A secret network of wildlife traffickers selling baby chimpanzees has been exposed by a year-long BBC News investigation. The tiny animals are seized from the wild and sold as pets. The BBC’s research uncovered a notorious West African hub for wildlife trafficking, known as the “blue room”, and led to the rescue of a one-year-old chimp.
In a dusty back street of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city, a tiny chimpanzee cries out for comfort.
His black hair is ruffled and his dirty nappy scrapes the concrete floor as he crawls towards the familiar figures of the men who have been holding him captive.
The baby chimp, ripped away from his family in the wild, is the victim of a lucrative and brutal smuggling operation, exposed by a 12-month-long BBC News investigation spanning half a dozen countries.
In demand as pets in wealthy homes or as performers in commercial zoos, baby chimpanzees command a price tag of $12,500, a little under £10,000, but sometimes more.
Each capture of a live infant like this one exacts a terrible cost on chimp populations.
The usual tactic used by poachers is to shoot as many of the adults in a family as possible. This prevents them from resisting the capture of the baby and their bodies can then be sold as bushmeat. To obtain one infant alive, up to 10 adults are typically slaughtered.
“One has to kill the mother, one has to kill the father,” explained Colonel Assoumou Assoumou, an expert in wildlife crime with Ivory Coast Police. “If our ancestors had killed them, nowadays we wouldn’t even know about chimpanzees.”
Once captured, these baby chimps then enter a sophisticated chain that stretches from the poachers in the jungles to middlemen, who arrange false export permits and transport, and ultimately to the buyers.
The animals are in high demand in the Gulf states, south-east Asia and China, with buyers prepared to pay high prices and additional fees to help bypass international controls. And while they may be well looked-after while they are young, chimpanzees soon become too strong and potentially violent to be kept in a home.
Karl Ammann, a Swiss wildlife activist who campaigns against chimp trafficking, describes it as a “kind of slavery” and warns that when chimps cease being cute infants, they face a terrible fate.
“They still have 90% of their life ahead of them,” he said. “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.”
The baby chimp discovered by the BBC had been bought from a poacher, according to one account, for 300 Euros (£257). But it was rescued en route as a result of our research – leading Interpol officials and Ivorian detectives to expose a major trafficking ring.
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