Ape Trafficking Escalates as Demand Increases in the Middle East and South Asia

Categories: Journal no. 67, Threats, People & Gorillas, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Other countries

Even though not openly stated, many viewers know that this is a 'for sale' ad.

Africa's great ape sanctuaries have become inundated with new arrivals, rescued from the collateral damage of the bushmeat trade and targeted trafficking to supply the exotic pet trade and the growing commercial zoo and safari park industry. Partly as a consequence of the illegal trade, several species of great ape are in decline, and those involved in managing sanctuaries or in wildlife law enforcement fear the extinction of chimpanzees and gorillas should the UN and big international NGOs not act soon.

Over the past two decades there has been a spike in demand for exotic animals used as pets, linked to the increasing capture of mainly young exotic animals in the wild, putting even more pressure on the survival of endangered species. Great apes, other primates, big cats and a few other exotic animals top the list of creatures to be flaunted on social media by owners seeking to attract attention and status. Concurrently, private commercial zoos posing as 'rescue' or 'conservation' centres have also increased in more countries around the world, driving demand for photogenic, playful, endearing young animals that can draw in paying visitors.

The internet, via e-commerce and social-media marketing, is a favoured method for bringing consumers to suppliers. The major suppliers, who are often also exotic pet owners or zoo owners, are coming together in loose networks to buy and sell exotic animals, including great apes, and to find new customers. Some of these exotic animal social media stars have millions of followers on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. TikTok and Snapchat are also becoming major marketing and deal-making platforms for exotic pets. A video post of a chimpanzee infant dressed in children's clothing, for example, can quickly reach numerous potential buyers. The trade deals are then negotiated out of public view, in private-messaging apps.

The 'captive breeding facility' has emerged to evade the restrictive trading regulations established by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as trade can be permitted if certain criteria are met, primarily stating that the animal was not born in the wild. These facilities, effectively commercial zoos, are open to the public, and the owners gain free advertising when paying visitors post their experiences interacting with exotic animals on social media. It is a lucrative business model: attract animal buyers online from visitor posts made by people who have paid for the experience. The social media companies also gain significant income from the views generated by the posts - the 'click' economy - an incentive to them not to enforce their own rules prohibiting illegal user activity. These private zoos are growing fastest in the Middle East and South Asia.

The under-reporting of great apes seized in illegal trade incidents, both nationally and internationally, is a serious problem in bringing a true appreciation of the great ape trafficking situation to the attention of governments, international organisations and the media. Relevant institutions in the UN system (e.g. GRASP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) need particular improvement in their approaches concerning the illegal trade in great apes.

Another potential deleterious impact of the illegal great ape trade was thrust into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic. The most likely cause of the pandemic is that the virus passed from an infected wild animal to humans in a food market in Wuhan, China. Most illegal great ape imports are done without veterinary health inspections or certificates, which raises considerably the risk of introducing one or more zoonotic diseases to humans in destination countries. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised government and public awareness about the health risks involved in illegal wildlife trade, which may lead to better legislation aimed at controlling this frequently ignored threat.

Great ape prices at source levels in African rural areas appear to have remained stable over the past decade at approximately US$ 25-270 per individual, depending on the species, age and location. Chimpanzees are the least expensive, with gorillas costing up to 10 times more. However, the prices at the level of middleman who operate in villages and towns and supply great apes to the export cities have risen in recent years, with the lowest recorded at US$ 135 for a chimp and the highest (US$ 10,000) paid by an exporter to a middleman supplier. Infant gorillas from the DRC offered recently by middlemen in Nigeria were asking US$ 17,000. The prices that exporters are demanding from overseas buyers have spiked considerably in recent years, and today reach US$ 50,000 for a chimp without CITES papers and up to US$ 100,000 for a chimp with fraudulent CITES permits, transportation included. The export price for an infant gorilla can reach US$ 250,000, although a trafficker in Pakistan offered one from the DRC this year for US$ 70,000, considered cheap. Importer selling prices are correspondingly higher, with costs of US$ 82,000 for an undocumented chimp and US$ 548,000 for a gorilla recorded in Dubai in 2022. Chimps sold in the Gulf before 2016 were going for US$ 20,000 to US$ 34,000, seen in posts. Dealers no longer post prices in public social media.

Circulated private message ads for gorillas in particular have been surging, coming out of Middle Eastern and Pakistani dealers. In past years it was rare to see gorillas offered for sale, now it is common. Nigeria and Libya have become important transit countries where they are smuggled from Central Africa for marketing. Dealers in the UAE, Jordan and Iraq are also offering gorillas and chimpanzees for sale.

There are three main methods of transporting great apes by air to buyers. The first is to obtain a CITES export or re-export certificate that states that the source is second generation captive bred (C source code), which requires bribing the national CITES officer. The second is to ship the ape concealed with other species that have CITES export permits, and the third is straight smuggling with no CITES permits. Since so few seizures of apes are reported, most trades seem to succeed, although there are apes that die during transport.

Wildlife dealers mainly in Kinshasa, who also export other primates and birds, have created transnational criminal networks of poachers, middlemen, exporters and foreign dealers to collect, transport and traffic dozens of great apes abroad every year, resulting in hundreds of great ape deaths annually in associated incidents. Suppliers operate throughout Central and West Africa thanks to corrupt facilitators in national CITES offices, the police, customs services and certain airline companies. Concerted action by CITES Parties and international organizations is urgently needed to control this threat to great ape survival. For more information see https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/great-ape-trafficking/.

Daniel Stiles

Original publicaton:
Stiles, D. (2023): Empty Forests. How politics, economics and corruption fuel live great ape trafficking. Black Market Brief Wildlife Trafficking 3. Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Daniel-Styles-Empty-Forests-live-great-ape-trafficking.April2023.pdf