At a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking at the U.S. Department of Interior on Friday, African Wildlife Foundation's (AWF's) Director of the African Apes Initiative, Jef Dupain, testified before council members and the general public on the growing threat of great ape trafficking and the impact this illicit industry poses to wild populations of bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa.
The testimony came as the President's Advisory Council met to draw attention to species—other than elephants and rhinos—impacted by the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade, including pangolins, tigers, reptiles, cranes and great apes. An estimated 3,000 great apes are lost every year as a result of the black market in apes. Demand for live great apes stems mostly from Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Most trafficked apes end up in zoos, amusement parks, research facilities or as part of someone's private animal collection.
"Ape trafficking is growing as demand abroad for exotic pets and zoo and entertainment animals grows," said African Wildlife Foundation African Apes Initiative Director Jef Dupain. "The nightmare for many of these victims does not end with their capture in the wild but instead—if they don't die in transit—continues for the rest of their life, sometimes 40 years."
Four of the world's six great apes are found in Africa. These include the chimpanzee, bonobo, western gorilla and eastern gorilla, of which the mountain gorilla is a subspecies. Except for the mountain gorilla population, all of Africa's great ape subspecies are declining due to habitat loss, bushmeat hunting, disease and wildlife trafficking. Ninety percent of great ape habitat will be disturbed in some way by humans by 2030.
"Today's close proximity between humans and great apes means the opportunities and temptations to capture them from the wild and sell them on the black market is increasing," explained Dupain.
AWF made several recommendations to the Advisory Council about the role the U.S. government could and should play to combat the illegal trade in great apes. These included:
- Elevating visibility around the great ape trade, especially in range and destination countries, to raise awareness and to help mobilize resources and action on the issue
- Helping range and destination countries establish national customs units which focus on environmental crime, and further leveraging the expertise and resources of the U.S. government to support law enforcement training
- Urging CITES at the next Standing Committee meeting in August 2015 to establish a Great Ape Working Group, which will permit more detailed discussion around CITES regulatory processes and how to make it more effective at controlling fraudulent use of CITES permits
- Assisting range countries, with the help of governmental and non-governmental organizations, in the reclamation and repatriation of trafficked great apes
AWF further urged the U.S. and others to lend greater support and visibility to the illegal great ape trade database being developed by the Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP), which will track and make available to the public all confiscations, deaths and losses of trafficked apes, as well as those presently held in captivity.
"It is time the trade in great apes is exposed and closed," Dupain said.