By Will Travers, Born Free Foundation
We’ve done pretty much everything to chimpanzees.
We’ve shot them into space, used them to sell tea, smuggled their babies as exotic ‘pets’, dressed them up as clowns in the circus, experimented on them for dubious medical research – even, in some parts of the world, eaten them.
And yet we have failed to do the one thing that really matters – we have failed to protect them and their natural forest home.
The BBC’s in-depth report on the cynical smuggling of live baby chimps from West Africa to markets in the Middle East and the Far East, broadcast this week, has shocked millions.
The look of helpless despair in the face of ‘Nemley Junior’, the infant chimp recovered in a sting operation, carried out with officers from the Cote d’Ivoire Police and Interpol, touched a million hearts.
And yet, while those concerned with the ravages of wildlife crime focus on elephants and rhino, the criminal syndicates intent on illegally trading our closest living relative remain largely ignored and untouched.
Conservation and law enforcement organisations such as LAGA (Last Great Ape) and the EAGLE network, together with campaigning individuals like world-famous photographer Karl Amman, have, for too long, been lone voices, trying to bring attention to a despicable trade that has probably caused the death of 4,000 chimpanzees in the last 10 years.
Even top Interpol officials such as David Higgins and the Secretary General of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), John Scanlon, lament the low level of attention and meagre funding that has been directed towards finding and bringing to justice those behind the trafficking.
Maybe the BBC’s investigation will start to change that? No one who saw the reports can fail to have been moved – and now it is time for action.
But what will it take?
Well money, for sure. Money to fund intelligence gathering, enforcement, judicial training, assisting prosecutors, and more. For too long, wildlife crime, including the live trade in great apes, has been regarded as a low risk/high reward activity. Laws need to be changed and judges motivated to exponentially increase the risk. Long custodial sentences, together with the sequestration of assets of crime – houses, cars, bank accounts – will make many criminals think again.
How much money I can’t say, but given that the illegal wildlife trade is worth up to $30billion a year, would a few million be too much to ask?
We also need to change attitudes, and that requires political will. While it remains acceptable for wealthy individuals in the Middle East to ‘own’ a status symbol ‘pet’ such as a chimp (or a cheetah), or while audiences in China still regard juvenile chimps (the adults are too dangerous), dressed up in costumes and performing ‘marriage ceremonies’ in circuses and zoos as amusing, then change will be glacially slow.
But we have seen how fast things can change when there is political will. The fact that China is now a leader in terms of addressing the bloody ivory trade (while the UK drags its feet) is clear evidence of that.
We also need to accept our own responsibility. Look for chimps on Instagram (other social media platforms are available) and you’ll finds dozens, hundreds of ‘selfies’ featuring endangered wildlife such as chimps, lion and tiger cubs, and more. People pay to have that ‘once in a lifetime’ photo and that’s also what drives the illegal trade. We all have a responsibility to pledge never to have our photo taken with an exotic ‘pet’. And if we see some activity involving wild animals when we are traveling, we can do something about it by reporting what we see to Born Free. We can all do something!
And if there is anyone out there with the financial resources to help profoundly turn the tide then please do contact me directly.
David Shukman and the BBC, together with the dedicated wildlife officers of Cote D’Ivoire, have brought this disgusting trade to the attention of the world. Nemley Junior has been rescued from the hands of the traffickers. Maybe, just maybe, the tide has begun to turn.
Will Travers OBE
Born Free Foundation