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.
Blue room discovered
After months of work building relationships with dealers across a number of countries, our team tracked down the smuggling ringleaders to a house in Abidjan. Posing as prospective buyers, undercover reporters confirmed the infant chimp was at the property before alerting Interpol and local police who were waiting nearby.
During the police operation, a small room about the size of a shower cubicle was discovered, decorated with small blue tiles. Inside it, they found a tiny chimp cowering in a wooden crate.
The discovery was not only a moment of liberation for the little animal, but also a crucial turning point in a long search by wildlife campaigners to track down a notorious “blue room”, known to be used as a holding pen by traffickers and constantly restocked.
For years, when dealers had circulated videos showing captive baby chimpanzees ready for sale, the same distinctive blue tiles were visible. Understood to be in West Africa, no-one knew which country it might be in, let alone which city, until our research led police to it.
This revelation provides new insight into the potential scale of loss suffered by great apes, including chimpanzees.
An estimated 3,000 great apes, including orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, are lost from the wild every year as a result of illegal trade, according to the UN Environment Programme. They are either sold, killed during the hunt or die in captivity. About two thirds of the apes lost are chimpanzees – an endangered species.
Western chimpanzees, like the one freed in Abidjan, are judged to be especially vulnerable, so are categorised as critically endangered. There are no more than 65,000 left and probably far fewer.
Number of chimpanzees living in the wild
Some 1,800 apes were seized by authorities in 23 countries while being trafficked between 2005 and 2011, according to the Great Ape Survival Partnership, an alliance of more than 100 governments and other organisations. A quarter of those apes rescued were chimps. Although it is unknown how many smuggled apes reach their destinations undetected, the BBC’s investigation suggests the total is almost certain to be higher than previously thought.
Buying fake permits
The illegal trade in great apes is made possible by the determination of the smugglers and the ease with which international laws on buying and selling endangered species can be evaded.
Trading of endangered wild animals and plants is tightly controlled under the Cites agreement – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – which aims to protect all wildlife under threat.
Under the convention, chimpanzees, which are awarded the highest level of protection (a listing under what is known as Appendix 1), can only be exported under a very limited number of exemptions. For example, the animals need to have been bred in captivity (which is not known to happen in West Africa) and exporting and importing organisations need to be registered with Cites.
Main international routes for illegal trafficking of great apes
Despite this, the BBC’s investigation revealed that with the right money and the right connections the smuggling networks can evade these controls. In fact, our team was able to buy two permits to export chimps for $4,000 each.
Posing as buyers for a client in Thailand, the team obtained their first permit in the Egyptian capital Cairo, which has long been known as a centre for animal trafficking.
Our undercover reporter began negotiations over a secure messaging service with two pet traders, Mahmoud Khaled and Ramadan Abdelnaiem. The pair shared videos of infant chimps held inside the infamous blue-tiled room and offered to secure Cites permits allowing the animals to be exported.
“When [the]thing is shipped and put in boxes, you will receive a video,” he said. “When it goes to the airport, you receive a video, when it lands at the airport, you will receive a video. [When] it is shipped, you will receive a video. When it is put in the airplane, you receive a video…”
While Khaled offered to obtain a Cites Appendix 1 permit, enabling the export of chimps, Ramadan suggested an alternative technique: getting permits for less endangered animals and then hiding the chimps among them. Both these methods are recognised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as “wildlife laundering”, when smugglers use fraudulent paperwork or mix protected species with legal shipments of wildlife.
How some apes are smuggled in crates
Here, this baby chimpanzee was hidden below animals including parrots, civet cats and mongoose which have less protection in international law. The shipment was made from West Africa and destined for Nepal.
The chimp shown in this video, however, never made it. Messages found on the dealer’s mobile phone revealed that the chimpanzee had died, still hidden in the crate in transit at Istanbul airport.
The BBC undercover team accepted Khaled’s offer and picked up the Appendix 1 permit two weeks later. Clumsily filled-in, with spelling mistakes and other inaccuracies, it appeared to be signed and stamped by a Jordanian government official. It showed our fake address and a simple internet search would have revealed it was not a Cites-registered institution.
The next step was to see if we could arrange to buy the chimps, but at this point Khaled, called the deal off, afraid of being exposed. With the Egyptian deal fallen through, the team decided to deal directly with the source of the chimpanzees in West Africa.
This time pretending to be an Indonesian pet shop acting for wealthy clients, our team made contact with a young dealer in Guinea called Ibrahima Traore. Again communicating over a secure messaging service, the team built up a relationship with Traore, aged just 22, who began to send us videos of chimpanzees – once more in the setting of the blue room. It became clear that the room was being constantly re-stocked.
Traore said he could sell us one or two baby chimps as well as a Cites permit. This time, the document the BBC team received looked genuine, though it was falsely filled in, and was signed and stamped by the national parks of Liberia.
As the relationship with Traore developed, he began to reveal the scale of his illegal operation. He said he held chimpanzees at farms in Guinea, his home country, as well as in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ivory Coast.
In a conversation filmed secretly, Traore boasted of being able to circumvent international controls and having “someone important on the inside”.
“I’m not afraid – you can import everywhere you want – send everywhere you want,” he said.
Cites permits obtained by the BBC
Traore also told of how he shipped chimpanzees without any Cites documentation at all – by hiding them amongst other less-protected animals. One of his videos demonstrated how to smuggle chimps in secret compartments.
‘Abuse of permits’
Confronted with the BBC’s evidence, the secretary-general of Cites, John Scanlon, said that while he wasn’t shocked by the ease with which fraudulent permits for the export of baby chimps were purchased, he was “dismayed”.
Although he believed the permit system was “sound and secure” overall, he said there were instances, particularly in West and Central Africa, where there was “an abuse of permits”.
“There is corruption in the system,” he told the BBC. “We’ve brought it to the attention of our governments at a standing committee meeting several months ago. We said if we can’t get a handle on corruption, we are not going to stop illegal trade in wildlife.”
For this reason, Cites was pushing to introduce an electronic system of permissions that would be harder to fake, he explained.
“These things are not easy, but we are onto it, we are seeing it and we are doing our best.”
‘Suspensions in place’
But, despite this, Mr Scanlon said he did not believe there was a surge in the illegal trade in great apes, including chimpanzees.
“If we did, I can assure you there would be a rush of attention to this issue and a rush of resources to stop it, but we are not seeing it,” he said.
He stressed that wherever the abuse of permits was observed, the governments of those countries implicated were warned and punished. There were about 30 trade suspensions currently in place, he confirmed.
Permits found as part of the BBC investigation
Law enforcement efforts, however, appear to lag far behind the rates of illegal trade. Just 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia in connection with the great ape trade between 2005 and 2011, and one-quarter of the arrests never led to prosecutions prosecuted, according to the UN Environment Programme.
At Interpol, which facilitates international law enforcement cooperation, wildlife smuggling is a priority, but national governments have stipulated that the funding and investigative effort should be focused on the highest-profile threats, such as the slaughter of elephants and rhinos.
David Higgins, manager of Interpol’s Environmental Security Unit, admitted the region of West Africa had not been a priority – and nor had the smuggling of great apes.
Because such crimes did not threaten the economic well-being of a country, or its political stability, they did not compel governments to respond, he said, and the resources were simply not there.
“Without the funding, we can’t do anything,” he said. “So with primates, unfortunately, our information is not as strong as it could be.”
He urged states to step up and offer the required financial investment.
“Yes, we need the global community’s attention on this and we call upon that level of support.”
Sanctuary for chimp
Back in Ivory Coast, it was the trafficking ringleader, Ibrahima Traore, who eventually led our reporters – and Interpol – to the blue room.
He sent a video of the baby chimp and himself inside the room holding a piece of paper showing the date at the time of the deal – to show that the footage was genuine and that the animal had previously been captured and was ready for sale. His face was clearly visible and he seemed not to worry about incriminating himself.
Days later our undercover reporter visited the property – purportedly to discuss arrangements for buying the chimpanzee – where they confirmed its presence and tipped off police.
Ibrahima Traore was arrested and, along with his uncle Mohamed, is facing charges related to wildlife trafficking.
The data captured from his phones and laptops revealed a goldmine of information about a sprawling international network of great ape traffickers, working across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Cites certificates found on Traore’s computer documented the possible illegal movement of dozens of different species of primates, as well as other endangered species.
The evidence also implicated Traore’s brother, Aboubacar, who was named in a Cites document last year because of his smuggling of endangered birds including African grey parrots.
Ibrahima Traore’s father, Alhassane, also appeared to be involved. Records showed his bank account in Guinea’s capital Conakry was used to deposit payments – and it was that account that the BBC team was told to use.
The detective in charge in Ivory Coast, Colonel Assoumou Assoumou, pledged to delve into the entire illegal supply chain – from the hunters to the traffickers to the buyers.
“In 10 years, in 20 years, we won’t have any more chimpanzees,” he warned. “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.”
As for the baby male chimp discovered in the blue room, he was initially taken to the Interpol building in Abidjan, before being handed over to wildlife officials from the Ministry of Water and Forests.
They took him to the zoo in Abidjan, where he was fed and comforted and given a name by keepers: Nemley junior. He was then shown an older female who acts as an adoptive mother to two other infant chimps.
After being gradually introduced to this new family, Nemley junior may live with them. But caring for an infant chimp is a long-term and costly commitment so two wildlife organisations with experience of infant chimpanzees have offered him homes in specialists sanctuaries, including the Born Free Foundation.
Will Travers, president of Born Free, described the exotic pet trade as “sickening and cruel” and promised to help relocate the baby chimp.
“If given the opportunity, we will do all we can, with the help of our specialists and the full participation of the local government agencies, to try and relocate Nemley junior to a registered chimpanzee sanctuary, where this little victim of the illegal wildlife trade can be given a life worth living, in the company of other chimps, for the rest of his life.”
‘Clever sentient animals’
But whatever happens next, the orphan has certainly been left traumatised, according to Dr Cleve Hicks of the University of Warsaw, a specialist in chimp behaviour who set up a chimp sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Mainly they have a broken heart – they’ve seen their mothers die,” he said.
Dan Bucknall, of the wildlife charity Tusk, agreed that recovery could be “very difficult with such clever sentient animals” but added that chimpanzees were resilient creatures.
“In the right hands, with good carers, and with constant attention, they can do OK and the prospects are good.”