Largest confiscation of smuggled monkeys sheds light on African trafficking network

Twenty-five monkeys captured in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and seized by Zimbabwe officials were bound for export from South Africa.

Photograph by Peter Chadwick, Hemmersbach Rhino Force
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Twelve endangered golden-bellied mangabeys and 13 other monkeys were confiscted by Zimbabwe wildlife authorities in September. They await transfer to a sanctuary in their country of origin, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and may eventually be returned to the wild.

Photograph by Peter Chadwick, Hemmersbach Rhino Force

During a routine border check in early September, Zimbabwean officials confiscated 25 juvenile monkeys found in cages in the back of a truck entering the country from Zambia and bound for South Africa.

The officials, with the Chirundu Anti-Poaching Project, a joint operation between Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) and Hemmersbach Rhino Force, immediately knew something was wrong because the animals weren’t native to their country. They arrested the four men in the truck.

“They were smuggling the monkeys,” says ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo. “They tried to bribe some of the officers at the border.”

To date, this is one of the largest known confiscations of illegally traded primates in Africa, according to the U.S.-based Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), a coalition of 23 wildlife centers and sanctuaries across the continent. The case highlights a well-known overland smuggling route for live primates from the DRC through Zambia and Zimbabwe to South Africa, says Jean Fleming, PASA’s communications manager.

Thousands of animals, including hundreds of primates, likely are traded illegally along this route every year, says Adams Cassinga, a National Geographic emerging explorer and founder of the wildlife crime investigative organization Conserv Congo. He describes the DRC as ground zero for wildlife trafficking and says primates are especially vulnerable because both great apes and smaller primates are in high demand for bushmeat, the zoo trade, and the pet trade.

The confiscated monkeys are all native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): 12 golden-bellied mangabeys, two L’Hoest’s monkeys, two lesulas, two grey-cheeked mangabeys, five putty-nosed monkeys, and two Allen’s swamp monkeys. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the conservation status of wild animals and plants, lists most of these species as endangered or vulnerable.

The men, citizens of the DRC, Zambia, and Malawi, were convicted of wildlife trafficking and are now serving six month-long sentences in Karoi Prison, in northern Zimbabwe. The traffickers told ZimParks officials that they were taking the animals to South Africa. Meanwhile, the monkeys are being cared for by the Chirundu Anti-Poaching Project in a secret location in Chirundu, a village near the Zimbabwe-Zambia border, until the animals can be transferred to a sanctuary.

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The 25 confiscated monkeys—including the golden-bellied mangabey pictured here—idle in temporary holding cages in Chirundu, near the Zimbabwe-Zambia border.

The 25 monkeys were most likely on their way to zoos in China, says Gregg Tully, PASA’s executive director. As China’s middle class has grown, so has the number of private zoos in the country, eager for African primates to display.

Nearly a hundred zoos are estimated to have opened during the past five years, according to Dave Neale, animal welfare director for Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based animal welfare organization.

China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development has welfare codes for the country’s zoos, but many facilities are “operating in contravention of these national regulations,” according to a 2018 report by the Ape Alliance, a group seeking to combat the trade in great apes.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development did not respond to requests for comment.

A ‘watershed case’

“Twenty-five animals is a lot—it’s not a random act,” Fleming says. “It’s an organized enterprise to get that many animals on a truck across borders.” The four convictions, she adds, make this a “watershed case.”

Cassinga points out that the DRC is not only the origin of illegally traded wildlife but also a major transit zone for trafficked African animals. It shares nine borders with other countries, and those borders are largely porous and unmonitored.

“We have very long borders, and we’ve got one of the weakest security agencies in the world,” Cassinga says. If someone is trying to escape law enforcement in the DRC, “you can easily disappear.”

After pangolins and elephants, Cassinga says, great apes are the most highly sought animals by poachers. DRC is home to three of the most valuable species—chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos. According to a United Nations report, more than 3,000 great apes disappeared from the forests of Africa and Asia on average each year from 2005 to 2011. Smaller primates, including most of the monkeys confiscated in Zimbabwe, are also in high demand; their size makes them easier to conceal and transport, Cassinga says.

DRC has so many “incredible animals, endemic animals—you can’t find them anywhere in the world,” says Franck Chantereau, president and founder of JACK Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a rescue facility in Lubumbashi for chimps and bush babies orphaned in the illegal trade. “The country is losing animals at an incredible rate,” he says. The sanctuary, a member of PASA, has agreed to provide a home for the confiscated monkeys, who should be arriving any day.

Chantereau theorizes that because the 25 monkeys are juveniles, they may be victims of a bushmeat syndicate, like many of the orphaned chimps his sanctuary takes in. Poachers are paid to kill adult animals for their meat, and their young, which offer no more than a pound or two of meat, are smuggled into the pet or zoo trade.

Representatives from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, which manages national parks and is responsible for safeguarding protected species, did not respond to requests for comment about primate trafficking in the DRC.

A hub for illegal export

Although the four men arrested in September told ZimParks officials that they were headed for South Africa, the intended recipient there is unknown, says Smaragda Louw, director of Ban Animal Trading (BAT), a South African animal rights organization. Louw is the co-author of a 2020 report with the EMS Foundation, another South African conservation group, on the country’s live wildlife trade with China.

South Africa is a hub for the illegal export of live wild animals and animal parts, Louw says—everything from primates and African grey parrots to reptiles and giraffes and lion bones. China is a big market, but other Asian countries, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, are destinations too.

The smuggling has been going on for decades. For example, in the early 2000s, four western lowland gorillas known as the “Taiping Four” were captured illegally from the wild in Cameroon, shipped through South Africa, and ended up in Taiping Zoo, in Malaysia. The animals were eventually returned to Cameroon.

In August 2019, a group of 18 chimpanzees from Hartbeespoort Snake and Animal Park, near Pretoria, were sold to Beijing Wild Animal Park in China, according to the BAT/EMS Foundation report.

The chimps were listed as captive-bred on their permits, but according to the report, South Africa has no registered breeding facilities for chimpanzees, and “there is no available evidence to confirm that the chimpanzees…were not wild-caught and imported illegally into South Africa.” Chimps aren’t native to South Africa—they’re found only in central and western Africa.

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At least 5,035 wild animals were exported from South Africa to China between 2016 and 2019, the report says. Many of the Chinese destinations listed on the export permits “are pure fiction,” it claims. They either didn’t exist, couldn’t be found, or were not what the exporters said. Some, for example, were office buildings and hotels.

‘A majestic mess’

The reason for South Africa’s booming export business comes down to disorganization and lax oversight, according to Louw.

To send many species of primates abroad legally, exporters must obtain a permit under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement among nations that regulates the global wildlife trade.

Each of South Africa’s nine provinces issues its own CITES export permits, instead of the national government, like in most countries. It’s also all done on paper. “We don’t have a centralized permit database in South Africa,” Louw says. “Everything is in files, and in boxes….It’s a majestic mess.”

It makes illegal trading easy, she says, because traffickers can reuse old export permits, changing information such as the exporter’s address or the species of the animal. “There’s no way for the people…to check whether that permit has been used before,” she says.

South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries “is not aware of any challenges” with its paper-based CITES permit system, wrote communication director Albi Modise in an email. It’s inaccurate to say South Africa’s permitting system facilitates trafficking, because “once a permit has been used, it cannot be reused as it will be cancelled at the point of entry.”

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These Allen’s swamp monkeys, seen at the San Diego Zoo in 2006, were rescued from the illegal bushmeat trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two of this species were also among the group of monkeys rescued in September.

Even if illegal traders are apprehended, they aren’t necessarily prevented from obtaining export permits in the future, Louw says. For example, a South African reptile trader named Beric Muller was found guilty of smuggling frogs to Taiwan without the necessary export permits, but after paying a fine, he continued to apply for and receive export permits, according to Louw.

International regulations don’t require exporting countries to ensure that the destination address is legitimate, she says. This means that endangered wild animals may end up in amusement parks, circuses, and laboratories. That contravenes CITES’s requirement that certain protected species not be traded primarily for commercial purposes, Louw says.

Instead, it’s up to the authorities of the importing country to make sure the destination facility is appropriate, Francisco Pérez, a CITES spokesperson, wrote in an email. Import permits are required for species granted the highest level of protection under CITES, including all great apes. For species with lower levels of protection, import permits are not required, which means it’s not mandatory for either country to verify the destination.

When the BAT/EMS Foundation researchers investigated the destinations listed on export permits for many of the live animals shipped from South Africa from 2016 to 2019, they found that many of the destinations weren’t legitimate.

Some zoos in China, for example, acquired endangered animals to display them primarily for commercial benefit. Other animals ended up on breeding farms, where they disappeared into a “black hole,” Louw says.

Modise denied the department had issued any permits violating CITES regulations. There is “no existing legal tool which empowers South Africa, as the exporting country, to monitor [CITES] compliance” in importing countries, Modise said. “The onus is on the importing countries to ensure that they have domestic legislations in place.”

‘The lucky ones’

It was “breaking my heart” that no one else could take in the 25 confiscated monkeys, says Franck Chantereau, of JACK Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Although they were species he wasn’t familiar with, and he was short of both money and space, he knew he had to step in.

Chantereau raised money to build four cages, each about 20 feet high, and three outdoor enclosures, with grass and trees for the monkeys to explore.

They’re expected to arrive in Lubumbashi any day, but JACK likely will be a temporary home. When the monkeys are older and stronger, authorities in the DRC will approve their being returned to the wild, he says.

He calls these monkeys “the lucky ones.” But Chantereau wonders about all the other victims, the ones that don’t get a second chance.

“What about the thousands of monkeys who are reaching the capital of Kinshasa every month…just for bushmeat?” he says. “We are going to empty the forest forever.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.