Baby chimps are very cute and I’m sure most of us would love to cuddle one (I certainly would!). But what are the lengths you’d go to, to actually own one?
We’ve all seen those adorable images of orphaned, baby chimps rescued by their adoptive human parents. How can you not fall in love with a little baby, clinging to a human for protection, swaddled in a nappy and a blanket? We, the humans, appear to be the saviours. But I always think, there’s something not quite right in those images. Chimps are not human babies, surely they shouldn’t be wearing nappies and clothing. And why are they orphans? Is it due to some tragic environmental disaster…or because they have been trafficked?
Two weeks ago, after a painstaking year-long investigation, the BBC News team exposed an extensive, undercover network of wildlife traffickers selling baby chimpanzees. The network, referred to as the ‘blue room’, stems across West Africa – it is among the largest network of wildlife traffickers in the world. Much like the brutal attraction of elephant riding (read more here), the chimpanzees are seized as babies in the wild and sold on the black market.
Accessing a baby chimp is no easy task. Weighing approximately 91kg and with twice the strength of a human man, adult chimpanzees collectively fight to protect their young. The only way to reach the baby is to kill mother, and the only way to reach the mother is to kill the father. For every infant seized, approximately 10 adult chimps are shot. Poachers sell the adults as bushmeat and the infant enters the sophisticated chain of wildlife traffickers.
For me, the real the tragedy lies in the baby’s future. Chimps, like humans, are socially advanced creatures. The babies are left heartbroken and grieving after witnessing the death of their families. They cannot survive without the constant care of a mother. Fortunately, most infant chimps are well looked after by humans because they are cute. The problem lies in their adulthood. Chimps are wild animals and inevitably, there comes a time when they will display their natural behaviour. Once fully grown, they become too strong and violent to be kept in a home. And what do you do with a aggressive pet chimp? Encage it, trade it, or kill it.
Like all aspects of consumerism, the trafficking of baby chimps is driven by high demand. The Gulf States, China and South-East Asia are among the most frequent buyers. Each infant has a price tag of around £10,000 and are highly desired as pets or performers in commercial zoos. Buyers even pay additional fees to help bypass international controls with fake permits and transport. Under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), chimpanzees, which are highly protected, can only be exported under a small number of conditions. For example, exporting is allowed if chimps have been bred in captivity (which does not happen in West Africa) and exporters must be registered with CITES. In theory, there should be no possible way for West African smugglers to internationally transport baby chimps. But with the right money, contacts and determination, the smugglers are easily evading these controls.
Through posing as prospective buyers, the BBC launched an investigative team aiming to uncover the network of wildlife traffickers. They arranged to purchase a baby chimp and managed to gain access to the smuggling ringleader’s house in Abidjan. On entering the house, they discovered the baby chimp, held in a wooden crate inside a small room covered in tiny blue tiles – the blue room.
This room was frequently used by traffickers as a holding bay and was constantly restocked. For years, these infamous blue tiles had been seen in the background of videos advertising new chimps for sale. Until the BBC team uncovered it, authorities had no idea where this room was, only that it was located somewhere in West Africa.
The BBC team also demonstrated that with the right connections, the CITEs strict controls on wildlife trading can be easily evaded. By posing as buyers from Thailand, the team obtained 2 permits to export chimps for just $4,000 each. They were also offered an alternative method, commonly used by smugglers and referred to as “wildlife laundering” – gaining permits for less endangered species and hiding the chimps amongst them. The team were even offered video footage of the chimps during each stage of their journey.
According to the Great Ape Survival partnership, 1,800 great apes were seized from live trafficking between 2005 and 2011. Of these, 67% were Orangutans, 24% Chimpanzees, 6% Gorillas and 3% Bonobos. This trade is rapidly wiping out wild populations of chimpanzees. One census of the Ivory Coast revealed the population of chimpanzees has declined by 90% in the last 20 years. With the combined with pressures from habitat loss, disease and trafficking, chimpanzees are now listed as an endangered species; Western Chimpanzees are particularly vulnerable and with only 65,000 left in the wild, are critically endangered.
As the UN Environment executive director, Erik Solheim, explained, trafficking will “only push [chimpanzees] that much closer to extinction”.
As a global community, we must raise awareness of this crime, and like the BBC, investigate further to expose trafficking networks. Increasing controls over CITEs permits and illegal smuggling requires government funding. As the crime of wildlife trafficking does not negatively impact the economic wellbeing of a country, governments are not compelled to respond. But we can help. By exposing the extent of trafficking networks and highlighting the detrimental effects of this trade on wild populations of great apes, we can force governments to take notice.
We cannot be the generation responsible for the extinction of chimpanzees. Let’s work together to raise awareness of these crimes and ensure the blue room remains empty.