Category Archives: trafficking

Great Ape trafficking — an expanding extractive industry

This article was published in on 10th May 2016.

  • 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)

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)

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.

Paris Hilton holding an infant orangutan in Dubai, a known wildlife smuggling center. Photos like this on social media create the impression that it is trendy to keep ape pets. Photo via Instagram.

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.

4. naming
Publishing the names of online traffickers simply drives them underground where they can no longer be easily monitored. Composite of images found on Instagram.

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.

5. For sale
Traffickers commonly post apes for sale online to solicit buyers. Image via Instagram.

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.

7b. cage
In Thailand, a large crocodile farm and zoo uses infant chimpanzees and orangutans as photo props, then cages them up for life when they get too old. Photos by Daniel Stiles.

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.

9. Doodoo in Giza
Today Doodoo languishes in a rusting cage because the Egyptian CITES authorities refuse to allow him to go to a proper sanctuary. Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya has offered to pay all expenses to relocate him there, to join five other chimpanzees that were rescued from Egyptian traffickers in 2005. Photo by Dina Zulfikar.
8. Doodoo
Doodoo with a zoo veterinarian shortly after he was brought to the Giza Zoo. He was found in the carry-on luggage of a trafficker smuggling him to Kuwait. Photo by Dina Zulfikar.

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.”

10. Safaga
The wildlife breeding facility in Sharm el Sheikh is on the grounds of this hotel. When the author visited it in November 2014 he witnessed the purchase of three addax, loaded in the crate in the back of the pickup truck. Addax are listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN and are CITES Appendix I. No addax are reported exported from Egypt in 2014 or 2015, although 12 are from other countries. Photo by Daniel Stiles.

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.”

Overlooked Fact

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.”

11. mothers
All hominid mothers are incredibly protective of their children. Photos by GRASP and Daniel Stiles.

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.

12. Sweetwaters
Chimpanzees are free to roam and socialize as they wish in Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Although Sweetwaters can take 30 or more additional chimpanzees, this is not sufficient to handle all those currently held as a result of illegal trade. Photo by Daniel Stiles.

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.


The Orangutan Show at a safari park in the suburbs of Bangkok, Thailand, has been making use of trafficked great apes from Indonesia for years. Thai law prohibits these performances, which include boxing matches, and dozens of orangutans have even been seized and returned to Indonesia, but the safari park replaces them and carries on. There is no system of registration and monitoring in place, which would prevent such abuses. Photos by Daniel Stiles.

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 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.

Thailand not a ‘Land of Smiles’ for great apes

Thailand tourist promos advertise the country as the Land of Smiles, because the people are so welcoming and friendly. But a recent visit to Thailand by the head of PEGAS (the Project to End Great Slavery) turned up dozens of great apes that definitely were not in the mood to smile.

PEGAS found chimpanzees, orangutans and a gorilla held captive in appalling conditions, and many were being used in commercial activities such as circus type performances and props in pay-for-play photo sessions with visitors.

Top of the list of great ape horror shows were Safari World, Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo and Pata Zoo. None of these privately owned facilities are strangers to criticism and bad publicity. Many press articles and NGO reports and campaigns have been directed at them. What is surprising is that they continue to operate as if nothing had happened.

Safari World, for example, located less than an hour from downtown Bangkok, puts on a daily Orang Utan Show that gathers large crowds. Seven juvenile orangutans dress up as rock stars and pretend to play instruments while a young female obscenely go-go dances to blared music. Following the music show, orangutans engage in a boxing match, while a very young chimpanzee rushes in and out acting the clown.


Hundreds of people pay to watch captive great apes perform at Safari World.


Where did these apes originate? Not a single one could have been legally imported, according to the CITES Trade Database. Just as important, performances like that are illegal under Thai law. In 2004 the government seized 48 orangutans at Safari World for exactly the same offense and returned them to Indonesia, where they were met at the Jakarta airport by the Indonesian president’s wife.

“We are very happy to get the orangutans back,” Kristiani Yudhoyono said at a ceremony. “They belong to our vast nation…”. Now about ten more orangutans are back at Safari World.


A young chimpanzee plays the clown

In November last year, 14 orangutans confiscated at a Phuket island zoo were repatriated to Indonesia for doing the same things as seen at Safari World. No one was charged with a crime, even though obviously one had been committed.

Edwin Wiek of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, who was instrumental in having the Phuket orangutans confiscated and repatriated, said in August 2015 that “[the Department of National Parks] decision has sent a clear message to wildlife smugglers and zoos in Thailand that smuggled apes will never end up in the trade again.”


Fourteen orangutans were returned to Indonesia in November 2015. Will it be a deterrent? Photo: Claire Beastall, TRAFFIC

Apparently Safari World and the traffickers who supply them did not receive the message.

The owner of Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo missed the message as well. As soon as visitors enter they encounter baby chimpanzees, orangutans and tigers lined up in cages or cribs, there to be photographed. The zoo charges 200 baht (USD 5.60) for a framed photo with Meiya, a 5-month old female chimpanzee. Commercial use of great apes is supposedly prohibited if they are imported, as they are CITES Appendix I. If they are captive born, the facility must be registered with the government and receive authorization to breed that species, according to Section 17 of the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992. Permission to breed crocodiles does not extend to great apes.



Entering Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo one finds baby great apes kept there to make money in photo sessions


It costs 200 baht to take a photo with Meiya

On the edge of the farm and zoo, away from where the crocodile and elephant shows take place, PEGAS found some rusting cages that housed a pitiful orangutan and several adult chimpanzees. Five were visible and an employee said that eight more were kept in cages out of sight. A recent animal welfare law prohibits cruelty to animals. It unfortunately does not define cruelty. Many would think that cooping up intelligent creatures in such deplorable conditions constitutes cruel imprisonment.



An orangutan and several chimpanzees are kept in old, rusting cages at Samut Prakarn

The last of the terrible three is the infamous Pata Zoo, opened in 1984 on top of a Bangkok department store. Its biggest celebrity inmate is Bua Noi, a female gorilla that according to the International Gorilla Studbook originated in Guinea – a country that has no gorillas. What Guinea does have, however, is a notorious reputation for illegal great ape trade. The CITES Trade Database has no record of a gorilla import from any country to Thailand, thus it appears Bua Noi was illegally acquired. She lives in solitary confinement and tourists have even reported seeing her gripping the cage bars and shedding tears.


Bua Noi exists solely to earn money for the zoo owner

The Pata Zoo also holds five orangutans and three chimpanzees in cramped cages, a long-standing animal welfare issue. It, too, puts on an illegal show, which includes an orangutan that lifts barbells, and young orangutans sit with minders outside waiting for tourists to pay money to have their photo taken with them.


Young orangutans of unknown origin sit outside the Pata Zoo to be used as money earning photo props

PETA Asia claims that “the conditions at the Pata Zoo are some the worst that PETA has ever encountered… The cages are extremely small and barren, and the animals are deprived of everything that is natural and important to them.” PETA has a campaign to close the zoo, but its license was recently renewed, and the zoo director Kanit Sermsirimongkhon said, “We have complied with all relevant laws”. Have they? Bua Noi and other great apes there were probably illegally imported, as they do not have CITES documentation.


PETA Asia has a campaign to close Pata Zoo

PEGAS visited several other zoos in Thailand as well, including Dusit, Lopburi, Khao Kheow and Korat. The seven orangutans and three chimpanzees found at Lopburi were living in dreadful conditions and are being used in illegal performances, but those at the other zoos were situated in well-designed enclosures with landscaping and amenities.



Lopburi Zoo keeps orangutans in a dark dungeon, except when they bring them out for weekend and holiday shows

In all, PEGAS estimates that there are at least 41 orangutans, 38 chimpanzees and one gorilla in nine facilities. In some, the animals could not be seen at the time of the visit. There are other great apes located in facilities not visited. Judging by records in the CITES Trade Database, some of the apes were probably illegally imported, although some were born in Thailand. Unless the facility has obtained express permission to propagate a species, even locally born apes could be illegal to possess.


Khao Kheow has a pleasant environment for the great apes


But a 6-year old female orangutan is kept outside for the money-making photo sessions

Why can’t the illegal exploitation of these sentient animals be stopped?

Because, as Edwin Wiek says, “It’s big business. Influential people.”

“There are ex-prime ministers that have chimpanzees and orangutans in their backyard. These are the kind of people that are opposing us,” said Wiek.

Just as with the problem of online wildlife traffickers in the Middle East, the solution has to start at the top. If the decision-makers in power are complicit with the crime, little can be achieved. Campaigns need to be directed at those at the very top of government. Only they have the power to change anything.





Wildlife traffickers exposed to the authorities

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.

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 three chimpanzees FS came to Ghana to buy.

The chimpanzees arrive in Dubai in March 2015, frightened and traumatized from the long journey.

The chimpanzees are held with the African trafficker in the ‘blue room’ before departure in March 2015, frightened and traumatized.


FS put the chimpanzees up for sale and no more posts of them appeared on his Instagram page.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Chimpanzee mothers are very protective of their infants. The mothers always have to be killed or incapacitated to capture the infants for trade.

Chilling Photos Show What Happens To Baby Apes Stolen From Their Families

This article from The Dodo is based on PEGAS work…

By Sarah V Schweig 15 December 2015

Sometimes an exposé reveals a seedy secret world of animal exploitation and makes a huge splash.

And sometimes a dark world of horrific exploitation is hidden in plain sight.



A quick look online reveals a terrifying truth about the lives of orphaned great apes, who are being illegally bought by wealthy people in the Middle East who want to dress them up and keep them as pets.

“Almost all of these animals have been captured as infants from the wild, and been bought online,” the Ol Pejeta Conservancy wrote in a press release provided to The Dodo.

Ol Pejeta has started the Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS) with support from the Arcus Foundation, which seeks to develop a better understanding of the illegal trade in great apes by investigating websites that advertise apes for sale or display photos and videos of great apes as pets.

PEGAS collected the photographs in this article from online sites open to the public.



All great ape species are listed under Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement that is supposed to ensure that international trade of animals and plants does not threaten their survival. This means that any commercial trade of these animals is illegal.

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Illegal — and also horrifically wrong. According to Ol Pejeta:

The demand for great apes as pets, entertainment props, or for display in private zoos in the Middle East is fueling the large scale wild capture of infants in the forests of West Africa and Indonesia. In order to capture young chimpanzees, hunters kill the mothers and often the rest of the troop as well. Many of these infants die en route to their selling destination, as a result of rough handling, cramped transport conditions, stress and dehydration.

One such case was a baby chimp known as Little Doody.

Little Doody was discovered in the Cairo airport being smuggled into a plane bound for Kuwait.




Even though PEGAS offered to relocate him to a sanctuary, the Egyptian CITES office did not respond to the offer.

Little Doody was brought to the Giza Zoo. He now lives in a cage.

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Arrested Guinea former CITES official also signed Armenia permits

Ansoumane Doumbouya, the former Guinea CITES official arrested recently in Conakry for wildlife trafficking using fraudulent CITES permits, also signed permits for the export of bonobos to Armenia in 2011. No bonobos live in West Africa, they are restricted to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ofir Drori of EAGLE reports that Doumbouya has been transported to prison to be held for trial. An unsigned blank CITES permit was found in his bag!

The following story published in an Armenian newspaper gives some background and links to earlier stories about great ape imports to Armenia.

Arrest of Guinean Official Implicated in Illegal Animal Trade; Signed Export Permits for Armenia as Well

Kristine Aghalaryan

24 August, 2015

A bonobo smuggled into Armenia with a Guinea CITES permit

A bonobo smuggled into Armenia with a Guinea CITES permit

Ansoumane Doumbouya, former head of the CITES Management Authority of Guinea and a key player behind the illegal export of hundreds of chimpanzees and gorillas to China and elsewhere, was arrested on August 21.

EAGLE (Eco Activists for Governance & Law Enforcement) announced the arrest of Ansoumane Doumbouya, along with the infamous wildlife trafficker Thierno Barry, in Conakry, Guinea’s capital.

Hetq has the following CITES export permit, signed by Doumbouya in 2011, under which two bonobo primates were imported by the Zoo Fauna Art company in Armenia.

The CITES export permit signed by Doumbouya

The CITES export permit signed by Doumbouya










A Hetq investigative series into the illegal animal trade in Armenia led to criminal charges against Zoo Fauna Art owner Artur Khachatryan.

The investigative division of Armenia’s Ministry of Finance has been dragging out an inquiry into the matter for one and a half years.

Even after he lost his position with CITES, Doumbouya retained a position within the Guinean Ministry of Environment as Commander of the national wildlife and forestry mobile enforcement brigade and was still signing CITES permits for traffickers.

Former head of CITES in Guinea arrested

On 21st August 2015 EAGLE (Eco Activists for Governance & Law Enforcement) announced the arrest of Ansoumane Doumbouya, the former head of the CITES Management Authority of Guinea, along with the infamous wildlife trafficker Thierno Barry in Conakry.

Doumbouya has long been known as a key player behind the illegal export of hundreds of chimpanzees and gorillas to China and elsewhere using fraudulent CITES export permits (see The Conakry Connection). Even after he lost his position with CITES he continued to fraudulently sell permits to traffickers to allow them to ship protected wildlife around the world, in spite of the fact that there is currently a CITES suspension of trade from Guinea (PEGAS is in possession of a copy of such a fraudulent permit, signed by Doumbouya a year and a half after he was removed from the CITES office).

 Ofir Drori, head of EAGLE, has told PEGAS that there is huge political pressure from high government officials in Guinea to free Doumbouya. Those who wish to see the scourge of great ape trafficking stopped must protest political interference. Read the announcement by Charlotte Houpline, Director of GALF, below:

 Today is a special day of victory against high level corruption and complicity.

Since the beginning of the collaboration between GALF and the Guinean Government, many traffickers have been arrested and condemned. Today, however, we are proud to send one of the biggest traffickers behind bars – the former head of CITES in Guinea – Ansoumane Doumbouya.

Abusing his position as the authority of this international convention he has been assisting and collaborating with traffickers. Different reports, including one from the CITES secretariat, implicated him in illegal exports, but he is still holding a position within the Ministry of Environment as Commander of the national wildlife and forestry mobile enforcement brigade and still signing CITES permits for traffickers.

Doumbouya signed CITES permits to send wild-caught chimpanzee orphans to China to perform in circuses

Doumbouya signed CITES permits to send wild-caught chimpanzee orphans to China to perform in circuses







The shocking hidden footage in the link below shows a trafficker explaining in details the corrupt system.

This time, the vicious cycle of impunity has been broken. Our long and meticulous investigation that led to this arrest took more than a year as Doumbouya is experienced and cautious in his illegal activities. He had just delivered a CITES permit for 2 primates to an international trafficker, Thierno Barry that has been regularly exporting protected species to China and other part of the world, with the CITES’ head’s complicity. Thierno Barry have been arrested. The two operations have been conducted by the BCN INTERPOL and the GALF project.

The case of Doumbouya became one of the most known examples of CITES high level corruption and has been discussed in the convention’s international meetings. Several hundreds of apes and many other totally protected species, were known to have been exported through this corrupt system.

The former head of CITES was even convoked and interrogated by the police early last year, where he declared that all the CITES permits, bonobos, chimpanzees and others were falsified. He pretended to have lost his official stamp, and that the traffickers imitate his signature.

Our investigation aimed to demonstrate that Mr Doumbouya kept on delivering CITES permits to several wildlife traffickers. He was using an old stock of permits that he had kept with him even after he lost his position as the head of CITES.

The satisfaction from this arrest is very personal to me. During the 10 years I spent in Guinea, and before I started fighting in wildlife law enforcement, I was an advisor to the Ministry of Environment for 2 years, and it is in the neighboring office that Mr Doumbouya -the CITES head of Guinea, provided wildlife traffickers with CITES permits, abusing the same national laws and international conventions that he was entrusted to protect.

Thierno Barry, the director of a fictive company involved for a long time in the international wildlife trade (BARRY PETS COMPAGNY IMPORT-EXPORT) have been arrested holding protected primates and a CITES permit signed by Ansoumane Doumbouya. Before his arrest, during several months of undercover investigation, he explained the implication of the former CITES MA in the international illegal wildlife trade.

Here is the criminal’s description of the corrupt system:

Email –  “I have talked with the former director, head of CITES. He confirmed that he can provide me with the permits. He says he’s a bit afraid because he is no more the head of CITES. Chinese are difficult and often ask for confirmation”.

Hidden footage: “He is no more the head of CITES now, do you understand? When we take the CITES to send in Jordan, there could be problems if they see on the internet that he is not holding the position. He can say that I betrayed him. The former director has been fired but he has kept the old permits. But if there is some kind of confirmation, there will be some problems.

Do you understand? If the former director gives me, you know that he’s not allowed to give the CITES because he’s been fired, so if he gives me the CITES, I take the CITES and I send to Mr Hassan. If Mr Hassan sends to his ministry in Jordan to see the confirmation, there will be phone call to the one who is now in charge of CITES. This will create a lot of problems”.

Today, Mr Doumbouya faces the Justice. According to the penal code of Guinea, Mr Doumbouya faces charges from 6 months to 10 years of prison for usurpation of qualification and office, unlawful extension of authority, forgery on public acts and documents, forgery of administrative documents, receiving, complicity and corruption.

After a long suspension from CITES, Guinea has an important responsibility to send a strong message to its citizen and the international community. Doumbouya should be severely punished according to the law.

Please warmly congratulate these Ministers and ask for the maximal sentence for the former CITES head of Guinea.

Minister of Justice, Cheick SAKHO : or

Minister of Environment, Hadja Kadiatou NDIAYE : or



Charlotte Houpline

Directeur GALF / Guinée- Application de la Loi Faunique

United Arab Emirates – research into illegal wildlife trade

PEGAS recently completed eight days of investigations into wildlife trade in the UAE, focusing on great apes. A local NGO assisted greatly.

The UAE is made up of seven emirates, each with its own local government headed by a hereditary sheikh. The federal government is based in Abu Dhabi and the federal President is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Vice President and Prime Minister is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai.

Map of the UAE. The red line shows the places that PEGAS visited.

Map of the UAE. The red line shows the places that PEGAS visited.

PEGAS visited the following facilities and individuals:

  • The Dubai Zoo – director of the new Dubai Zoo and Safari Park and a Dubai Zoo veterinarian.
  • Sheikh Butti bin Juma Al Maktoum Wildlife Centre, Dubai – the manager.
  • A Pet Care Clinic, Dubai – The veterinarian owner
  • Al Ain Zoo, Abu Dhabi – a veterinarian and a species coordinator.
  • Arabia’s Wildlife Centre, Sharjah – a South African weekend manager, spoke to us on short notice.
  • Al Bustan Zoological Centre, Sharjah – Closed to the public, but spoke with the guard and later had correspondence with the manager.
  • Sharjah Birds and Animal Market
  • Environment Agency, Ministry of Environment and Water, Abu Dhabi – Dr. Shaikha Al Dhaheri, Executive Director, Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Sector and Pritpal Soorae, Unit Head, Terrestrial Assessment and Monitoring, Terrestrial & Marine Biodiversity Sector.
  • We tried to meet with Dr. Ahmed Esmaeil Al Hashmi, head of CITES-UAE and Director, Biodiversity Department, Ministry of Environment and Water, Dubai, but he said that he would have to obtain clearance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which never came.

Dubai Zoo

The current small and cramped Dubai Zoo will be closing down near the end of the year and the animals will be moved to the new, much larger grounds out of town on the road to Sharjah. Press reports indicated that the new zoo and safari park would hold over 1,000 animals, but the new director said the actual number would be closer to 3,000. Many additional animals will have to be legally sourced from zoos and animal dealers. Elephants are also planned, but PEGAS received conflicting information about whether they would be from Asia or Africa.

Dubai safari park

A sign for the new safari park in the Dubai Zoo.

There are currently 7 great apes in the Dubai Zoo, all held in old cages with concrete substrate and few enrichment amenities. Two gorillas said by the zoo to be of the eastern lowland subspecies (Gorilla beringei graueri) arrived as undocumented infants, which the veterinarian said were the result of illegal trade confiscations. The CITES Trade Database contains no reports of any kind involving any gorilla subspecies for the UAE. The International Studbook for the Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla g. gorilla) confirms that the two in Dubai were captured in the wild from an unknown source. The male, Digit, was thought to have been born in 1994 and arrived in the zoo in October 1996. The female Diana was born about 1999 and arrived in January 2000.

Diana is in a particularly bad state and shows signs of severe depression, including grooming herself to the extent that she has pulled out quite a bit of hair on her arms. According to the new director, she has tried to interact with the male, but is rebuffed. The director thinks it’s because the male was captured so young he has not learned how to behave towards females.

Digit the male does not seem too badly off, but Diana shows signs of deep depression.

Diana shows signs of deep depression.


The male does not look so badly off.

PEGAS and a local NGO have made a plea to free the gorillas and relocate them to a sanctuary. Debby Cox of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is assisting in assessing whether this would be possible. The director said that he wishes to have replacement gorillas in place before the Dubai municipality, which owns the zoo, would allow relocation of Digit and Diana. The new zoo plans call for a one-acre (0.40 ha) gorilla enclosure, which could house several gorillas comfortably.

The first order of business is to conduct DNA testing of the gorillas to confirm what subspecies they belong to. Additionally, the Congolese CITES and wildlife authorities (ICCN) must agree to request the return of the gorillas, if indeed they originated in the DRC, and agree that they go to a sanctuary, and a gorilla sanctuary must agree to take them.

The zoo has 4 chimpanzees, 2 each in two cages. None of them are listed in the European zoos chimpanzee studbook. Since 1990, when the UAE joined CITES, only two chimpanzees are reported in the CITES Trade Database as being imported for zoos, one in 1992 and one in 1999. Therefore, at least two of the Dubai chimpanzees were imported illegally. A local NGO will assist PEGAS to work with the zoo to see if more can be learned of the chimpanzees’ origins and when they arrived.

The four chimpanzees are held in two squalid cages.

The four chimpanzees are held in two squalid cages.












PEGAS requested that the chimpanzees be freed on the grounds that they were imported illegally and are living in poor circumstances, and has offered to assist their repatriation to an appropriate sanctuary in Africa. As with the gorillas, unless replacements can be found, this most likely will not occur. The new Dubai Zoo director intimated that he wishes to display a large group of chimpanzees in the new facility under construction.

There is one baby orangutan that the zoo veterinarian said was dropped off as a 4-5 month-old infant by an unknown person. It appears to be about 2 years old now. There are no records of orangutan imports to the UAE in the CITES Trade Database. It, too, is a victim of trafficking.

The baby orangutan is in a barren cage alone with no enrichment. PEGAS saw it rolling around trying to play.

The baby orangutan is in a barren cage alone with no enrichment. PEGAS saw it rolling around trying to play.



Sheikh Butti bin Juma Al Maktoum Wildlife Centre

The manager was kind enough to take us on a complete tour of the 17-hectare private breeding centre and wildlife park. The centre has no great apes and does not plan to acquire any. He did know of people who owned great apes, however, and provided information on routes and methods that he was aware of for smuggling illegal wildlife from Saudi Arabia, Oman and the sea into the UAE.

The Sheikh Butti Wildlife Centre is a well-managed private wildlife breeding centre.

The Sheikh Butti Wildlife Centre is a well-managed private wildlife breeding centre.

A Pet Care Clinic

The veterinarian owner treats the pets of many wealthy Emiratis and expat residents, including royal family members. The royal families import exotic animals at will, often using their own jet planes. They are not subject to normal CITES and other procedures and there are no authorities that can use legal means to halt the trade. He has made attempts to create awareness about animal welfare issues, but has been warned that he will be made to leave the UAE if he says anything negative about the government. This is a situation that affects all expatriate residents. He knew of illegal pet trading, but could say little specific about it. He did not think that great ape ownership was very common in the UAE.

Al Ain Zoo

The zoo has one gorilla and 7 chimpanzees. The western lowland gorilla, named Lady, was born about 1974 in Cameroon, according to the gorilla studbook, and was captured in the wild. She came to Al Ain Zoo in May 1978 with a male named Maxi, who died around 2006. The male is not in the studbook. Lady is kept in a fairly large enclosure with a grass and earth substrate and good enrichment amenities. There are no bars to the enclosures at Al Ain, but rather a number of reinforced glass windows are set in artificial “rock” walls for viewing. Lady lives in isolation, except for a rabbit that has been put in the enclosure for company. A large group of local boys was taunting the gorilla during the PEGAS visit.

Lady is a western lowland gorilla that arrived at Al Ain Zoo in 1978. She has been alone since about 2006.

Lady is a western lowland gorilla that arrived at Al Ain Zoo in 1978. She has been alone since about 2006.


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A group of young boys was taunting Lady at the time of the visit.

The chimpanzees are divided up into two groups, one consisting of 4 that is on view to the public, and 3 others that are kept out of view. All 7 are listed in the European chimpanzee studbook. The origin of 6 is unknown, while one is an in situ birth. The arrival dates do not correspond with any reported dates in the CITES Trade Database, thus all were imported outside of CITES procedures, all but one imported before the UAE joined CITES. The one enclosure on view to the public appeared to be well-maintained with good substrate and enrichment amenities.

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The chimpanzees looked content and healthy.

The spacious chimpanzee enclosure contained four animals.


The spacious chimpanzee enclosure contained four animals.

As with the Dubai Zoo, the Al Ain Zoo is currently expanding to become a more than 900 hectare wildlife park and resort, dedicated to wildlife conservation education. Hundreds of new animals are being imported to stock the open drive-through safari park, including several white rhinos that have already arrived from South Africa. PEGAS was told no new great apes or elephants are planned to be imported, even though a large, new ape house was being constructed. We asked to be informed if staff at Al Ain hear anything about great ape trade from the dealers they do business with.

An idealized vision of the new Al Ain safari park.

An idealized vision of the new Al Ain safari park.

Arabia’s Wildlife Centre

PEGAS and MEAF visited this facility on a Friday (the weekend) before it opened at 2 p.m. A workman telephoned the weekend manager, who drove to meet us. He informed us that the centre had no primates other than indigenous hamadryas baboons. The centre breeds wild species found in Arabia and supplies other vetted facilities on request. He said that the centre receives complaints from people about neighbours who keep noisy or dangerous exotic pets, but they advise people to contact the authorities in Sharjah.

The Arabia's Wildlife Centre has no great apes.

The Arabia’s Wildlife Centre has no great apes

Sharjah decreed a new law last November that outlawed private ownership of exotic animals that had been imported illegally. Since the amnesty for handing in animals expired in late December, the centre has been receiving a rash of exotic pets turned in to the government or anonymously dumped at the gate. Since most of them cannot be used for breeding and there is a lack of space to keep them, they are euthanized. They even found a baboon dressed in designer clothes and with a meticulously shaved beard chained to the gate.

As with other informants in the UAE, the manager was reticent to share information about wildlife traffickers and illegal trade, but said that he knew it occurred on a regular basis. The new Sharjah law might curb it.

Al Bustan Zoological Centre

This privately-owned zoo is not open to the public, but the guard at the gate said that chimpanzees had recently been brought and left there by private owners. PEGAS subsequently got into contact with the manager to find out the circumstances surrounding the chimpanzees. The two animals appear to be the result of illegal import as infant pets at least 15 years ago. They were originally kept in the house, but as they grew up and became dangerous they were moved out into an enclosure on the grounds. With the new law, the owners decided to dispose of the pair at Al Bustan.

The Al Bustan Zoo is privately owned.

The Al Bustan Zoo is privately owned.


It is closed to the public, but the guard said that chimpanzees had recently arrived there.

It is closed to the public, but the guard said that chimpanzees had recently arrived there.

PEGAS has offered to relocate the chimpanzees to Sweetwaters. The zoo is owned by an advisor to the President of the UAE. The manager said that he would consult with the owner and inform PEGAS of what they decided to do. PEGAS has requested Al Bustan to inform us of any future great ape arrivals.

Sharjah Birds and Animal Market

This infamous pet market has received considerable negative press and sparked campaigns to close it. Mammals, reptiles and birds are crammed into small cages and sold like they were inanimate commodities, not live creatures. It used to contain many exotic species, but since the new law, very few remain. PEGAS saw no primates in a tour of the market. It was deemed a waste of time to enquire about buying great apes, as con men abound there and they would simply spin a tale about how anything wanted could be obtained. It is hoped the absence of exotic animals will be long-lasting.

Environment Agency

PEGAS and a local NGO met with the Executive Director, Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Sector, and Pritpal Soorae, Unit Head, Terrestrial Assessment and Monitoring, Terrestrial & Marine Biodiversity Sector. Dr. Al Dhaheri briefed us on the new bill that aims to regulate the possession and trade of predatory, dangerous and semi-dangerous animals and protect people from harm and from spreading animal diseases. She confirmed that great apes were included. The bill has passed many of the lower level stages of approval and is now with the federal cabinet. The Environment Agency expects the bill to become law before the end of 2015 and this will provide the legislative foundation upon which to enforce regulation of the illegal pet trade.

PEGAS raised the issue of airports such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi being used as both destination and transit points for illegal wildlife trade, for example chimpanzees and bonobos that are known to have transited Dubai to go to Armenia. Dr. Al Dhaheri said that the government does not have legal authority to seize anything in transit, but if something illegal was found they would notify the destination country authorities. The government has recently been communicating with the national airlines (Emirates, Etihad and Air Arabia) and obtaining agreements from them not to carry illegal wildlife products. There are a number of royal family, cargo and low-cost airlines registered in the UAE, it is unknown if these were also contacted.

PEGAS has not revealed all of the information that was communicated by the different informants because of requested confidentiality, and because it could compromise ongoing investigations. A trafficker was also found that operates out of Dubai and India and who has posted online numerous great apes, other primates, wild cats, exotic birds, etc. Investigations are ongoing.