By Dan Stiles
They named him Manno and he is four years old, though he is small for his age. Manno has bright, inquisitive eyes, has a fondness for pumpkin seeds and loves to scamper about. He has been living alone as the solitary chimpanzee in a small, private zoo in Duhok, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq for about three years.
Manno turned up in 2013 with wildlife dealers in Damascus, Syria, as a traumatized baby orphan. His mother was no doubt killed for bushmeat somewhere in Central Africa and the poachers sold him off to traffickers.
The owner of the Duhok Zoo paid $15,000 for Manno and the little chimpanzee has repaid the investment by becoming a very popular attraction. People come from all over the Duhok area to play and have their photographs taken with Manno. The little chimpanzee is dressed up in children’s clothes and visitors shower him with food and drink that kids like – junk food. This probably explains why Manno is small for his age.
If Manno stays in the zoo, the day will come when he stops being cuddly and playful. He will grow in strength and in aggressiveness, as is normal with chimpanzees. If he is not caged up permanently first, he will attack and no doubt seriously injure someone. His future is not bright.
In fact, the future is not bright for any great ape that is trafficked. They either end up in bleak cages or are slain.
There are two main uses to which young apes are put: as pets or as attractions in commercial wildlife facilities such as zoos, circuses, shows, TV programmes, hotels and use as photo-props. The suffering is immense.
I have been investigating great ape trafficking for the past three years, since being invited to be a co-author of the United Nations report Stolen Apes, released in March 2013 at the 16th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties in Bangkok.
The report documents an alarming situation in which more than 1,800 cases were registered of trafficked chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans from the forests of Africa and Asia between 2005 and early 2012. That is only a fraction of the real number, as documented cases are those involving seizures by the authorities, and the vast majority of incidents go undetected.
More tragically, for every live ape that enters the trade, at least one – the mother – and more than ten can be killed as collateral damage. The number lost is multiplied again because many infants die before reaching the final destination.
I have travelled to West and Central Africa, the Middle East and to Thailand, Vietnam and China, gathering information on this trade in apes for the Project to End Great Ape Slavery, sponsored by Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which hosts the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. I have also been discovering and monitoring a growing network of online wildlife traffickers, who post photos of their prized wildlife purchases and those they offer for sale on social media sites.
The usual routine is to move from Instagram or Facebook to WhatsApp or Snapchat to conduct the negotiations after the initial contact is made on a photo post. Prices are highest in the United Arab Emirates, where a chimpanzee infant can go for more than $30,000. They obtain the apes from well-established dealers based in Kinshasa, Conakry and Abidjan, who have agents in several other countries.
The typical road a ape takes in a commercial zoo or safari park starts with being used as a photo prop. When they get older they are usually trained to perform in some kind of entertainment show and after they reach puberty they are caged up to become a zoo attraction and to breed. Increasingly, dealers and zoos are breeding their own animals.
Traffickers in Egypt were amongst the first to see the financial advantages in breeding great apes. A woman with dual Egyptian and Nigerian nationality had been trafficking chimpanzees and gorillas out of Guinea and Nigeria since at least the early 1990s, assisted by an Egyptian veterinarian and family members. Two of her clients ran tourist hotels in Sharm el Sheikh that used young chimpanzees as photo props for tourists to hold.
Both hotel owners have since the early 2000s established wildlife breeding facilities for great apes and other animals, and one has opened a safari park near Sharm el Sheikh. Chimpanzees and even gorillas are now being smuggled from these breeding centers to other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. They sometimes go to Damascus first to pick up a CITES re-export permit, which corrupt officials issue for a price, so that they can arrive in the destination country with documentation that makes it look like a legal trade.
A baby chimpanzee from one of the Egyptian breeding facilities was seized in the Cairo airport last year during the security check, being smuggled to Kuwait, where infant great apes are in high demand. The poor thing now languishes in the Giza Zoo.
The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya offered to rescue the little chimpanzee and provide him with lifelong care, but the Egyptian CITES authorities thus far have not responded to the offer. Little Doodoo, as he is called, could join five other chimpanzees at Sweetwaters that were seized in Kenya in 2005 after being refused entry into Egypt, trafficked by the Egyptian-Nigerian woman.
The number of great apes trafficked internationally every year is not large compared to some other species, but when the collateral damage is factored in, we are talking about up to 3,000 lives lost from the wild each year.One extremely important point is overlooked when simply numbers are used to assess the significance of this extractive industry. Great apes are not just any species group. We humans share millions of years of evolutionary history with them and our genetic makeup is surprisingly similar – about 97 per cent with orangutans, 98 per cent with gorillas and almost 99 per cent with chimpanzees and bonobos. We all belong to the same biological family called Hominidae.
I think there should exist a principle of “hominid rights”. All hominids share certain inalienable rights to bodily freedom, within practical and legal limits.
Increasingly, as more behavioural and genetic research is conducted, we are accepting more easily the fact that great apes are very much like humans in so many ways. Beginning in the 1960s the research of the ‘Trimates’ – Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birutė Galdikas – made known to the world the surprising fact that characteristics previously thought of as exclusively human are shared by these intelligent, emotionally sensitive great apes.
Great ape mothers are incredibly protective of their young offspring, which is why they are always killed when poachers go out hunting for infants.
Currently, CITES treats great apes like any other animal or plant species. Although classified in Appendix I, which means that commercial trade is prohibited, great apes can be traded for “non-commercial” purposes if they satisfy certain source criteria, such as being born in captivity.
Creating exceptions to the prohibition on international trade in great apes tacitly accepts that it is appropriate for humans to own and imprison them. Once in captivity, it is very difficult to monitor whether they are being used for commercial purposes or abused by unacceptable standards of confinement.
The bottom line should be, no inappropriate captivity of great apes. Inappropriate can be defined as: living alone without the company of other con-specifics, confinement in cages (except sleeping quarters associated with open environments), use in commercial activities (e.g. being sold as pets, used as photo props, trained to perform, used in commercial advertisements, dressed up in clothing to attract visitors).
Already, hundreds of great apes are being freed in Europe and the United States from biomedical research laboratories, and very soon chimpanzees from private commercial zoos in the US will be liberated, due to changes in laws and understanding of the uniqueness of great apes. This is already creating a huge problem of where to put them, once liberated. If all commercial wildlife facilities stretching from the Middle East to the Far East are included, it quickly becomes apparent that all great apes cannot be immediately emancipated after changes in law might come into effect.
So what is the answer? Change should be planned, gradual and move in stepped phases. The first step is stopping the illegal trade, which adds every year to the number that eventually will have to be freed. CITES could be instrumental in achieving this, but it is not implementing what needs to be done, mainly because the members are obsessed with elephants, rhinos and big Cats. Great apes are forgotten. Other organizations concerned with great apes also are not doing all that they could be doing.
Can Manno, Doodoo and others like him be saved? Only if people and officials start to take the great ape trade seriously.