As endangered species, chimpanzees and great apes should be protected
Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos are all classified as endangered species, and many as “critically endangered”, with dramatic drops in their numbers in recent decades. Known alongside humans as the ‘great apes’, these amazing and highly intelligent beings are our closest living relatives.
Under an international agreement called CITES, and domestic laws in their habitat countries, great apes are awarded top protection, meaning it’s illegal for them to be captured, killed or traded commercially. Despite this protection, thousands of great apes are lost from the wild every year as a result of illegal trade. Experts conservatively estimate at least 3,000 great apes are lost to trafficking each year, with about two thirds of these being chimpanzees. Tragically, true numbers are probably far higher.
For every live baby chimp that becomes a victim of illegal trade, as many as 10 other chimpanzees may have been killed in the process.
Why are great apes stolen from the wild and traded?
In many range countries, adult great apes are hunted for wild meat for local or international trade. When mothers are killed, live infants are captured to be trafficked to meet demand for illicit exotic pets or for human interaction and entertainment at disreputable zoos and tourist attractions.
Trafficking of great apes is a highly profitable business. It is a form of serious organised crime facilitated by corruption. Modern technology like social media and digital payment enables ease of online trade with minimal risk of capture or punishment.
Currently enforcement is very poor and wildlife trafficking does not face the full force of justice. In the period between 2005 and 2011 in which we know at least 22,000 great apes were stolen from the wild, a mere 27 arrests were connected to great ape trade in Africa and Asia and a quarter of these were not prosecuted.
What is the impact?
Great apes are highly social, emotional and intelligent beings. When they are stolen from their families and forests to be sold they are treated with cruelty and endure tremendous suffering. Individuals lucky enough to survive their ordeal are frequently traumatised, sick and disabled. Those that end up as illegal pets or in disreputable facilities are typically kept in inadequate conditions, such as in very small enclosures, under restraint or living in isolation.
Chimpanzees and other great apes are forest architects, dispersing seeds around their habitats, and thus serving a vital role in their ecosystems.From a conservation perspective, great ape populations affected by poaching cannot easily recover, since the young take years to mature and reproductive rate is slow. Collapses in local populations caused by poaching of particular species can have a profound effect on entire ecosystems, as the essential dynamics between species is disrupted.
Beyond the effect on the population, each individual stolen from the wild is a tragedy.
It is vital we act to stop trafficking now before it is too late.