Over the weekend a meeting held by conservationists from the UK and America took place at Chester Zoo. The event organised by Fauna and Flora International (FFI) North-West group, highlighted growing concerns that the number of endangered species being smuggled out of Africa, in particular primates, are being trafficked by international criminal gangs already involved in drugs and arms.
These gangs are combining their efforts to smuggle exotic pets and animal body parts to maximise their profits and they’re using trade routes through Alexandria and Sharm El Sheik in Egypt. I can’t help thinking that the current violent protests in the country must be providing a wonderful smoke-screen for dealers wanting to move any large shipments inconspicuously.
Guest speaker at the event, executive director Doug Cress, from the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) – a non-profit organisation that supports primate sanctuaries across the continent – said the reason for the rise and diversification in trade, is because cross-border patrols in Africa are weak and punishment for wildlife trafficking is lenient.
He told me: “It’s nothing small, these gangs are well organised and they’re fast. 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. Mobile phones and the internet have made it easy for people to communicate and they can create quite a grab bag of things. Prosecutions in parts of Africa, like in Egypt, are difficult to uphold and some of these known traffickers are untouchable because they can bribe their way out of a situation.”
All of the species being trafficked out of the continent are endangered; they include several great apes species – chimpanzees; bonobos and gorillas – as well as parrots and turtles. They are all supposed to be protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Some seizures by investigators have also revealed an increase in animal skins; ivory and various body parts for trophies.
Endangered species pre-ordered, can end up as exotic pets or put on show in zoos. According to PASA, species are increasingly being smuggled out of the continent through Egypt either from Cameroon via Nigeria or from Kenya via Sudan.
Mr Cress added: “When a primate is brought into Egypt it can get lost in the system because it is held at a ‘Rescue Centre’. These facilities have no accreditation under CITES, but the government won’t step in to confiscate the animal because the person holding it has a permit. These permits allow traffickers to hold a number of animals on private property, but the permits are not specific to each individual animal. So it means they drop out of sight and onto the black-market because they’ll be replaced by other animals.”
I’m still waiting for a right of reply from the Egyptian government.
Local African police, Interpol, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and The Last Great Ape Organization – the only wildlife law enforcement group in Africa (LAGA) – have been working in conjunction with PASA to identify certain trade routes to intercept wildlife smugglers to try to prosecute them.
Last month five people were arrested in Gabon 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 twelve chimpanzee heads and thirty chimpanzee hands.
Mr Ofir Drori, director of LAGA said: “Criminals will traffic anything if it makes their sale more profitable. If they have a container already moving out and they can earn more kilogram for kilogram for ivory or live animals, then they’ll do it. 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 law needs to be applied and it is still non-existent in some African countries. The only way to stop criminals is to hit them in the head and put them jail, it sends a clear message to them.
“CITES is a tool that only works when there are collaborative governments. The problem is some governments don’t want to follow the rules.”
In September last year, the World Customs Organization (WCO) launched the Great Apes and Integrity (GAPIN) project which is being sponsored by the Swedish government. Project GAPIN specifically targets the smuggling of great apes and linked integrity issues. These include enforcing CITES at borders; preventing and investigating wildlife crime; raising awareness among customs officials as well promoting co-operation with participating countries.
A spokesman for WCO, Grant Bushby said: “Great ape vulnerabilities are related to various issues; capacity, corruption, policy guidance and weak national CITES management to name a few of the main ones.
“Many customs administrations in African ranging states do, however, suffer severely 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.”
PASA claims Africa’s ties with some international trading partners means officials will look the other way at border checks; and say many of the illegal exchanges at African airports are done on the tarmac. Mr Cress said he believes this makes it easy for people in the Middle East and Asia, in particular China and also Eastern Europe to place orders.
Endangered species are considered to be the most lucrative items among criminals. A baby gorilla can fetch up to forty thousand pounds on the black-market. 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 that 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.
Mr Steve Unwin, veterinary co-ordinator for PASA and Chester Zoo’s veterinary officer said: “Dollar for dollar, the illegal wildlife trade is more profitable than some drug trafficking; after human trafficking.
“We are seeing an increase in species being trafficked and also an increase in numbers. These animals end up psychologically disturbed when they are smuggled out of their natural habitat. Most of them are for the illegal pet trade – so they tend to be infants or juveniles. They are not fed properly during what is an important physical development in their lives. They end up traumatised and this can be irreparable.
“We’ve heard of species that end up in Singapore and then from there, they’re sold all over the world.”
Primatologists say infant chimpanzees have the same cognitive ability as a human child aged one year old. These apes are likely to have witnessed their mother being shot and possibly their entire social group being killed. These memories are believed to have a detrimental impact on their behaviour.
There are no captive breeding facilities in Africa for endangered primates, it is illegal. PASA believes all the chimpanzees being smuggled out of Africa have been captured in the wild. It has written to CITES to investigate claims that at least five infant chimpanzees are currently on display at two Chinese zoos – the Jinan Zoo (Shandong Province) and the Hefei Wildlife Park (Anhui Province) – after being imported from Guinea in West Africa.
CITES was not available to comment.
The UK is considered to be one of the few countries that upholds CITES regulation to the letter. Conservationists says there is little point in CITES kicking out countries that don’t adhere to its law, because it will have less authority to try to reign them in.
Based on the number of animals confiscated by PASA last year, it estimates that more than 20 per cent of the entire world’s population of Africa Grey Parrots are poached every year for the pet trade. And over the last ten years the number of chimpanzees confiscated has increased from 1,000 in 20 different sanctuaries to 60 per cent.
PASA is working with Interpol to track criminal gangs operating in and out of Africa. Once they have been identified, using smaller non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) like LAGA, it says it is able to move with more stealth and get better results.
In 2003 the Cameroon government handed out its first conviction in wildlife trafficking thanks to information from LAGA. The organisation operates in Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and Central African Republic. It aims to roll out LAGA in Nigeria, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo this year.
This man (see photo below) was investigated by LAGA and with the help of local police, arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. He was trying to smuggle out a baby chimpanzee as well as four sacks of drugs containing 50kg of marijuana and cocaine in the back of his car in Cameroon, en route to Nigeria. LAGA says this particular dealer is also believed to have activated dozen of poachers as part of the regular trade.
Mr Drori says: “This prosecution was a success, but there needs to be more. The law in every African country is there to protect these animals; but it’s failing them because of corruption. There’s no point confiscating goods and then handing them back over to the criminals. More jail sentences have to be handed out if we’re to stop wildlife trafficking.”