A BBC News investigation has uncovered a huge section of the wildlife trafficking business that sells baby chimpanzees as pets for £10,000, after their families are shot dead in front of them.
The well-known West African hub for wildlife trafficking, which is known as the “blue room” was uncovered by the BBC’s 12 month investigation, and reveals how the tiny chimps are taken from the wild to be sold as pets. Chimpanzees are in high demand as pets or zoo performers across many countries. Baby chimpanzees are sold to wealthy homeowners for a minimum of around £10,000, although it can be a lot more.
The investigation revealed that poachers would shoot as many of the adults in a family as they could to prevent the young chimpanzees from resisting capture. This also meant that the poachers could sell the older chimps as bushmeat. This method means that for every one baby that they capture, 10 adults would be slaughtered. Colonel Assoumou Assoumou, an expert in wildlife crime with Ivory Coast Police, told the BBC, “One has to kill the mother, one has to kill the father. If our ancestors had killed them, nowadays we wouldn’t even know about chimpanzees”.
After the chimps have been captured, they will be transferred from the jungle poachers to middlemen, who work to arrange fake export permits and transport to enable them to arrive with the buyers without questions asked. The highest demand for the baby animals comes from the Gulf states, south-east Asia and China, where buyers are prepared to pay a lot of money for the animals.
A Swiss wildlife activist who campaigns against the chimp trafficking, Karl Ammann, says that the trade is a “kind of slavery”, and that as the chimps grow up, they very quickly become very strong and even violent, meaning that they face a terrible fate as they are no longer wanted in a home. He said, “They still have 90% of their life ahead of them. They get locked in some cage and maybe even killed in some cases because they have outlived their useful pet stage. That for me is just impossible to accept.”
After months of building fake relationships, the authorities finally tracked down the smuggling ringleaders in Abidjan, where a tiny chimp was discovered hidden in a wooden crate. This area was later found to be the “blue room”, which was where the animals were held before being transported to buyers. For years there have been speculations and efforts to uncover this “blue room”, which was previously seen in footage to be covered with blue tiles, but for years no one could discover the location.
This poaching practice is devastating chimpanzee population numbers, with an estimated 3,000 great apes, including orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees being lost from the wild every year purely from the illegal trade, according to the UN Environment Programme. An enormous two thirds of these numbers are chimpanzees, which are already an endangered species.
Under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, chimpanzees are currently given the highest level of protection, known as Appendix 1. Despite this protection, the investigation revealed that with enough money and the right connections, it is easy to smuggle the chimps through from their natural habitat to the buyer’s home. The investigation team was even able to purchase two permits to export chimps for $4,000 each.
After simply posing as buyers for a client in Thailand, the BBC team obtained their first permit in Cairo, Egypt, which has long been a well-known centre for animal trafficking. After secure messages of negotiations with two pet traders, the undercover team were sent videos of infant chimps that were being held in the blue-tiled room, before being offered secure Cites permits for the chimp exports. Alongside the Cites permits, the other pet trader offered an alternative which was to obtain a permit for a less endangered animal, and then hide the chimps among them, which occurs often. Sadly, the chimp that the team had permits for died whilst in transit at Istanbul airport, hidden amongst many other animals.
From numerous acts of contact with different illegal wildlife dealers, it became clear to the team that the “blue room” was constantly being restocked with more captured young chimpanzees. In one instance, the investigative team pretended to be an Indonesian pet shop acting for wealthy clients, which led them to contact with a dealer in Guinea called Ibrahima Traore, who was just 22 years old. As a relationship with Traore began to build up, he revealed the size of his illegal operation, boasting holdings of chimpanzees in his home country of Guinea, as well as in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ivory Coast. In a secretly filmed conversation, Traore explained that bypassing authorities was easy if you had “someone important on the inside”. He said, “I’m not afraid – you can import everywhere you want – send everywhere you want”.
Through their investigation and meetings with authorities to discuss the illegal business, the BBC claim that law enforcements are not doing anywhere near enough to stop this issue, with only 27 arrests made in Africa and Asia with connection to the ape trade between 2005 and 2011, and a quarter of these never leading to any prosecutions being prosecuted.
Masses of data and undercover information has been captured from this information which has led to arrests, as well as discussions with Cites to bring the seriousness of fake documents to their attention. Colonel Assoumou Assoumou, the detective in charge in Ivory Coast has since pledged to fully examine the entire illegal supply chain, “from the hunters to the traffickers to the buyers”.
He said, “In 10 years, in 20 years, we won’t have any more chimpanzees. This species will disappear. That’s the reason why this cause was taken up by Interpol. Personally I am committed to fight against this phenomenon. These are rare species and it should not be us, in our generation, that wipes them out.”