In terms of biology, humans and the planet's other great apes share a common branch in the tree of life. But sadly, despite their near-humanity, our primate cousins continue to be threatened by those who consider them mere commodities.
A new study from the United Nations estimates that 22,000 great apes were captured or killed in the wilds of Africa and Asia between 2005 and 2011 -- and the trend shows no signs of slowing. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, “Stolen Apes: The Illicit Trade in Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Bonobos and Orangutans,” states that nearly 3 thousand great apes continue to be killed or captured across Africa and Asia every year, pushing some of our closest primate cousins alarmingly close to extinction.
The driving factor behind these troubling figures, reports the UN, lies in the burgeoning illicit wildlife trade, once a localized market that is increasingly grown into a highly-profitable network of organized crime -- on par with the drug and arms trade.
Many of the captured apes are sold to as exotic pets to wealthy collectors, tourists, and occasionally, to zoos.
According to figures cited in the report, a poacher may sell a live chimpanzee for $50, whereas the middleman will resell that same chimpanzee at a mark-up of as much as 400 per cent. Orangutans can fetch $1,000 at re-sale, and gorillas illegally sold to a zoo in Malaysia in 2002 reportedly went for $400,000 each.
“It is important to establish baseline figures for the illegal trade in great apes, even if these numbers only hint at the devastation,” says Doug Cress, of the Great Apes Survival Partnership. “Great apes are extremely important for the health of forests in Africa and Asia, and even the loss of 10 or 20 at a time can have a deep impact on biodiversity.”
Cress tells the AFP that to capture a single ape alive means that many others must die.
"You cannot walk into a forest and just take one. You have to fight for it. You have to kill the other chimpanzees in the group."
Although traditional conservation efforts have been aimed at protecting apes from bushmeat poaching and habitat loss, efforts to combat organized wildlife trafficking has been largely unsuccessful. The UN report states that "only 27 arrests were made in Africa and Asia in connection with great ape trade between 2005 and 2011, and one-fourth of the arrests were never prosecuted."
The UNEP report calls for better stewardship of great apes' protected habitats from the threats of wildlife trader, stating that enforcement measures currently in place are "lagging".