Conservationists are calling for worldwide action to stop the growing trade in endangered primates being smuggled out of Africa by criminal gangs alongside drugs and arms, writes Asha Tanna.
The Pan-African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) – a non-profit organisation that supports sanctuaries across the continent – says the situation is “critical” to all endangered species, because dollar for dollar it’s more profitable than some drug trafficking.
“It’s nothing small, these gangs are well organised and they’re fast,” said PASA’s executive director, Doug Cress.
“From start to finish a deal can be done and the order delivered in less than a week. If they’ve already got away with loading drugs and automatic weapons onto an airplane, then to throw in leopard skins and crates stuffed with live baby chimpanzees – it’s worth their while.”
The man pictured here was investigated by the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA) – a wildlife law enforcement group – and jailed for three years for trying to smuggle a baby chimpanzee as well as four sacks of drugs containing 50kg of marijuana and cocaine in the back of his car out of Cameroon, en route to Nigeria.
According to conservationists, a baby gorilla can fetch up to £40,000 on the black-market.
Law enforcement agencies say they have identified certain trade routes through Africa which are being exploited because cross-border patrols are lax and the punishment for wildlife crime is lenient.
“Mobile phones and the internet have made it easy for people to communicate and they can create quite a grab bag of things,” said Doug Cress.
“Prosecutions in parts of Africa…are difficult to uphold and some of these known traffickers are untouchable because they can bribe their way out of a situation.”
“Prosecutions in parts of Africa…are difficult to uphold and some of these known traffickers are untouchable because they can bribe their way out of a situation.” Doug Cress PASA
PASA says endangered primates are usually pre-ordered from places like the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe where they end up either as exotic pets or put on show in zoos. The animals are increasingly being smuggled through Alexandria or Sharm El Sheik in Egypt – either from Cameroon via Nigeria or from Kenya via Sudan.
All endangered animals being trafficked are supposed to be protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Some crates seized by investigators have also revealed an increase in animal skins, ivory, rhino horns and various body parts for trophies.
Earlier this year, five people were arrested in Gabon, West Africa, following the largest confiscation of great ape body parts in the last ten years. The parts found included the head and hands of a gorilla, along with 12 chimpanzee heads and 30 chimpanzee hands.
Local African police, Interpol, LAGA and the World Customs Organization (WCO) have been working in conjunction with PASA to intercept wildlife smugglers to try to prosecute them.
Ofir Drori, director of LAGA said: “The problem conservation faces is corruption and it can be found in government officials, magistrates and police. That is the number one obstacle and we need to fight it.
“Bribing attempts are documented in 85 per cent of our field arrest operations, and 80 per cent of all court cases within the legal system. The only way to stop criminals, is to put them in jail.
“CITES is a tool that only works when there are collaborative governments. The problem is some governments don’t want to follow the rules.”
Following the recent political turmoil in Egypt, there’s been no response from the authorities there to requests for comments on the smuggling allegations.
A spokesman for the WCO, Grant Bushby, said that many customs administrations in Africa suffered from a lack of awareness, training, equipment and inter-agency cooperation “which impacts negatively on effective enforcement at borders”.
“Corruption too has paralysed enforcement efforts,” he added.
PASA claims that Africa’s ties with some international trading partners mean officials will look the other way at border checks; and say many of the illegal exchanges at African airports are done on the tarmac.
If criminals are successfully intercepted, conservationists say the animals are often confiscated and the offenders are allowed to walk away with just a warning. Those who do end up in jail will often receive a more lenient sentence for wildlife trafficking than for drugs or arms offences, so there’s a temptation to re-offend.
PASA believes all chimpanzees and gorillas being smuggled out of Africa have been captured in the wild. It has written to CITES to investigate.
The head of enforcement for CITES, John Sellar said: “We are not sitting back and twiddling our thumbs. CITES has one officer to look at wildlife enforcement globally. Historically we have known that Egypt has traded in live primates and we have since worked very closely with the authorities to address this problem.
“The trade in great apes is very serious because of the detrimental impact to their populations; this is very much on our radar. If we find that a country is not complying we will issue sanctions to cease trading with them. Financially it has little significance, it’s more international embarrassment. CITES is not a law enforcement agency, any hard evidence we receive is passed onto the authorities to investigate.”
LAGA says it is starting to see some positive results, but preventing primate trafficking continues to be an on-going battle.
Asha Tanna is a British freelance journalist. She writes a conservation blog which focuses on all primate-related news and features.