The multibillion-dollar trade in illegal wildlife—clandestine trafficking that has driven iconic creatures like the tiger to near-extinction—is also threatening the survival of great apes, a new U.N. report says.
Endangered chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos are disappearing from the wild in frightening numbers, as private owners pay top dollar for exotic pets, while disreputable zoos, amusement parks and traveling circuses clamor for smuggled primates to entertain audiences.
More than 22,000 great apes are estimated to have been traded illegally over a seven-year period ending in 2011. That's about 3,000 a year; more than half are chimpanzees, the U.N. report said.
"These great apes make up an important part of our natural heritage. But as with all things of value, great apes are used by man for commercial profit and the illegal trafficking of the species constitutes a serious threat to their existence," Henri Djombo, a government minister from the Republic of Congo, was quoted as saying.
The U.N. report paints a dire picture of the fight to protect vulnerable and dwindling flora and fauna from organized criminal networks that often have the upper hand.
Apes are hunted in their own habitats, which are concentrated in central and western Africa, by sophisticated smugglers who transport them on private cargo planes using small airstrips in the African bush. Their destination is usually the Middle East and Asia.
In countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, great apes are purchased to display as show pieces in private gardens and menageries.
In Asia, the animals are typically destined for public zoos and amusement parks. China is a main destination for gorillas and chimpanzees. Thailand and Cambodia have recorded cases of orangutans being used for entertainment in "clumsy boxing matches," the report said.
Lax enforcement and corruption make it easy to smuggle the animals through African cities like Nairobi, Kenya, and Khartoum, Sudan, which are trafficking hubs. Bangkok, the Thai capital, is a major hub for the orangutan trade.
Conditions are usually brutal. In February 2005, customs officials at the Nairobi airport seized a large crate that had arrived from Egypt. The crate held six chimpanzees and four monkeys, stuffed into tiny compartments. The crate had been refused at the airport in Cairo, a well-known trafficking hub for shipment to the Middle East, and returned to Kenya. One chimp died of hunger and thirst.
The proliferation of logging and mining camps throughout Africa has also increased the demand for primate meat. Adults and juveniles are killed for consumption, and their orphans are captured to sell into the live trade. Villagers also pluck primates out of rural areas to sell in the cities.
Humans also have been encroaching upon and destroying the primates' natural habitats, destroying their forest homes to build infrastructure and for other purposes. That forces the animals to move into greater proximity and conflict with people.
Sometimes animals are even the victims of war.
Arrests are rare largely because authorities in Africa, where most great apes originate, do not have the policing resources to cope with the criminal poaching networks. Corruption is rampant and those in authority sometimes are among those dealing in the illegal trade. Between 2005 and 2011, only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates the trade of animals and plants to ensure their survival. Under the agreement, trade in great apes caught in the wild is illegal. But traffickers often get around that by falsely declaring animals as bred in captivity.
The orangutan is the only great ape found in Asia. One species, the Sumatran orangutan, is critically endangered, with its population having dropped by 80 percent over the last 75 years. Their numbers are in great peril due to the pace of land clearance and forest destruction for industrial or agricultural use.
The report estimates that nearly all of the orangutan's natural habitat will be disturbed or destroyed by the year 2030.
"There are no wild spaces left for them," said Douglas Cress, a co-author of the report and head of a U.N. sponsored program that works for the survival of great apes. "There'll be nothing left at this rate. It's down to the bone. If it disappears, they go, too."
Explore further: Nearly 3,000 wild great apes 'stolen' each year, UN reports