Research on lab chimps is over. Why have so few been retired to sanctuaries?

On 12th June, 2015, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service classified chimpanzees as Endangered, effectively ending biomedical studies on them. Two years later only 73 chimps have been moved to sanctuaries, leaving almost 600 still caged up in research facilities. They say there is a problem with finding space to house them all. Ol Pejeta Conservancy can help, the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary can take 30 right now, if anyone is interested. There is potential to accept many more.

This article published in Science , authored by David Grimm, explains the issue.

A chimpanzee waits for lunch at the National Center for Chimpanzee Care in Bastrop, Texas. (Photo: Shelby Knowles)

Hercules and Leo are only 11 years old, but they’ve already come close to retiring twice. The two chimpanzees, born and raised at Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center, became lab animals at the State University of New York in Stony Brook in 2011. There they shared a three-room enclosure, where scientists inserted small electrodes into their muscles to study the evolution of bipedalism. In 2013, they were the subject of an unusual legal gambit. An animal rights group sued to declare the pair legal persons and retire them to a Florida sanctuary, but the effort failed.

Two years later, Hercules and Leo returned to New Iberia, where they mingled with other chimps in outdoor domes with ladders and ropes. But retirement to a sanctuary, where they could climb real trees and have more room to roam, again seemed imminent: The U.S. government had just effectively ended invasive work on chimpanzees, and many observers expected all lab chimps to move to sanctuaries in short order. Yet today, Hercules and Leo, along with nearly 600 of their kind across the country, remain at research facilities. It’s unclear when—or whether—they’ll leave.

In the past 2 years, only 73 chimps have entered sanctuaries, and the slow pace has heightened tensions between the laboratory and sanctuary communities. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Labs have dragged their feet, sanctuaries haven’t expanded quickly enough, and the government itself didn’t have a concrete plan for retirement, despite setting the process in motion in the first place.

Chimps freely roam around an artificial termite mound at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. (BRANDON WADE/AP IMAGES FOR THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES)

The biomedical community has spent years defending the use of chimpanzees in research … instead of figuring out how to retire them,” says Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has studied chimpanzee behavior at sanctuaries around the world. “Now we’re scrambling to do something about it.”

Some labs have argued that their animals would be better off staying where they are. Retirement to a sanctuary is a “silly decision,” says William Hopkins, a neuroscientist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who has studied chimp cognition at research facilities for decades. “I don’t think that’s really helping the chimps, and I think it’s going to take a really long time.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, acknowledges the delay. “We share others’ frustration,” says Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division of strategic initiatives oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “But we’re moving as quickly as we can for the safety of the chimps.”

For advocates of Hercules and Leo, and hundreds of other chimps stuck in limbo, that may not be quick enough.

Ambling into retirement

Movement from lab facilities to sanctuaries has been slow. (G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) CHIMPCARE.ORG,OTHER SOURCES)

What to do with all the chimps?

The U.S. government has been in the chimpanzee business since 1960. That year, Congress created a national network of primate centers to conduct research on these animals—some bred in captivity, most taken from Africa. The country stopped importing wild chimps in 1973, but 13 years later, when the AIDS epidemic created a demand for humanlike models of infection, NIH launched a chimp breeding boom. By 1996, 1500 of the apes lived in research labs, an all-time high. Some were owned outright by NIH, whereas others belonged to universities, foundations, and companies.

Just 4 years later, the government began talking about retirement. A law passed in 2000 created a national chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. The nonprofit sanctuary’s founders, who had worked with chimps in laboratories, felt that the highly intelligent animals—who, like humans, use tools, have some form of culture, and live in complex social groups—deserved to live out their lives in a setting designed wholly around their needs.

NIH got on board, pledging up to 75% of the cost of lifetime care for its chimpanzees that entered the refuge. (Other sanctuaries take privately owned research chimps.) But labs themselves decided whether the apes were ready for retirement.

That changed in 2013, when—in response to an Institute of Medicine report that concluded most invasive studies on chimpanzees were unnecessary—NIH announced it would phase out support for this type of research and retire most of its chimpanzees. Then in 2015—2 years ago today—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified all U.S. chimps as endangered, effectively ending biomedical studies on them. NIH followed by declaring that all of its approximately 300 chimpanzees would be retired, though it gave no time frame. Experts assumed that the remaining 340 or so in private hands would follow suit.

Since then, however, only 51 government chimps and 22 privately owned chimps have entered sanctuaries—a pace far slower than anyone had anticipated. “Large numbers are still languishing in laboratories,” Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D–CA) complained to NIH head Francis Collins last month at a congressional hearing. Collins said his agency was committed to chimpanzee retirement, but that the process had been “challenging.” “Realistically,” he said, “it’s going to take us several more years.”

The reasons are complex—and contentious.

Where are all the research chimps?

Fewer than half of all former research chimps now live in sanctuaries. The rest are still in scientific facilities.

G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) CHIMPCARE.ORG, OTHER SOURCES

Sanctuary struggles

On a sweltering day in mid-June, a group of about 20 chimpanzees emerges from a small forest and crowds around an artificial termite mound filled with applesauce and Kool-Aid. They seem to be negotiating over the food: Some scream, some wave their hands, and some climb 20-meter-tall pine trees to avoid the ruckus. When everyone has had their fill, a few disappear back into the forest, while the rest take refuge from the heat in nearby cooling rooms.

Such a scene, which took place at Chimp Haven last summer, buoys the sanctuary community: It’s a picture of what life can be like when chimpanzees are free to roam and interact with each other on their own terms. Not every sanctuary can offer what Chimp Haven does, but many are trying.

One is Project Chimps, a new 95-hectare sanctuary among the wooded hills of Morgantown, Georgia. The nonprofit organization made headlines last year when it announced it would take all 220 of New Iberia’s chimpanzees—including Hercules and Leo—within 5 years, in the most ambitious chimp retirement ever attempted.

Perhaps too ambitious. Construction has gone more slowly than expected, and Project Chimps has taken only 22 of New Iberia’s apes so far, rather than the 60 it agreed to accept by now. And although the sanctuary hopes to eventually give its animals access to the surrounding forest, they now live in enclosures that aren’t much different from the domes at New Iberia: three “villas” with indoor-outdoor areas for climbing and swinging.

Some say the slow pace and exclusive contract blocked other sanctuaries that could have taken some of New Iberia’s apes. Project Chimps Co-Founder and President Sarah Baeckler Davis left the organization last month, although the sanctuary would not comment on the reasons.

Funding also has been a challenge. Like other sanctuaries, Project Chimps relies on a mix of grants and public donations. Interim President Ben Callison says it will cost about $6.4 million to build new facilities, not to mention the expense of providing food, toys, and veterinary care for the apes; other sanctuaries spend $16,000 to $20,000 per chimp per year on those costs. That could mean more than $3 million in annual expenses for Project Chimps once all New Iberia’s animals are in residence. But New Iberia has only agreed to contribute a one-time payment of $19,000 per chimp, with no funding for lifetime care.

Other sanctuaries are scrambling to raise cash as well. Even Chimp Haven, which has an agreement to take all NIH chimps and so has some guaranteed funding during their lifetimes, pays for all construction out of its own pocket. Accommodating the 250-odd NIH chimpanzees still in research facilities could cost $17 million, says the sanctuary’s president, Cathy Spraetz.

Transportation is another bottleneck. Only four to 10 chimps are typically moved at a time because they can be aggressive and must be housed in individual cages; sanctuaries also prefer to keep them in the same social groups they lived in while at the labs. Once at a sanctuary, chimps are typically quarantined for a couple weeks to make sure they have no transmissible diseases. Keepers then sometimes carefully ease them into larger groups, but reintegration isn’t always easy. (When Hercules and Leo first returned to New Iberia, they didn’t get along with the females they were housed with and had to be resocialized with a group of young males.)

Transporters also have to be mindful of the health of the apes, many of whom are geriatric and have been injected with hepatitis and HIV. “They’re very social and sensitive animals,” says NIH’s Anderson, who notes that many suffer from diabetes, kidney disease, and heart disease. “Retirement has to be done in a safe way, because we owe a lot to these chimps.”

All this slows transfers. The largest one on record—when Save the Chimps, a nonprofit sanctuary based in Fort Pierce, Florida, accepted nearly 260 chimpanzees from a private New Mexico lab—took almost a decade and cost $5 million.

“Primadomes” housing chimps at New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. (FRANCOIS VILLINGER/NEW IBERIA RESEARCH CENTER)

Retire in place?

But retirement has been a long time coming, and critics say lab facilities should have prepared for it. Duke University’s Hare notes that a 1997 National Research Council report recommended a breeding moratorium, concluding that chimps had not proved as useful as expected for biomedical research. “The writing has been on the wall for 20 years.” Yet, Hare says, labs continued to insist the animals were needed, preventing sanctuaries from launching fundraising and construction. “It’s created a huge challenge for the sanctuary community,” agrees Save the Chimps Executive Director Molly Polidoroff.

Now, after the government has concluded the animals are not necessary for research, some labs still insist chimps are better off staying put. Neither the National Center for Chimpanzee Care (NCCC) at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Bastrop, Texas, nor the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico—which together house the 257 government-owned chimps not in sanctuaries—would speak to Science for this story. But NCCC Director Christian Abee told the Houston Chronicle in 2015 that half of his chimps were geriatric and not up to the stress of transport. He has advocated for retiring the animals at NCCC, citing their bond with the facility’s experienced care staff (and vice versa), as well as NCCC’s outdoor treehouses and playgrounds, which aren’t much different than those at some sanctuaries.

Some labs housing privately owned chimps agree. “[Our researchers] strongly believe the chimpanzees currently in our care are in the best possible environment,” Lisa Cruz, a spokesperson for the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, which houses 81 chimps, told the Chronicle in the same story. “Just because it’s a sanctuary, doesn’t mean it’s better for the chimp,” says Georgia State’s Hopkins. “Prove to me you’re making their lives happier.”

Proving happiness is a tall order. Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta says the small group housing found at many research facilities, with closely spaced geodesic dome habitats, “is a stress-causing design” because it forces chimps to hang out with, or at least see, animals they may want to avoid. De Waal says NCCC is as good as it gets for research chimps, but still doesn’t compare to facilities like Chimp Haven. “Whether the chimps are happier [at Chimp Haven] than elsewhere is another question,” he says. “They certainly look less agitated.”

NIH’s Anderson says his agency remains committed to transferring its animals. “They’re receiving great care at [NCCC], but we’ve made a commitment to move them to a federal sanctuary, and that’s a path they’re taking.”

Still, some say NIH, too, has lagged. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that the agency had not developed a clear plan for the transfer or effectively communicated its plans to lab facilities. Anderson says his agency needed time but now has a concrete plan. It will begin with the Alamogordo center, which now houses 126 chimps, before moving on to the 131 at NCCC. “We think a 10-year time frame for retiring all of these animals is realistic.”

A “villa” at the Project Chimps sanctuary in Morgantown, Georgia. The sanctuary hopes to eventually allow forest access. (PROJECT CHIMPS)

The waiting game

For the chimps in private hands, money rather than a government commitment may shape the future. With research funding no longer available and overhead payments from NIH dwindling, private facilities like Texas Biomed and Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, which houses 47 chimps, will have less and less financial incentive to keep their animals. Perhaps they’ll even help pay for sanctuary retirement. Or so people in the sanctuary movement hope.

Financial pressures were certainly at work in New Iberia’s decision. The research center’s director, Francois Villinger, says he sees the appeal of retiring his chimpanzees where they are, noting his facility’s large outdoor play areas and social groups of apes that have been stable for years. “When the Project Chimps staff came down here, they were surprised by how good the conditions were.” Yet New Iberia could no longer afford to pay for hundreds of chimps not being studied, he says, and did not want the public relations headache of keeping the animals.

He says New Iberia will do whatever it can to ease the transfer to Project Chimps. “It’s a beautiful and ideal property,” he says. “We just want to make sure they succeed.”

Project Chimps remains optimistic about the agreement, too. Financially, the sanctuary is now “solidly in the black,” says interim president Callison, and should have room for up to 100 chimpanzees within a year. The final phase of construction, slated for next year, should be able to accommodate the rest, he says. “It’s a balancing act between getting them out as quickly as possible and giving them the best environment,” he says. “We want to grow smart.”

He hopes the arrangement will serve as a model for other lab-sanctuary partnerships. It took many years to build trust with New Iberia, he says. “After decades of being on opposite sides of the issue, we’re finally working together.”

In the end, not all research chimpanzees will make it to a sanctuary. Dozens die every year from old age and illness. But, if all goes according to plan, youngsters like Hercules and Leo should live to move to Project Chimps. Indeed, says Villinger, they should be on their way in a few months.

Short video on Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary

PEGAS, working in collaboration with Sam Wolson Media, has produced a short 4-minute video that explains why the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary exists, its history and connection with Dr. Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert and conservationist. Jane was kind enough to narrate the video herself. The residents of Sweetwaters are the victims of the illegal pet and zoo trade, as the video explains.

Please view the video here

Update on the Iraqi Kurdistan chimpanzee Manno

Manno arrived in Nairobi from Erbil, Iraq, the afternoon of 30th November 2016. His rescue and relocation took exactly one year from the time PEGAS heard of Manno to the time of his arrival, giving some indication of the difficulty in rescuing and relocating chimpanzees across national frontiers.

Manno was released from his 4-star quarantine room at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on 31st March 2017. Many people were there to witness his transfer to the sleeping quarters of the New Group, where his introduction and integration process would begin. Manno remained in good spirits through it all and charmed all onlookers with his sweet disposition and amusing antics.

Manno could swing around to get exercise in his quarantine room

Dr. Edward Kariuki, KWS veterinarian on left, and Sweetwaters sanctuary staff carry Manno out of quarantine on 31st March

Manno’s transport crate, the same one used to ship him from Erbil, Iraq to Ol Pejeta, is loaded onto a small pickup truck.

Manno looks out with curiosity, “What’s going on?” he wonders.

A herd of elephants greets Manno’s transporters on the way to the New Group sleeping quarters.

The New Group sleeping quarters, where Manno will go through his introduction process.

No one was more charmed and happy to see Manno come out of quarantine than Spencer Sekyer, a Canadian ex-school teacher who brought Manno’s plight to the attention first of Jane Goodall, and then of Ol Pejeta Conservancy and PEGAS. Spencer flew all the way from Alberta, Canada, to see Manno’s release from quarantine and enjoy an emotional reunion with ‘the little guy’, as Spencer affectionately calls Manno.

Spencer greets Manno, whom he had not seen since early December.

Spencer first encountered Manno in late 2013 while volunteering at the Duhok Zoo, near Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan. Manno probably arrived in Duhok about July 2013 from Syria and was the only chimpanzee in the zoo. The zoo owner dressed him up in children’s clothes and he generally had free reign to run around and interact with visitors. At night he slept in a small cage, except for the last few months when he was taken into the family home of a Syrian refugee zoo worker. Manno became part of the family.

Manno spent the last few months before he departed Duhok sleeping with Abdul Abde and family, a Syrian refugee who worked at the zoo.

The first step was to find Manno a foster mother, as she would constitute the foundation of a Sisterhood Protection Society, as it were, to shield Manno from aggressive males when eventually he would be introduced outdoors into the full group. The Sweetwaters team, led by Dr. Stephen Ngulu, Manager, and New Group supervisor David Mundia, first tried Akela, a docile senior female who had previously fostered Jane, one of five chimpanzees seized at the Nairobi airport in 2005.

Akela and Manno were first kept in cages with an empty cage in between, so that they could get used to seeing one another. Akela showed interest in Manno, but Manno showed only fear of Akela and of any other chimpanzee. He did not know what these strange, hairy creatures were, and their hooting and screeching frightened him, especially at evening feeding time when all the chimps were brought into the sleeping quarters. For the first four years of his life, Manno had only known human primates and he had worn clothes like them.

Akela came from Burundi in 1996 and is a gentle female who fostered Jane. Can she do the same for Manno?

The males in particular eyed Manno with suspicion, but his young age and small size signalled that he posed little threat to the dominance hierarchy. The cage Manno lives in looks bleak, but he is there for his protection. If he were released into the group without a lengthy habituation process, the males would kill him instantly as a foreign intruder.

After a couple of weeks, Akela was put into the cage adjacent to Manno, as she showed no signs of aggression towards him, only of curiosity. Jane, who spends a lot of time with her foster mother, showed even more interest in Manno, so Stephen Ngulu, manager of Sweetwaters sanctuary, on the advice of David Mundia, added Jane to Akela’s cage. Manno continued, however, to reject their attempts to touch through the cage bars and he kept his distance.

The team felt confident enough that Akela posed no danger to Manno, so she was introduced to his cage in early May. Manno ran away from any attempts made by Akela for physical contact. Finally on 13th May, Akela was switched with the much younger Jane, who is about 13 years old. Again, however, Manno would evade any attempts at contact by running away and swinging around the cage bars.

The PEGAS manager just happened to be at Manno’s cage watching on 18th May when the breakthrough occurred. Jane was making repeated attempts to touch Manno and he kept scampering away.

Manno was sitting on the wood platform set against the wall and Jane was on the floor, looking up at Manno. She slowly raised her arms and placed her hands on the platform, just at Manno’s feet. He watched. She gently touched his feet, then reached up and touched Manno’s head. Manno did not run away, but took Jane’s hand and went into a crouching roll off the platform, falling right on top of her. They started playing!

Manno’s first voluntary touch with another chimpanzee. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eodzZRoWIOc

Jane ran off with Manno chasing her. They spent a good part of the rest of the day chasing each other and play wrestling. Now Manno and Jane are like brother and sister.

Manno and Jane chilling together (Photo: David Mundia)

Stephen and David then reintroduced Akela to the cage and Manno accepted her. In late May they introduced Bahati, which means ‘luck’ in Kiswahili, so Manno now has his own little family. Bahati is a female from Burundi who arrived at Sweetwaters in 1996 at the same time as Akela. They were both victims of the illegal pet trade, so share something in common with Manno and Jane.

Manno with his new family – Akela, Jane and Bahati. (Photo: David Mundia)

For the first time in his life Manno is being groomed, a fundamental aspect of social life. Manno is learning to become a chimpanzee.

For the first time in his life Manno is being groomed, a fundamental aspect of social life. Manno is learning to become a chimpanzee. (Photo: David Mundia)

I asked David Mundia on 31st May how Manno was doing. David replied, “He is the happiest chimp ever.”

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.

The value of the illegal wildlife seen for sale by WJC

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