While growing up I was fascinated with chimpanzees and always wanted to learn more about them. Once I realized that they were an endangered species, I knew that I wanted to raise awareness about this issue. So when I started to write about science I tried to identify the major threats to their future existence in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, I found that humans caused all major threats: habitat loss, disease transmission, and hunting. I believe that by identifying these key issues, Canadians can make a positive impact on the future welfare of this amazing species. That is why I need to address a growing threat to chimpanzees in the wild that recently shocked me: great ape trafficking.
Great ape trafficking itself is not new. Conservationists have known about the trade for decades. Disturbingly, I actually witnessed people trading animals illegally in Cameroon when I was conducting a chimpanzee field survey. In recent years, technology and demand for live chimpanzees in zoos has increased the number of chimpanzees exported overseas. Additionally, many countries in West and Central Africa do not have effective policies for preventing wildlife trafficking. As sad as this is, most African countries simply don’t have the infrastructure and resources to make this a top priority. This has resulted in chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas becoming the target of animal traffickers in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Senegal. A live chimpanzee infant can fetch between $5,000-20,000 from zoos in North America, Europe and Asia.
Recent developments in Guinea are an example of the threat great ape trafficking poses to chimpanzee survival in the wild. Over the past 3 years it is estimated that over 130 chimpanzees have been smuggled from Guinea by Chinese miners to Chinese zoos. I believe that we should expect these trafficking incidents to grow, as China’s industrial presence throughout Africa expands. At the moment, chimpanzees are being caught in crates and shipped overseas while corrupt and/or incompetent officials turn a blind eye. If the status quo is maintained, chimpanzee trafficking to zoos throughout the developed and developing world will continue to rise.
When I first read these reports I felt as though 130 trafficked chimpanzees was a relatively small number. It is important to consider the fact that these traffickers target infants because they are the most financially valuable. As a result, for every infant taken, several group members likely died attempting to protect it from capture. This can have irreversibly negative affects on chimpanzee populations. Chimpanzees have very slow reproduction rates and require a high degree of parental investment to survive. Although hundreds of individual chimpanzees have been ripped from their family troops, thousands have suffered indirectly. As severe as this problem is, we as individuals can still effect change and prevent it from happening.
The reason zoos are willing to spend $20,000 for a live chimpanzee is because they know hundreds of thousands of people will pay to see them in captivity. When you visit zoos that have great apes, whether in Canada or overseas, make sure you know where the great apes came from. Were they born in captivity? Or were they smuggled into the country illegally? If we, as consumers, choose to only support zoos that do not participate in great ape trafficking, there would be no sense for zoos to obtain their chimpanzees illegally via trafficking. You can raise awareness about this issue by sharing and discussing it with friends and family, and you can contact your local zoo to make sure you know about the origin of their chimpanzees. You can also become a guardian for orphaned chimpanzees with the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada.
What are your thoughts on this issue? What will you do to prevent further great ape trafficking? Comments are more than welcome!