PEGAS hosts Illegal Wildlife Trade Cyber-crime Workshop

 

Wildlife conservationists and law enforcement officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the use of the Internet in marketing and trading protected wildlife species. Before the Internet, live wild animals, plants and their products were normally traded in physical market places, auction houses or shops. Sellers and buyers congregated physically to trade, which set certain limits on the numbers of traders who could participate and the quantity of products that could be sold and shipped around the world.

With the arrival of the Internet, thousands of traders can communicate instantaneously with one another in cyber-space and sell millions of items at the touch of a key. Traders can use e-commerce websites and social media platforms, such as Instagram, WeChat, Twitter and Facebook, to advertise wildlife with photographs showing a multitude of items. They all have private messaging functions between users, which can allow illegal trading to take place anonymously. WhatsApp, Snapchat and other private communication applications can also be used to negotiate illegal trades out of sight of law enforcement.

The Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS) has been investigating online trading of great apes for about two years now, collaborating closely with the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Cheetahs and great apes share the unfortunate distinction of being popular exotic pets of the wealthy in the Middle East, former Soviet Union countries and elsewhere. The exotic pet and rare species industries make extensive use of cyber-space to conduct trade. Critically endangered CITES Appendix I species such as great apes and cheetahs can attract very high prices from buyers for unscrupulous traffickers, and they have organized suppliers in source countries, creating sophisticated wildlife trafficking networks.

One of the objectives of the PEGAS project is to coordinate actions of organizations and individuals who are engaged in similar work to stop great ape trafficking. With this in mind, PEGAS organized an Illegal Wildlife Cyber-trade Information Exchange Workshop, which was held 21-22 March at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Those accepting invitations to attend were Tania McCrea-Steele, the Global Wildlife Cybercrime Project Lead of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW); Pauline Verheij, Senior Legal Investigator, Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC); Sarah Stoner, Senior Wildlife Crime Analyst, WJC; and Patricia Tricorache, Assistant Director for Strategic Communications and Illegal Wildlife Trade, Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). Joss Wright, Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and Co-Director of the Oxford University Cybersecurity Doctoral Training Centre provided information electronically on illegal wildlife trade that he is investigating on the Dark Net.

Workshop participants visiting Sudan, the last northern white male rhino on Earth

The workshop focused on reviewing the strategies and tactics used by the participating NGO’s to detect and disrupt wildlife cybercriminals with the aim of increasing our impact by adopting a coordinated and consistent approach to tackling the problem across the NGO community. We presented our respective objectives, methodologies, outputs and outcomes and discussed ways of improving our effectiveness.

Each participant gave one or more PowerPoint presentations summarizing their objectives, methodologies, outputs and outcomes.

IFAW was one of the first to recognize the threat that online sales posed to wildlife. Tania McCrea-Steele explained how up to now IFAW has focused on e-commerce websites. In a recent background paper prepared for the OECD entitled ‘E-commerce and Wildlife Cybercrime: Effective policies and practices to stem the growth of illicit trade’, Tania summarized IFAW’s actions in this growing area. In 2004 IFAW launched an investigation called Caught in the Web that documented massive online marketing of live endangered and protected species and their parts including elephants, rhinos, sea turtles, tigers, lions, falcons, primates, parrots and serval cats. Three years later, another IFAW investigation, Bidding for Extinction, focused on eBay sites in the U.K., U.S., Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany, France, and China.

IFAW’s investigation in 2008 (Killing with Keystrokes) found 7,122 online advertisements for CITES Appendix I and II species over a period of just six weeks across eight countries. In response to the report’s findings which highlighted the large amount of ivory available for sale over e-commerce sites, eBay introduced a global ban on the sale of ivory across their marketplaces.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have a cyber crimes unit, but IFAW’s findings inspired it to launch undercover stings in 2011 and 2012 called respectively Operation Cyberwild and Operation Wild Web, an example of using outputs successfully. USFWS charged 154 perpetrators in Operation Wild Web and officials seized a huge variety of illegal wildlife products.

In 2013, IFAW found that ads for endangered wildlife products available for sale in Australia, mostly on eBay, had increased 266 percent since 2008. In 2014 IFAW looked at 280 online markets across 16 countries (Wanted Dead or Alive). In just six weeks it found ads for 33,006 endangered animals and their parts. They found 56 live great apes offered for sale in 40 online ads, plus 8 other ads offering multiple species, including great apes.

 

Russia and Ukraine posted the most great ape ads (38 total). In 2015 IFAW released Elephant vs Mouse, exposing the illegal ivory trade on Craig’s List, a popular P2P e-commerce website, leading to Craig’s List pledging to monitor wildlife ads more vigorously and delist those that were advertising illegal items.

 


 

A growing number of online technology companies are banning the trade in endangered species on their sites. In 2008 Chinese online marketplace Tabao banned species included in China’s Wildlife Protection Law, while eBay’s ban on the sale of ivory across all their platforms came into effect in January 2009. In September 2009 Alibaba, a huge Chinese e-commerce site that provides online trade for individual consumers as well as businesses, banned all online postings of elephant ivory, rhino horn, shark fins and the parts and derivatives of sea turtles, tigers, bears and other protected wild animal and plant species.

More recently Etsy banned the sale of ivory and all other products made from endangered species in July 2013 and Chinese giant Tencent, that owns WeChat and the QQ instant messenger launched “Tencent for the Planet. Say No to Illegal Wildlife Trade” in May 2015. TRAFFIC, WWF and IFAW have been working with online companies to develop a united front against online wildlife crime across the sector. This has resulted in seven companies, including eBay, Etsy, Gumtree, Microsoft, Pinterest, Tencent and Yahoo! adopting a new standardised policy framework in August 2016.

Example of illegal ivory for sale on a Chinese social media site

Enforcement efforts are more challenging to track as prosecution data is not collated; however there have been a number of international and national operations, cross border investigations and successful prosecutions.

INTERPOL’s Project WEB (2013) was the first international enforcement operation investigating the scale and nature of online ivory trade in Europe. The operation found 660 advertisements of ivory items conservatively valued at approximately EUR 1,450,000 for sale during a two-week period on 61 Internet auction sites in nine European countries. Operation Cobra 3, an international law enforcement operation tackling the illegal trade in endangered species which took place in spring 2015, led to over 300 seizures of animals, plants and derivatives in the UK, the majority of which had been sold online.

Most recently Operation Thunderbird, a global wildlife crime operation held over a period of three weeks in January and February 2017, ensured that investigating online marketplaces and social media was an integrated part of the operation. In addition to these operations there have been multiple successful prosecutions.

Online wildlife trafficking has been elevated to the largest international conservation forum, CITES, through the adoption of multiple Decisions and the inclusion of specific text on this issue in a Resolution. This was addressed most recently with Decision 17.92 Combatting Wildlife Cyber-crime which was adopted at CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) 17 in 2016. The Decision seeks to capture changes to legislation, establish best practise models, develop enforcement guidelines, and engage with online technology companies. In addition there is an obligation to report back at CITES Standing Committees and create a Resolution on the issue for CoP18.

 

IFAW has developed a standardised methodology for researching online wildlife trade which they have shared with interested enforcement agencies, NGO’s and academics. In addition, IFAW has developed a procedure for identifying scam ads on e-commerce websites. Posting fake adverts for wildlife has become a small industry in its own right. The scammers collect a deposit and shipping costs from the customer for nonexistent animals or products and are never heard from again.

The Wildlife Justice Commission was launched in March 2015 as a non-governmental charity registered in the Netherlands and is based in The Hague. WJC’s mission is to help disrupt transnational, organised wildlife crime by exposing criminal networks and the corruption that enables them to flourish by convincing – or if need be pressuring – governments to enforce the law. Pauline Verheij explained how one of WJC’s first investigations, dubbed ‘Operation Phoenix’, focused on the northern Viet Nam village of Nhi Khe, which is a hub of international wildlife product illegal trade, including ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts sold in the village, plus a much larger range and quantity of products sold online, including bear, pangolin, sea turtle and helmeted hornbill parts.


 

After gathering evidence for a year using undercover investigator visits to Nhi Khe and monitoring of online social media sites of traders based there (mainly WeChat and Facebook), WJC mapped out a network 51 perpetrators involved in selling over USD 53 million worth of illegal wildlife products. They contacted the Vietnamese government in January 2016 and provided a ‘Map of Facts’ report on their findings, requesting them to take appropriate law enforcement action. The government initially ignored the report.

Ivory prices in 2015 in Nhi Khe, Viet Nam. The latest raw ivory prices averaged USD 725/kg

To apply further pressure, WJC held a public hearing in November 2016 in which the evidence of illegal wildlife trade was presented to the public. An Accountability Panel made up of distinguished legal personalities reviewed WJC’s information and described it as objective and reliable. They determined that Nhi Khe is, and continues to be, a major hub for wildlife crime in protected species. The government made a few token arrests, but has not yet taken the necessary steps to shut down illegal wildlife trade in Nhi Khe and neighbouring villages.

Sarah Stoner described how WJC uses iBase to store, process and analyse data. Both the social media account and a traded species product are recorded entities, provided with an ID code and a screen grab of each ad. The analysis produced links that are relationships between the entities. The analysis showed clearly who were the biggest dealers and determined the quantities of each product sold and the estimated value. Relationships between the various actors were also ascertained. The study concluded:

  • WeChat was the most popular platform and was used by one third of traders and WJC detected at least 8,300 images of illegal wildlife offered for sale on WeChat
  • WJC found that Vietnamese traders are targeting Chinese customers via WeChat
  • The volume and scale of products offered for sale on WeChat by a relatively small number of individuals was unprecedented and was occurring in an organised manner
  • Emerging Trend: WJC identified Chinese customers are using WeChat Wallet, particularly WeTransfer, to transfer funds to their Vietnamese suppliers
  • Facebook was used by a minimum of eight subjects
  • WJC detected a minimum of 200 offences under Article 190 of Viet Nam’s Penal Code
  • The estimated minimum value of products found for sale on Facebook equated to USD 445,356 along with a strong indication of trade occurring on a commercial scale
  • 31 of the 51 dealers (61%) used either WeChat or Facebook to trade illegally; some used both; WhatsApp was also used to communicate.

The illegal items illegally sold in Nhi Khe added up to hundreds of animal deaths

The Cheetah Conservation Fund was founded in 1990 and is an international non-profit organization headquartered in Namibia, with operations in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and partner organizations in several other nations. Patricia Tricorache explained how she began recording cases of cheetah IWT in late 2005 mainly in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Somaliland/Somalia, Djibouti and northern Kenya), which is the source area for most of the cheetahs going into the pet trade. She also records the illegal trade in parts (skins, bones, etc.) reported from anywhere. CCF uses Excel spreadsheets to both record and analyze the data. Since 2007, CCF has observed 641 live cheetahs in trade and found 406 cases of confiscated live cheetahs. Add to this at least 119 cheetahs represented in traded or confiscated parts totals 1,166 cheetahs taken from the wild in 10 years. CCF estimates that five cubs die for every one that makes it to the pet trade. With the total population in Africa estimated at only 7,100, the loss of so many cheetahs a year in illegal trade is seriously affecting their survival in the wild.


 
As alarming as the above numbers are, they do not represent the totality of the trade due to the difficulties in obtaining data. CCF’s field associates estimate that 300 cheetahs per year are being smuggled out of Africa for the pet trade. Consequently, in an effort to understand the trade better and obtain a broader picture, in 2014 , Patricia began searching the social media sites for cheetah dealers and mapping relationships between them. She continues to monitor them closely, having recorded well over 1,000 cheetahs offered for sale on the Net since 2012. This figure, which is much higher than the data collected through reports, indicates that the trade may indeed be closer to 300 cubs per year.

CCF collaborates with a number of partners, including IFAW and PEGAS, and its data served to support the inclusion of IWT of cheetahs on the CITES 16th Conference of the Parties agenda. Since then, CCF and has worked within the CITES process to raise awareness about cheetah IWT, which resulted in Decisions 17.124-17.130 being adopted at the CITES 17th Conference of the Parties in 2016. The Decisions call for the creation of a forum on the CITES website where users can exchange information on cheetah IWT and the development of a CITES cheetah trade resource kit that compiles relevant information and tools to assist in implementing the Convention with regard to trade in cheetahs, and addresses inter alia: identification of live cheetahs and parts and derivatives thereof; advice on procedures to be followed in case of seizures including handling, DNA sampling, guidance on the immediate and long-term disposal of live animals (e.g. decision trees based on relevant CITES Resolutions, veterinary care, contact details of experts or potential rescue centres, advice on procedures, reporting on disposal activities); and lists of suitable housing facilities for long-term placement of live cheetahs; and other relevant materials.

CCF also engages in demand reduction through awareness creation materials and campaigns and is in the process of building a cheetah genetics database at its laboratory in Namibia to support forensic investigations.

CCF carries out demand reduction activities

A bit of relatively good news was communicated by Joss Wright of the Oxford Internet Institute, who reported that he has found very little IWT on the Dark Net. It would appear that there is little incentive for traffickers to go to the trouble of establishing themselves on the Dark Net, where transactions have to be made using bitcoin, a virtual currency. Dealing in IWT on the open Net has proven to be low risk, low cost and very efficient. Unless law enforcement becomes much more effective against Internet dealers, it is unlikely that the Dark Net will be used for wildlife trade.

PEGAS made presentations during the workshop outlining its objectives, the methodology used in finding and tracking traffickers and the results achieved thus far, explained in the photos below.

 

During the workshop participants agreed that we are working towards the following outcomes:

• Disrupt wildlife cybercrime through enforcement actions including arrests, seizures and prosecutions
• Raise awareness with governments at an international and national level on the scale and severity of wildlife cybercrime
• Raise awareness with buyers on the negative impact of illegal wildlife trade on both the conservation and welfare of the animals being traded
• Effect policy and legislative trade at the international (CITES) and national level to specifically target wildlife cybercrime (i.e. adding offering for sale as an offense where this doesn’t exist)
• Ensure online tech companies (particularly social media platforms) pro-actively implement their wildlife trade policies

The participants decided to work together to explore the possibility of developing collaborative projects that would further the goal of reducing IWT, focusing initially on great apes and cheetahs.

The results of the workshop greatly exceeded the expectations that PEGAS initially had of its usefulness, and feedback from the participants has been very positive. We all learned a great deal, and PEGAS has a lot of work ahead to upgrade the way in which data are recorded and processed in its online IWT monitoring work.

Not only was the workshop technically and conceptually valuable, it was also very enjoyable, being held on the beautiful Ol Pejeta Conservancy where the wildlife that we are all working to conserve was seen in great abundance.

Great apes in Asian circus-style shows on rise — so is trafficking

Millie Kerr recently published this article in Mongabay.com dealing with the problem of Great Ape commercial entertainment in safari parks and zoos in Asia. PEGAS provided information for the article.

  • Asian zoos, circuses and safari parks are mounting large-scale productions with costumed, dancing, roller-skating great apes. Investigations show that nearly all of these trained primates were not bred in captivity, but illegally traded out of Africa and Indonesia, with destinations in China, Thailand and other Asian countries.
  • The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that the illegal trade may have removed as many as 22,218 great apes from the wild between 2005-2011. An estimated 64 percent were chimpanzees, whereas 56 percent of great apes seized by authorities were thought to be orangutans.
  • Wild young apes are traumatized by their capture, and many die along the supply chain, or with their final “owners” by whom they are frequently poorly treated. Young great apes trained in captivity become increasingly unmanageable as they age, and many are “retired” to tiny, solitary cages, or simply disappear.
  • Trafficking arrests are rare. UNEP recorded just 27 arrests in Africa and Asia between 2005-2011, over which time more than 1,800 cases of illegally trafficked great apes were documented, with many more undetected. Solutions are in the works, but time is running out for the world’s great apes if they are to be conserved.
Boxing orangutans at Safari World in Bangkok, Thailand. Video courtesy of PEGAS

 

After 146 years of operation, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is closing its circus, citing dwindling ticket sales. That decline in business reflects a growing sentiment among Americans that circus-style shows involve inappropriate, if not inhumane, treatment of animals, says Julia Galluci, a primatologist who works with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

That sentiment is not, however, current in many parts of Asia, where certain countries are seeing a rise in circuses and other forms of animal-focused entertainment.

A growing number of Asian zoos and safari parks are mounting large-scale productions that feature great apes — with young chimpanzees and orangutans commonly forced to pose with visitors in clownish costumes, or to “ape” human behaviors, dancing and roller skating to entertain audiences. By contrast, Ringling halted its great ape performances in the early 1990s.

Training techniques and conditions in captivity at these Asian zoos and parks are raising serious animal welfare concerns, while the illegal trade used to procure endangered great apes for Asian entertainment is a red flag for wildlife conservationists.

China’s Shanghai Wild Animal Park. Photo by China-based NGO that asked to remain anonymous

Wild, not captive-bred

In theory, Asian zoos and wildlife parks should be able to breed great apes in captivity or legally acquire captive-bred animals from abroad for their shows. But, as evidence reported below suggests, many of the animals appearing in Asian performances have been, and continue to be, illegally snatched from the wild as infants.

TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network, recently published a report detailing the demand for apes in wildlife attractions in Peninsular Malaysia and Thailand. It shows that a significant proportion of great apes in these attractions come from the wild or are of unknown origin due to sketchy recordkeeping. The authors found, for instance, that while 57 Thai facilities exhibited 51 orangutans, their studbooks only showed records for 21 of the animals.

Likewise, a China-based animal welfare group — that prefers anonymity for the sake of ongoing undercover investigations — believes that the majority of great apes in Chinese animal shows originated in the wild; in fact, some shows even publicize that the chimpanzees they feature began their lives in Africa.

Although two Chinese ministries ban the use of animals in circus shows, the animal welfare group has recorded 11 Chinese safari parks or zoos using chimpanzees in performances. Of these, at least six have featured wild-caught chimpanzees.

Daniel Stiles manages the Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS), and has been investigating the great ape trade for four years. He’s made several trips to the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia since 2013, where he’s observed an increase in circus-style shows featuring chimpanzees and orangutans.

International Circus in Zhuhai, China. Photo by anonymous source

China’s circus shows are the most sophisticated and large-scale, says Stiles, and they attract massive crowds. Over the recent Chinese New Year, the Chimelong Group reportedly welcomed 30 million visitors to its parks in a single day.

The TRAFFIC study and other undercover investigations in China demonstrate that shows featuring animal performances are indeed widespread, but not necessarily that zoo and circus owners are acting in knowing disregard of international trafficking laws. Chinese importers are probably complicit, but even they could, theoretically, be ignorant of breaking the law because falsification of records has only been proven on the African end of the supply chain. Chinese and Thai officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Traumatized “photo props” and performers

Young great apes are initially traumatized when captured in Africa, then again by being trafficked (often without adequate food or care) to Asia. They are subsequently housed at zoos, circuses and animal parks in reportedly appalling conditions — deprived of proper attention, affection, and the company of other apes, something that is required for healthy development among these social species. Severe training regimens only compound the trauma.

Great apes taken from the wild as infants are exceptionally vulnerable. And their first year of life is critical to their healthy development, explains Stephen Ross, Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Asian animal attraction trainers typically break-in young chimpanzees and orangutans at just several months of age as photo props, reports Stiles. The animals are made to appear with visitors for a fee. Then, as the primates age, they’re trained to perform in shows that feature unnatural tricks ranging from faux-boxing matches to dance circles.

Chimpanzees are social learners, explains Galluci, so young chimps in captivity often mimic their keepers’ behaviors. However, Galluci and Ross both believe that the training required for choreographed primate shows almost always requires animal abuse.

Stiles agrees: “To train these animals to perform, keepers would almost certainly [need to] beat the animals into submission, rewarding good behavior with food, which means they’re not only traumatized: they’re also likely underfed.”

A skating chimp at Yangcheng Safari Park just outside of Changzhou, China. Photo by China-based NGO that asked to remain anonymous

Ross has extensively studied captive chimpanzee behavior, comparing that of chimps kept as pets or performers in early years against behaviors exhibited by animals that have had greater exposure to other chimpanzees while young. He found that adult chimps reared by people, and with limited exposure to other apes, are less extroverted as adults — even after years of enjoying improved conditions, like those offered by sanctuaries. This tendency toward introversion disrupts the animal’s ability to properly socialize with other chimpanzees. The resulting loss of wild tendencies means there is zero chance of these primates ever being safely returned to the wild.

As importantly, Ross also discovered a major difference between how audiences perceive performance animals and their wild counterparts — with familiarity leading to a diminished belief in the urgency for conservation.

In one study, researchers found that audiences who often saw chimps in commercials and on TV automatically assumed that these “common” animals were more numerous and less endangered than other great ape species. It seems likely that if Asian show-goers make the same leap in logic, they will struggle to understand the need for great ape conservation or to perceive the detrimental effects animal attractions have on captive primates.

As apes grow older, they become less desirable to their masters. Adult primates are more difficult to control, not to mention stronger, which makes them more dangerous to the public and keepers.

Adult chimpanzees are particularly hazardous: in 2009, a pet chimpanzee living in Connecticut attacked a friend of its owner, nearly killing her. (The event helped shift American attitudes away from the desirability of keeping pet chimps).

TRAFFIC wonders what happens to Asia’s performing apes once they enter “retirement,” stating in its Apes in Demand Report, “It [is] unclear what happens to animals once they are too old for these activities.” If animal photo opportunities and performances continue to be legal across Asia, TRAFFIC recommends that facilities notify a country’s relevant authority once the animal is being retired, detailing future “care and housing.”

Photojournalist and investigator Karl Ammann contends that Asia’s performing apes are often “retired” to tiny, solitary cages; others, he says, simply disappear. The lucky ones spend the remainder of their lives in animal sanctuaries.

Traffickers in the Ivory Coast took this video to show potential buyers they had infant chimpanzees for sale, a video which PEGAS secured. Photo courtesy of PEGAS

The scale of the trade

Great ape trafficking is believed to be vastly underreported, and its usually illegal nature makes it difficult to quantify. In a 2013 report, Stolen Apes, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) identified 1,808 great apes taken from the wild illegally between 2005-2011, but those were only documented cases. Far more surely entered the black market without a trace; likewise, multiple studies show that more animals die during the hunt or in transit than are ever confiscated.

In its report, TRAFFIC notes that, “the number of apes that appear in trade is thought to be far smaller than the quantity that die in the process of capture and transit and with the final consumer.” Hard data is difficult to come by, but TRAFFIC asserts that deaths occur at every stage of the chain, from capture to transit to arrival with the ultimate buyer.

The UNEP report echoes these points, stating, “It is likely that these numbers are in fact a gross underestimation of the real impact of the illegal trade.” To improve monitoring, UNEP urges governments and NGOs to work together to keep and share records.

When it comes to wild-caught chimpanzees, their intimate social organization means that a large number of adults are killed for every infant that is captured. A BBC investigation discovered that 10 adult chimpanzees are typically killed when one infant is snatched from the wild. UNEP concluded that up to 15 great apes die for every individual that enters the illegal trade. Adults are typically shot and processed as bushmeat for local consumption, or their meat is shipped to urban cities, and possibly as far away as Europe. Adult skulls and body parts are also sold and transported via the illicit supply chain.

Great ape trafficking is a worsening problem in countries like Cameroon, as human activity expands into great ape habitats via logging roads, and as more forests are converted to oil palm plantations and clear cut for other uses in Africa and Southeast Asia. As opportunities for encountering and taking animals from the wild rise, so does the likelihood that impoverished hunters as well as sophisticated, often heavily armed, poachers will seek out great apes for capture and sale to criminal trafficking networks.

A source who elected to remain anonymous for fear of disrupting ongoing covert investigations took this photo of two costume-clad chimpanzees forced to dance for guests at China’s Heifei Wildlife Park

UNEP estimates that the illegal trade may have removed as many as 22,218 great apes from the wild between 2005-2011. An estimated 64 percent were chimpanzees, whereas 56 percent of great apes seized by authorities were orangutans. Chimpanzees, with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA, are Endangered, with a global population as low as 150,000 animals, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Orangutans are faring worse: they are Critically Endangered, and WWF estimates that just under 120,000 remain in the wild. However, Orangutan Foundation International points out that actual numbers could be considerably lower.

Worryingly, UNEP believes that the great ape trade is continuing to grow, to the obvious detriment of wild populations. Some of that growth is fueled by the high demand for young primates as pets (often in the Middle East) or as performing animals in Asia.

Traversing the legal landscape

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international treaty that came into effect in 1975 to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals doesn’t negatively impact their survival. Currently, 183 countries are signatories; all are required to enact domestic laws to bring the treaty into effect.

In a 2014 report, law firm DLA Piper noted that, although all signatories have passed some type of legislation to meet CITES requirements, these national laws sometimes fall far short of what’s needed, contain legal loopholes, or are poorly enforced.

Too often, arrests are few and far between. UNEP found, for example, that only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia between 2005-2011, over which time more than 1,800 great apes were documented as being illegally trafficked. Prosecutions are uncommon, and sentences are often insignificant, so fail to deter future criminal activity. As a result, the illegal wildlife trade is flourishing. It is now considered the fourth most valuable form of illicit trade (behind drugs, guns, and human trafficking), per DLA Piper’s report.

Keeper and infants in China’s Chimelong Safari Park. Photo by anonymous source
Great ape as “photo prop”: A visitor and baby chimp at Bangkok’s Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo. Photo by PEGAS

As with a range of species, it is important to note that some of the great ape trade occurs legally. Species protected by CITES are listed on three appendices — I, II, and II. Appendix I covers species threatened with extinction, specimens which can’t be traded internationally unless imported for non-commercial purposes. Species that could become extinct in the absence of closely controlled trade are listed on Appendix II. Although all great ape species are listed on Appendix I, they can be legally traded as if they were on Appendix II if they were bred in captivity at facilities registered with CITES.

But traders often game the CITES system, sometimes exporting great apes by falsifying permits — claiming the animals they’re selling were captive-bred when they were in fact wild caught. According to Ammann, widespread corruption makes falsification easy.

Between 2009-2011, China imported most of its great apes from Guinea, using permits stating that all traded animals were captive-bred. Conservationists knew, however, that Guinea didn’t have any ape breeding facilities, so they asked CITES to intervene. In fact, “CITES has not registered any chimpanzee or orangutan breeding facilities for commercial purposes,” anywhere in the world explains Juan Carlos Vasquez, the chief of the organization’s legal and compliance unit.

After conducting an investigation, CITES concluded that Guinea was falsifying permits to illegally export wild-caught apes. As a result, CITES suspended all commercial trade in CITES-listed species with Guinea in 2013, and the head of Guinea’s CITES Management Authority was subsequently arrested for fraudulently issuing permits (he was convicted but subsequently pardoned by the country’s President).

China, at the other end of the Guinea chimpanzee supply chain, suffered no consequences for these violations, and authorities there insisted they were unaware that the imported animals were wild-caught. However, both Stiles and Ammann suspect China was complicit. Regardless, any legal action against China could only have been initiated by the Chinese themselves under their domestic laws, since the importation had already occurred.

Like China, Thailand is a CITES signatory that has passed domestic conservation legislation, but Thai law doesn’t protect the great majority of non-native species. And when someone is caught possessing a legally protected animal or plant, the burden of proof is on the Thai state rather than the individual to show legal importation. According to TRAFFIC, Thailand is currently drafting new legislation that would, if passed, protect non-native species. During a January 2016 CITES Standing Committee meeting, the international organization encouraged all countries to eliminate loopholes of this kind.

Creative solutions

A range of individuals and organizations are developing and utilizing creative tactics to fight wildlife crime. There are new technologies under development — ranging from citizen reporting apps, to DNA testing kits for use in the field, as well as databases that track wildlife trafficking in real-time.

New York University is working on an innovative web crawler that mines online web postings for animal and wildlife product sales. Stiles warns, however, that the crawler’s application may be limited since transactions involving live animals typically occur on social media platforms rather than websites. Social media has lately proven to be a prime way of connecting illegal great ape sellers with buyers, especially in the Middle East.

In July 2015, the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) was quietly launched in The Hague. This non-profit seeks to “activate justice” by supporting national governments as they investigate and prosecute wildlife crime.

Keeper and infant great ape at China’s Chimelong Safari Park. Photo courtesy of PEGAS

When dialogue with national governments fails, the WJC can hold hearings in The Hague in which independent, impartial experts review cases of wildlife crime. Unlike other judicial bodies, however, such as the International Courts of Justice, Commission hearings are not legally binding. They do, however, shine a light on wildlife crime and provide recommendations for actions to curb it.

“CITES is merely an international treaty, so we must work on the country level,” explains Executive Director Olivia Swaak-Goldman. “Through collaborative investigations and public tribunals, we hope to put an end to wildlife crime. After all, time is running out.”

The sobering reality: so long as there is public demand for boxing and dancing chimps, or photo ops available with orangutans in Asia, there will be poachers and traffickers willing to bear the legal risk of providing those animals, importers willing to forge documents to get great apes from abroad, and showmen willing to keep (and mistreat) them.

If great apes are to be conserved, then the Asian public will need to come to the same conclusion as Americans — that these primates don’t belong on roller skates or in boxing rings; they belong in the wild.

The Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou is one of China’s biggest animal attractions. On its website — the source of this photo — the park claims to be the “largest wild animal theme park in the world” with a collection of more than 20,000 “rare animals.”

Do Apes Deserve ‘Personhood’ Rights? Lawyer Heads to N.Y. Supreme Court to Make Case

Reprinted from NBC News

When Steve Wise first started out as an animal rights lawyer, people used to bark at him when he entered a courtroom.

For more than 25 years, Wise has been arguing that animals who have cognitive complexities similar to humans should be legally endowed with basic rights of autonomy.

Now when he enters a courtroom, no one is barking.

On Thursday [9 March], Wise — who founded the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of the great apes, cetaceans and elephants — will go before the appellate division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Manhattan and argue that two of his clients, chimpanzees Kiko and Tommy, should be afforded the rights of “personhood.”

“‘Personhood’ is not synonymous with ‘humans.’ It is not now and never has been,” Wise told NBC News. “A ‘person’ is the law’s way of saying that entity has the capacity for rights. A ‘thing,’ which chimpanzees are now, don’t have capacity for any kind of rights.”

Wise is hoping to prove in the eyes of the court that chimpanzees and other great apes aren’t “things” but rather are autonomous beings that possess consciousness and deserve to live their lives to the fullest possible extent of that autonomy.

Tommy and Kiko

Wise has been fighting on behalf of Tommy and Kiko since 2013.

Since then, Wise has been running to and from court with habeas corpus cases for both chimpanzees, and while judges often sympathize with their cause, they’ve ultimately reject their pleas.

Despite representing the primates for the better part of four years, checking on their condition is a frustrating subject for the staff at Nonhuman Rights Project.

“We see them as clients of ours, but we can’t get a jail house visit or help them exercise a Sixth Amendment right,” said Kevin Schneider, executive director of Nonhuman Right Project. “They’re things, so we can’t barge in and see what’s going on.”

Image: Tommy, a chimpanzee in his late 30s, was kept in a cage behind the Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, New York
Tommy, a chimpanzee in his late 30s, was kept in a cage behind the Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, New York. Pennebaker Hegedus Films

Tommy, believed to be in his late 30s, is owned by Patrick Lavery. The chimpanzee lives in a cage of cement and green-painted steel behind Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, New York, according to the Albany Times Union.

In 2013, Lavery told the Times Union that Tommy, although he was living without companionship, had enrichment in the form of television, cable and radio.

“To treat them as things destroys them,” Wise said. “The same way we would be destroyed in solitary confinement.”

In the 2016 HBO documentary “Unlocking the Cage,” which documents Wise’s fight to file habeas corpus petitions on behalf of chimpanzees in New York, Lavery is seen telling Wise he wants Tommy to be sent to a Florida farm because the ape is “lonely.” Wise later argues that the Florida farm is not a suitable environment for Tommy.

Kiko, believed to be in his early 30s, is a former animal actor, who was beaten so badly by his trainers, he’s partially deaf, according to Nonhuman Rights Project.

The chimpanzee now lives in the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls, New York, which is operated by Carmen and Christie Presti. Nonhuman Rights Project alleges the sanctuary is run out of the Presti’s home, and the animals aren’t in a natural environment.

The Prestis and Lavery did not immediately respond to a request for comment made by NBC News.

A case about rights, not welfare

Although Wise and Schneider said the chimpanzees aren’t being kept in ideal conditions, they’re not alleging their owners have done anything wrong.

In fact, they said everything the Prestis and Lavery have done is entirely legal.

“We specifically say we are not alleging [the Prestis or Lavery] have violated any local, state or federal law,” Wise said. “What we’re saying is those laws are grossly insufficient and [the chimpanzees] should have right to bodily liberty. We’re not trying to protect their welfare, we’re trying to protect rights.”

Image: Steve Wise argues a case that chimpanzees deserve non-human rights in a New York Court
Steve Wise argues a case that chimpanzees deserve non-human rights in a New York Court. Unlocking The Cage / HBO

Wise said the only reason chimpanzees and other great apes are able to be kept in cages is because they are legally deemed “things.” The last time Wise was in court in 2015 — arguing on behalf of chimpanzees Hercules and Leo, who were kept at Stony Brook University on Long Island for research — the state argued the animal’s classification should remain just that.

“The reality is these are fundamentally different species. I worry about the diminishment of these rights in some way if we expand them beyond human beings,” Christopher Coulston, an assistant New York state attorney general said.

Coulston told New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, that even though “personhood” is sometimes attributed to corporations and ships, those entities are “in some way related to human interests.”

“Whether it’s a corporation, whether it’s a ship that is treated as a legal person, we think that is the principle that has governed the assignment of legal personhood,” Coulston argued.

But Wise said society has come a long way since the apes were first deemed “things” and more than half a decade of studying great apes has revealed a wealth of knowledge about their intelligence and awareness.

“The reason we chose [great apes, elephants and cetaceans] is there’s an extraordinary amount of scientific observation— more than half a century — that’s been done,” Wise said. “Articles reveal they are extremely cognitively complex, similarly to the way we’re complex. ”

Scientists on their side

Although Wise is facing an uphill battle in the courtroom on Thursday, he has some of the foremost experts behind him as he heads to Manhattan.

This includes Jane Goodall, considered the premier expert on chimpanzees after more than five decades studying them in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

Goodall, who sits on the board of Nonhuman Rights Project, filed a 27-page affidavit on behalf of the chimpanzees along with several other experts. Wise said the case currently has 160 pages of expert affidavits filed on behalf of the chimpanzees.

Jaffe ruled against Wise’s case for Hercules and Leo, saying that, while she sympathized with their cause, she was bound by a decision made by a different New York judge. An appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court known as the Third Department had concluded that the chimpanzees did not meet the requirement for “personhood” because the apes did not carry out duties and responsibilities in society.

Wise then enlisted Goodall to write an affidavit that would challenge that decision.

She said that in her 50 years of observation, chimpanzees demonstrated “well-defined” duties and responsibilities, listing how communities care for each other and are responsible to one another through a host of examples.

But Wise is also arguing that while chimpanzees do exhibit responsibilities, they also don’t need to have responsibilities to deserve rights.

“What we’re doing is arguing that the Third Department was wrong in at least six different ways and that you don’t need to have duties in society in order to be a person and have legal rights,” he said.

Small steps forward

The last time Wise went before a judge to argue the case of Kiko and Tommy, no chimpanzee in the world had ever been granted nonhuman rights.

But that won’t be the case on Thursday.

In November 2016, Judge María Alejandra Maurico of Argentina ruled that a chimpanzee named Cecilia was a “nonhuman legal person” and agreed that the ape had “inherent rights.”

Two years earlier, the same judge deemed an orangutan named Sandra also deserved “personhood.”

Both apes were transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil to live as autonomously as possible with other animals in their species for the rest of their lives.

Wise and Schneider said they will be using Cecilia’s case as a tool to argue theirs and are hoping for a similar outcome.

“Assuming the court agrees [with us], we suggest [Kiko and Tommy] should be sent to Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida,” Wise said.

He said it’s at this 150-acre sanctuary the chimpanzees will be able to live out their lives to the maximum amount of autonomy possible for animals raised in captivity.

“We think [the court] is going to say, ‘You don’t need to have duties and responsibilities to not be enslaved,’ and remand that case to Justice Jaffe and say ‘Don’t look at Third Department’s decision; hold a hearing and decide the case,'” Wise said. “That’s what we think is more likely than other two extremes, but the court surprises us all the time. We’ve been wrong every time.”

Walk for Animals in Dubai

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PEGAS represented Ol Pejeta Conservancy at the Walk for Animals in Dubai’s Zabeel Park on 10 February, 2017. The purpose of the Walk was to create awareness about the abuse that domestic and exotic pets can suffer by uncaring owners.

The PEGAS Project Manager set up a table with reading materials on Ol Pejeta Conservancy and its Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, along with souvenir objects, in order to attract visitors from the Walk. PEGAS explained to visitors about the wild animal conservation objectives of Ol Pejeta and why there was a need for a chimpanzee sanctuary.

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PEGAS set up a table

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There was a surprising lack of awareness in the public PEGAS encountered about the problem of illegal trade of wild exotic species for use in the pet trade. PEGAS realizes that much more needs to be done to inform residents of the UAE about illegal exotic animal imports to the country and the negative impacts that this has on wildlife conservation, particularly with great apes.

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Mahin Bahrami on left and Zara Hovelsas on right of the Middle East Animal Foundation, a PEGAS partner in the UAE

New interest in illegal Great Ape trade

The BBC recently released the results of a 12-month investigation entitled ‘The secret trade in baby chimps’. It was on World Service radio and television repeatedly all day the 30th of January and was accompanied by an excellent story by David Shukman and Sam Piranty on the BBC News website. Shukman has followed up with a thoughtful, more analytic story on how humans treat great apes in general and a 30-minute documentary ‘The Chimp Smugglers’.

The public reacted viscerally and vociferously to the story and to the heart-rending video of little Nemley Junior, an infant chimpanzee rescued during the sting. My Facebook pages were full of comments expressing outrage, anger, shock, sadness. Born Free’s president Will Travers blogged on National Geographic’s Voice for Wildlife about it.

Little Nemley Junior, seized during the sting. (BBC)

Little Nemley Junior, seized during the sting. (BBC)

 
But why did BBC call it ‘the secret trade’? It’s not a secret. Apparently to them it was, but the UN report Stolen Apes was released almost four years ago and it revealed in detail the trafficking in little ape babies for use as pets and money-makers in zoos and safari parks. PEGAS has published several articles on it in Africa Geographic, Mongabay.com and elsewhere, and Agence France-Presse, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Paris-Match the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and others have reported on it, with The Dodo even publishing many of PEGAS’s disturbing photographs of the stolen ape babies.

PEGAS was even involved in a sting very similar to the one that the BBC pulled off, which so far has netted three people involved in trying to sell two orangutan babies that were smuggled from Indonesia to Thailand. AP posted a brief video story on it and the Bangkok Post reported it, but most of the large news outlets like the New York Times, CNN and Sky ignored it, even though technically it was a bigger story than BBC catching two traffickers and one baby ape. The BBC actually posted the AP video, but made nothing of the story.

The two orangutan babies offered to PEGAS for sale using WhatsApp

The two orangutan babies offered to PEGAS for sale using WhatsApp

The infants after rescue by the Thai police

The infants after rescue by the Thai police

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The way the BBC covered the Abidjan sting story, which involved repeated headline news announcements all day 30th January, a long news video clip, two comprehensive written stories and a 30-minute documentary, not to mention discussion of the story on other BBC programmes, resulted in the massive public reaction.

A huge thank you to BBC and to the Ivory Coast authorities. But we need more of this if we are to get CITES and governments to take meaningful action. Great apes have been ignored by CITES for several years now. The CITES Secretariat has prevented a Great Apes working group from being formed, which is the only forum in CITES where detailed evidence can be produced and discussed and where a meaningful revision to the Great Apes resolution could be made. At the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties last year, CITES even reneged on its own Decision to devise a special reporting system for illegal great ape trade. They effectively killed it.

In the BBC documentary film Scanlon tried to convince viewers that traffickers forge the permits. This happens in some cases, but more commonly national CITES offices issue them in return for bribes.

To put a huge damper on the illegal trade CITES needs to revise the Great Ape resolution to recommend that Parties (which are countries that have ratified the Convention) require that any facility or individual that possesses great apes shall obtain a government permit to do so, fill out a registration form reporting details of the ages and sexes, and update the registration annually. Each Party will submit an annual report summarizing the total registered great apes to CITES to be included in the reporting on the Great Ape resolution (Res. Conf. 13.4 Rev) at Standing Committees and Conferences of the Parties.

Currently, ape babies are shipped illegally and once in a country the traffickers move them from facility to facility to lose the paper trail (or the fact that one does not exist). Documents can be fabricated or bought through bribery that bestow legal possession of the ape victims. If permitting and registration are required upon arrival in a country, it makes it much more difficult to fiddle the paperwork – and where are the CITES permits on arrival? They should be produced upon registration.

There is also a well-developed practice of corrupt CITES officials selling fraudulent permits, indicating that the ape babies were bred in captivity and are to be used for educational or scientific purposes. If importers were required to obtain a domestic permit and register the infants on arrival these fraudulent permits could be spotted immediately. Please sign our petition requesting CITES to control the use of these fraudulent permits.

These control actions are not unreasonable. CITES has already required even more sweeping actions and reporting than proposed above under Res. Conf. 10.10 concerning elephants and ivory. Several countries have even been compelled to formulate and report on national action plans to address poaching and ivory trafficking. Don’t Great Apes deserve something similar? 

Two infant orangutans turned up recently at the Phuket Zoo in Thailand.

Two infant orangutans turned up recently at the Phuket Zoo in Thailand.

 

 

 

 

 

The enclosure where they are being exploited as photo props has posted documents claiming that they were born in Bangkok’s notorious Safari World, which twice has had its illegal entertainer orangutans seized and returned to Indonesia. Being born there makes them legal? How the Thai authorities can allow this is inexplicable.

The enclosure where the orangutans are being exploited as photo props has posted documents claiming that they were born in Bangkok’s notorious Safari World, which twice has had its illegal entertainer orangutans seized and returned to Indonesia. Being born there makes them legal? How the Thai authorities can allow this is inexplicable.

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s hope that this new found interest in our closest biological relatives does not fade away.

Both Mr. Shukman and Will Travers of Born Free offered to help find Nemley Junior a sanctuary. He is currently in the Abidjan Zoo, an unpleasant place for a chimp to spend the rest of its life. If the Ivoirian authorities are agreeable, PEGAS offers to bring Nemley Junior to Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a paradise for abused chimpanzees.

The Abidjan Zoo is an unpleasant environment for a chimp. Will Nemley Junior spend the rest of his life here?

The Abidjan Zoo is an unpleasant environment for a chimp. Will Nemley Junior spend the rest of his life here?

 

 

 

 

Or here at Sweetwaters, living in the African bush with other chimps?

Or here at Sweetwaters, living in the African bush with other chimps?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presidential pardon: Former head of Guinea CITES office pardoned before his case was finalized

Ansoumane Doumbouya is known for stating, “There is no dirtier convention than CITES.”

He should know, he’s one of the corrupt government officials that made it that way. Doumbouya, an affable and smiling man, made huge sums of money while engaged as the head of the Guinea CITES office between 2008 and 2013. How? By selling fraudulent CITES export permits that indicated that wild-caught Appendix I live specimens were supposedly bred in captivity and met the CITES criteria that allowed trade. A chimpanzee permit could earn him up to USD 3,000 and a gorilla USD 5,000. China made use of the Guinea “C-scam” between 2007 and 2012 to import over 130 chimpanzees and possibly 10 gorillas to supply commercial zoos and safari parks.

‘C’ is the Source Code put on permits indicating captive bred in conformance with CITES regulations.

Ansoumane Doumbouya seems like a nice guy, until you learn that he has helped send thousands of birds, reptiles and mammals illegally out of Africa

Ansoumane Doumbouya seems like a nice guy, until you learn that he has helped send thousands of birds, reptiles and mammals illegally out of Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the scheme was exposed, Doumbouya was finally removed from the post, but remained in the ministry. In 2013 at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties Guinea was sanctioned with a commercial trade suspension. Not as bad as it sounds, since a C code is used with supposedly non-commercial trade.

Even after 2013 Doumbouya carried on signing old blank export permits he had kept, even though he had no authority to do so. Finally in August 2015 he was arrested by the local INTERPOL bureau in possession of the illegal permits and prosecuted. He was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Doumbouya appealed the conviction and was awaiting a ruling on his appeal when President Alpha Condé granted him a pardon. Guinean law states that a pardon can be given only after the conclusion of a court case.

The president’s action signals clearly to the world that corruption reaches to the highest office in Guinea and that the country will continue to export illegally thousands of wild-caught exotic specimens, destroying Guinea’s biodiversity.

A baby chimpanzee seized recently in Guinea destined for the pet market. With no support from President Condé this will continue. (Photo/GALF)

A baby chimpanzee seized recently in Guinea destined for the pet market. With no support from President Condé this will continue. (Photo/GALF)

 

Social Media Slave Trade – a PEGAS update

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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

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.

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Paris Hilton and a famous footballer shown with great ape pets serve to stimulate the illegal pet 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

Children increasingly are driving the great ape pet trade

pet3 pet4 pet5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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Some posts openly show the selling of great apes, even sometimes showing the prices

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

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.

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Some posts capture the look of despair on the apes

Some posts capture the look of despair on the apes

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While others show where they end up - in cages

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

Owners commonly flaunt their expensive pets by driving around with them

Even with their children

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.

Methodology

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, but a dealer in Indonesia put it up for sale. Did the owner know?

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

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. 

Results

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.

Discussion

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

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

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 captured infants

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.