The story of the traffick in Africa’s great apes

Thursday July 17 2014

Mwanzo and her baby Ajabu at the Sweetwaters

Mwanzo and her baby Ajabu at the Sweetwaters chimpanzee sanctuary. Photo/Courtesy.  

By Rupi Mangat

We are at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki. Karl Ammann — an undercover wildlife trafficking investigator who came to Africa in the early 1980s to work in the hotel industry taking pictures in the Maasai Mara — is showing us a wooden box, about five feet long, two feet in width and height, pockmarked with drilled holes.

He narrates the story of the box: In 2005, Ammann was called urgently to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi where the box was discovered. The staff at the air-freight section was horrified to see tiny little fingers poking through the holes and childlike cries emanating from it.

“The vet was called in and when the lid was taken off, there were five frightened infant chimps crammed in the box.”

The chimps had been in transit for days without food or water - from Guinea-Conakry bound for Cairo en route to China. One of the chimps had died. After initial investigations were done – which meant the chimps had to remain in the crate for a few more days, they were brought to Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Wedged inside the box was a piece of paper with a handwritten prayer in Arabic from the Koran, for the chimps to arrive safely. The people at the core of this trafficking are a well-known woman of Egyptian-Nigerian descent and her two daughters. They seem untouchable.

The chimps, now almost 10 years old, are the lucky ones that survived. We’re watching them playing in their private pen, within sight of Mount Kenya. Many have perished undocumented.


There are more chimps in the other pens, well-known to regular visitors, like Poco, now showing signs of ageing. His past, also brutal, was that of a captive animal in solitary confinement in a cage suspended above a workshop for the first nine years of his life to attract customers. The wire cage was so small that all he could do was either sit or stand — hence his habit of walking upright.

Chimpanzees are not native to Kenya. However, Sweetwaters, managed by the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, hosts rescued chimps.

Chimpanzees are our closest relatives — 98.6 per cent genetically identical to us. Yet there’s a huge trade in chimps and the other great apes — gorillas, bonobos and the orang-utan — that threatens their very survival.

“The trade in the great apes is bigger than we thought,” says Ammann.

According to data from the Project to End Great Ape Slavery (Pegas) launched in Nanyuki recently, every year, up to 3,000 great apes are lost from the wild as a result of trafficking. Trafficking in great apes has gone on since time immemorial. But in the past few years, the threat to the great apes in the wild has escalated.

A recent report entitled ‘The Conakry Connection’ by Ammann, Sparwasser, Cockayne, Schoene and Pax Animalis shows that from 2009 to 2012, more than 130 young chimpanzees and 10 gorillas were illegally exported from Guinea-Conakry to China.

A joint UN-Interpol report released last month warned that while the greatest threat to apes is habitat loss, the illegal trade in the animals is “widespread”, with over 22,000 great apes estimated to have been taken between 2005 and 2011, reported.

For every infant chimp caught alive, at least 10 have to be killed. This is simply because apes live in social circles like human families where the child is protected. The demand is predominately for baby chimpanzees because they are easy to handle, ship and train for entertainment.

China is now cited as the main importer of exotic mammals from West and Central Africa; previously it was the Middle East. One of the reasons for this shift appears to be newly created and expanded entertainment facilities such as drive-through safari parks and zoos.

Corrupt government officials colluding with organised criminal networks and international airlines threaten the survival of the great apes in the wild.


All four of the great apes — chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orang-utans — are listed under Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix 1, which gives the highest form of protection. Cites is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Appendix I lists species that are threatened with extinction and Cites prohibits international trade in them — except when the purpose of the import is not commercial such as for use in scientific research and even then they are not to be sourced from the wild and not to be traded for commercial purposes, including sale, display, purchase, offer to purchase and acquisition for commercial purposes.

Pretending to be dealers wanting to buy chimpanzees, Ammann and Swiss NGO Pax Animalis found it easy to buy Cites permits with a bribe, revealing a scam of fake licences and false information. China claims to have legally imported chimpanzees from Conakry.

“How, under Cites Appendix 1, can Conakry export chimpanzees legally?” asks Ammann.
Cites, Conakry and China

Analysing the permits reveals the chronology of the escalation in trading of the great apes.

“In 2007, China wrote to Cites stating that it needed a lot of apes to stock its zoos,” says Ammann. A deal was made between the two.

The chimpanzees were supposed to be sourced from captive breeding facilities. However, a quick check online for Cites approved captive breeding facilities in the world shows not a single one for great apes in West Africa, or in much of the world.

“The illegal ape permits are clearly just the tip of the iceberg,” says Ammann. “If the basic permitting system can be manipulated at leisure by every wildlife dealer and corrupt Cites official, then what is the point of Cites?”

Almost human

When Jane Goodall, who pioneered chimpanzee research in the wild from late 1950s, recorded previously unknown behaviour such as chimps using blades of grass to fish out termites, it led to Louis Leakey, the famous paleoanthropologist and archaeologist whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa, making his famous remark: “We must redefine tools, redefine man or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Until then, no animal in the wild had been recorded using a tool, or even making one — a skill that was believed to be exclusive to humans.

Champions for apes

Pegas aims to develop a better understanding of the illegal trade by disseminating accurate information pertaining to specific instances, repatriating illegally obtained apes to sanctuaries, and campaigning for international agreements to be enforced.

The annual value of great ape trafficking is millions of dollars. Importing countries pay $15,000-$20,000 for a chimpanzee and more than $150,000 for a gorilla.

According to Daniel Stiles of Pegas, about 5 per cent of the global ape population is lost annually through trafficking and collateral killings; the level of exploitation is leading to extinction.

Pegas claims Cites is taking action only against weak exporting countries, the supply side, but not against the rich importing countries that provide the demand. The organisation says that Cites needs to enforce Article VIII of the Convention, which penalises trade in, or possession of, illegal specimens, or both; and to provide for the confiscation or return to the state of export of such specimens.

Pegas also says the Cites secretariat is resisting efforts to expose the exporters and importers of trafficked great apes and has made misleading and untrue statements in respect of evidence related to these incidents.