After a year-long investigation, the BBC have uncovered a tragic trafficking network spanning much of west and central Africa, trading in our closest relatives: chimpanzees. The baby apes are taken from the wild, often ripped from their dead mother's arms, before being smuggled and sold to zoos and wealthy individuals as pets.
Spanning six countries, the undercover probe by BBC News revealed the atrocious smuggling ring that sells the poor apes for up to $12,500 each, including the location of the infamous “blue room”. This is a space in which many charities have seen pictures of poached chimps being held, but no one knew what country, let alone which city, it was located in.
The investigation found the blue room to be in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and once they had confirmed that the traders and apes were there, they informed Interpol and the local police, who then raided the compound and arrested the perpetrators. They also identified the tactics and routes by which the apes are smuggled, using fake permits to ship them to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and China, where they are sold to wealthy individuals and zoos.
While the distressing details of this network are just coming to light via this investigation, the trade in the endangered chimpanzees, as well as gorillas and bonobos, has been known for some time now. Sanctuaries across Africa are packed with the animals, most of which have been confiscated from households and traders.
The scale of the trade across the continent is a travesty. When one chimp is recovered, the poor animal’s initial capture from the wild is soaked in blood. To get a single baby chimp, it is estimated that on average up to 10 adults will be killed. To make matters even worse, only around one in five infants removed from the wild make it to their final destination, as they frequently die on route from wounds inflicted during capture or poor treatment by the traders.
This means that for every chimp that is currently residing in a sanctuary, up to 50 may have died in the process to take it from the wild. That appalling figure puts into perspective the vast scale of the operation that has been occurring, largely without scrutiny.
This horrific cost on chimps is steadily pushing them closer and closer to extinction. Estimates now suggest that if the current rate of poaching continues, there will be no more wild chimps within just a few decades. Are we prepared to let our closest living relatives – these sentient, clever beings – be consigned to extinction due the demand for them as pets and status symbols?