservancy Daniel Stiles Project Manager, PEGAS Tom Butynski Director of Research, Sustainability Centre Eastern Africa Alpana Patel Jane Goodall Institute, Kenya Yvonne de Jong Eastern Africa Primate Diversity and Conservation Program, Kenya