Asia's Demand for Apes Is Spurring a Deadly Illegal Trade

The death toll is rising as smugglers kill whole families to capture babies.

(Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Custom officials at Indonesia's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport discovered something shocking earlier this month—a sedated baby orangutan hidden in a suitcase. It was not an isolated incident: The orangutan marked the 38th great ape rescued from smugglers so far in 2014.

According to figures collected by the Great Apes Survival Partnership, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos are being rescued from smugglers at a rate of nearly two per week—double last year’s number.

"It's worrying," GRASP program coordinator Douglas Cress said from his office in Nairobi, Kenya. "Either law enforcement is getting better or the trade is just more than it was."

Other apes rescued this year include a chimpanzee found for sale on the streets in Sierra Leone; three chimpanzees confiscated from an illegal wildlife trader in India; a caged orangutan—whose teeth had been broken by plantation workers—in Indonesia; and an orphaned infant gorilla found wandering in a field in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Those 38 rescued apes are the lucky ones. Poachers likely killed hundreds of family members to get to the newborns.

"If you've confiscated a chimpanzee, you can figure somewhere between five and 10 other chimpanzees died to get that one, based on the way they react when they're being hunted," Cress said. "They stay in a social group. They're easy to pick off."

Gorillas tend to live in smaller family units, and experts say poachers probably kill two gorillas for every newborn that is stolen from the wild. Orangutans live the most solitary lives of the great apes, and rescued baby orangutans were probably taken from their dead mothers.

"That's the most troubling part," Cress said. "How many are being killed to get these few that we pick up, and how many are getting through? What we see is just a sliver, a fraction of what's happening."

He points out that many of the rescued apes were confiscated from less experienced smugglers. "We're just catching the losers right now, the guys who aren't good enough to really pull this off," he said. "The big guys, they're doing this effortlessly."

Some apes are destined to become exotic pets in the Middle East, and a few land at disreputable research institutions, where medical experiments are performed on them. But Cress blamed the smuggling largely on a booming market in Asia for live apes. Many end up at the rapidly growing number of zoos in China and elsewhere that serve the region's middle class. "They all want apes,” Cress said. “There's just an inexhaustible demand right now.”

Although experts think that the apes are smuggled along some of the same routes as rhino horn, elephant ivory, leopard skins, and other illegal wildlife products, the apes require different techniques.

"They have to be alive to be of any value,” he said. “They're not easy to care for. They require a much shorter shelf life for travel." GRASP suspects that airplanes may be used for much of this traffic, but Cress said, "finding out how smugglers transport them has been very, very difficult."

Later this year, GRASP will launch an international database to track illicit ape trafficking. Cress said he hopes it will provide a greater picture than piecemeal reports from current sources. (GRASP is a partnership of 95 national governments, United Nations agencies, conservation agencies, and private companies.)

A report released by GRASP last year estimates that nearly 3,000 great apes are killed or stolen from the wild every year. The trade brings great profits for poachers and criminal cartels but little punishment. GRASP reports that only 27 ape traffickers were arrested between 2005 and 2011. A quarter of them were never prosecuted. 

As for the orangutan rescued this month in Indonesia, it remains in quarantine and will hopefully be returned to the wild.

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