Around the World: Tracking the Illegal Trade in Great Apes

Written By: Matt Brunette, JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: Great Apes

Like the trade in ivory, rhino horn, and shark fins, trafficking in great apes makes up a significant portion of the growing multi-billion-dollar trade in wildlife. Around the world, crime networks buy and sell at-risk species, making significant profits while devastating ecosystems.

Unlike elephants and rhinos, however, great apes are often sold live to supply the exotic pet trade and as entertainment in circuses or zoos. The animals are also sold for meat – so-called bushmeat – in local markets.  The two practices are intimately linked and have become multi-million-dollar commercial enterprises operating on an international scale. The illegal great ape trade is primarily profit motivated with the most value in live apes.

Though hard data on great ape trafficking is hard to find, experts at wildlife organizations such as GRASP (Great Ape Survival Partners), a United Nations agency, have been closely monitoring how the trade works and patterns in the movement of great apes.

The trade follows a complex supply chain through multiple actors from poachers living in ape habitat to smugglers operating in major cities and airports to final destination – which could be almost anywhere in the world. For every ape captured in the wild, it is estimated that an average of 5 to10 other apes were killed. Chimpanzees have complex social structures and are often killed by poachers while defending their group. The apes that are killed in this process are sold and consumed as bushmeat. 

Credit: GRASP

The poacher typically sells the orphaned ape to a series of middlemen who act as a go-between for international buyers. A poacher may initially sell a baby chimp for around $50 to $300U.S., while the middlemen mark up the cost considerably, sometimes by as much as 1,000%. From loosely policed ports, chimpanzees and other great apes end up in wealthy homes or unprincipled zoos in countries primarily in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

Credit: Tom Cardamone, GF Integrity

Chimpanzees make up the majority of the trade in African great apes. Of the estimated 22,000 great apes lost to the illegal trade between 2005 and 2011, approximately 64% were thought to be chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have a larger population distribution relative to other African great apes and ongoing deforestation, mining, and agricultural activities in chimpanzee habitat make them easier for poachers to find. Though other great apes are thought to be primarily traded within country, chimpanzees are 50% trafficked nationally and 50% trafficked internationally.

The scale and impact of the illegal great ape trade make it one of the most pressing ecological issues we face. Solving the crisis will not be easy. Solutions must be multi-faceted and involve people at the organizational, governmental, and individual levels to ensure these animals and their habitats can be protected.

Through the #ForeverWild campaign, the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is working to end the illegal ape trade. JGI’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo provides protection and care for orphaned and injured chimpanzees, many of which were confiscated directly from poachers and middlemen involved in the ape trade. We refer to the work at Tchimpounga as the “triangle” approach to ending wildlife trafficking. The other two points of the “triangle” include raising public awareness in local communities about the importance of conservation and the consequences of poaching; and supporting law enforcement agencies to reduce criminal activity and reinforce reporting.

Please consider becoming a Chimp Guardian by adopting a chimp or a Chimp Champion who helps save chimp habitat.