Great apes in Africa face the severe threats of habitat destruction and poaching for bushmeat. Now, they’re also increasingly targeted to supply international demand for pets and zoo attractions, according to a new report published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. So far this problem has largely escaped the notice of most groups tasked with protecting Africa’s great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, and two species of gorillas.
All four species are endangered—most critically—and are protected by national and international laws. But few groups or governments track ape seizures, making it difficult to know how serious a threat poaching for the live animal trade poses. Circumstantial evidence suggests the problem is significant and growing, says Daniel Stiles, an independent wildlife trade investigator in Kenya who authored the report.
“International policymakers, conservation organizations, and donor governments have not grasped the staggering extent of the illegal trade in African great apes,” says Iris Ho, head of campaigns and policy at the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), a nonprofit coalition of 23 primate sanctuaries in 13 African countries, who was interviewed for the report.
Working with a network of undercover investigators and informants, Stiles found that advertisements for live baby great apes are on the rise on WhatsApp and social media. Since 2015, he documented 593 ads for great apes posted by 131 individuals in 17 countries. Prices for the animals have quadrupled compared to a decade ago, with chimps now selling for up to $100,000, bonobos for up to $300,000, and gorillas for up to $550,000. The new report doesn’t cover orangutans, which live in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Most of the African apes go to China, Pakistan, Libya, or the Gulf States—especially the United Arab Emirates—where they become pets or, increasingly, attractions at private zoos. Some 10,000 zoos opened in China between 2013 and 2020, nearly doubling the total number, Stiles reports. It’s easier for locally registered zoos to obtain import permits for strictly protected species than it is for individual citizens, which helps explain zoos’ proliferation. “Registered zoos provide legal cover in the guise of rescue or conservation centers,” Stiles says. “They also offer laundering facilities for animals smuggled in and sold as captive bred.”
In most countries, once a wildlife facility is registered with local authorities, he adds, “you can call them zoos, rescue or conservation centers, sanctuaries—whatever you want.”
Another sign of increasing demand is the escalating number of young apes taken in by PASA-accredited wildlife sanctuaries in Africa since 2019, Ho says. PASA sanctuaries look after more than 1,100 chimpanzees, the majority confiscated from traders. Rescued young apes require permanent care, but most PASA sanctuaries are already operating at capacity, and all are underfunded.
Stiles found that traders mainly source baby apes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and West African countries, especially Guinea. For every kidnapped baby chimp, poachers usually kill six to seven adults. Experts also estimate that five to 10 babies die from injuries, illness, or mistreatment for every animal that makes it to buyers abroad.
Traders smuggle some great apes out of Africa in legal shipments of monkeys or birds, the report notes. Increasingly, though, animals are brought to registered zoos, including in South Africa. Evidence suggests that these facilities obtain legal export permits for wild-caught great apes by falsely claiming the animals were bred in captivity.
'I was tired of battling the bureaucracy'
Little is being done to stop this new trend in illegal trade, Stiles writes, in part because three of the most important international groups tasked with protecting great apes have yet to pay serious attention to the problem.
The Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP)—a United Nations alliance—includes combating illegal trade among its priorities. But according to Doug Cress, GRASP’s former leader, the group “barely functions anymore.” Cress resigned in 2016 because the UN agencies that were supposed to be supporting the effort never treated it as a priority, he says. “I was tired of battling the bureaucracy.”
Johannes Refisch, who took over GRASP’s leadership, says that “halting illegal trade is a priority.” Refisch pointed to an ape seizure database that GRASP launched in 2016 as the group’s “main instrument to better understand the drivers of illegal trade so that we can help address it effectively.”
Stiles says that when he requested access to GRASP’s database, in August 2022, he received “a ridiculous report” containing a table of seizure numbers that had no details attached about locations or dates, and no citations. “It had no data,” he says. “Totally useless.”
Refisch declined National Geographic’s request to view the database.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on endangered species, is home to an expert group dedicated to great apes, but it doesn’t prioritize illegal trade, according to Stiles. This stands in contrast to IUCN specialist groups for different species, which actively report on illegal trade. “Look at pangolins,” Stiles says. “No one even knew what the heck a pangolin was until the IUCN specialist group started reporting and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got tens of thousands of pangolins being trafficked’—and now it’s a big deal.”
“It’s insane that’s not being done with great apes,” he adds.
"The IUCN,” says Dirck Byler, of the organization’s Primate Specialist Group, “considers all threats to great ape populations as serious, and many of its members have dedicated their professional careers to reducing or reversing the threats to great apes, including efforts to reduce the illegal ape trade.”
CITES, the global treaty to ensure that international wildlife trade doesn’t threaten the survival of species, lacks a working group dedicated to great apes, Stiles reports. At last year’s CITES conference, where representatives from 183 countries and the European Union met to make decisions about trade in endangered species, great apes weren’t even included on the agenda. “Because this trade is international, it falls under the purview of CITES,” Stiles says. “But CITES is not taking action.”
Ben Janse Van Rensburg, chief of the enforcement unit at the CITES Secretariat, says that individual countries are responsible for making sure trade in protected species remains legal. In cases where concerns are raised, he says, the Secretariat “has issued a statement to provide factual background.”
CITES member countries are also responsible for setting the agenda for discussion at conferences and meetings, he says, and for establishing working groups for specific species.
Stiles counters in his report that representatives from Niger, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Uganda did attempt to create a CITES working group dedicated to great apes, in 2014 and 2016. But these requests, he says, were “refused” by the CITES representative chairing the meeting.
Iris Ho adds that in March 2022 Gabon, supported by Senegal, Guinea and Nigeria, requested—to no avail—that great apes be put on the agenda for the CITES conference later in the year. She says the U.S. also emphasized the importance of paying attention to this issue.
Without concerted global action, the problem will only worsen, Stiles warns. Already, he’s seeing signs that great ape trade is spreading to India. “If the international community does not begin to take great ape trafficking seriously, it will continue to grow, threatening the very survival of our closest relatives,” he says.