International trade in illegal wildlife that has driven creatures like the tiger to near-extinction is also threatening the survival of great apes, according to a new UN report.
Endangered chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos are disappearing from the wild as private owners pay top prices for exotic pets, while disreputable zoos, amusement parks and travelling circuses clamour 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 is about 3,000 a year; more than half are chimpanzees, the UN report said.
The UN report paints a dire picture of the fight to protect vulnerable and dwindling flora and fauna from organised 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.
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.
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% 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.