Casualties of the Trade

Kathe found in a village, 2009

I suppose this is a good time to explain more about why I am here….the whole ‘saving the chimps’ part that I have hardly addressed.


Why DRC?

There have been volumes written on the conflict here, it’s origins and implications. To spare you the dissertation, here is the conflict and its environmental effects in a tiny nutshell:

“In 1994, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into DRC following the Rwandan civil war and genocide, settling in forest areas throughout the east including in KBNP. This destabilized the already fragile Zairian government, plunging the country into civil war and humanitarian crisis. Refugees, internally displaced people and numerous armed groups placed enormous pressure on DRC’s forests through uncontrolled hunting, harvesting of wood for fuel, habitat conversion for farmland, timber extraction and mining”  – IUCN, 2012. Grauer’s Gorillas and Chimpanzees in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Although the country is now categorized as ‘post-conflict’, the crisis continues and you can imagine how this has impacted the already endangered primate population in the country. This is even more alarming considering that DRC is the only country in the world where the Grauer’s Gorilla and Bonobo can be found. Although data collection has been almost impossible due to the ongoing conflict, it is estimated that that the Grauer’s Gorilla population (between 2,000 and 10,000) has declined by 50-75% over the last decade. The Eastern Chimpanzee, though more numerous than the Grauer’s Gorilla, is also in danger of extinction, and the remaining Bonobo population is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000.

What is happening to the great apes?

The main threats to the chimpanzees and gorillas in the DRC are poaching; massive forest degradation from human expansion, logging and mining activities; and infectious diseases spread by the hundreds of thousands of displaced people, refugee populations and militia groups that have infiltrated the protected parks. However, it is the illegal bushmeat and pet trade that is the main culprit of their rapidly declining numbers. Tracked down by dogs, the adults of the group are killed for meat to be eaten or sold in markets. The infants, if they survive, are then sold as pets locally and abroad. It is estimated that for every one or chimpanzee or bonobo that arrives at a sanctuary, 5-10 others have died in the process. The Gorilla death rate is much higher due to how susceptible infant gorillas are to stress and illness; one sanctuary in Congo reported that 80% of rescued infants died in captivity. This is in addition to the two parents (and other group members) that inevitably died in the process. IUCN documented that the Congolese authorities and its partners have confiscated 16 Grauer’s gorilla infants from military and civilian society since 2003; this is an extremely low number indicating that hundreds, possibly thousands of baby gorillas died in the process or were successfully shipped out of the country. All 55 chimpanzees at our sanctuary alone were rescued from the bushmeat and pet trade, and we are one of three sanctuaries in the country…so do the math. 

Why would someone eat a gorilla or chimp?

Because they are hungry. The average household here has anywhere from 5-8 children, and three in five of its over 60 million people live on less than $1.25 (£0.80) per day. For the refugees, militia groups and rural communities living in and around the forests,  meat is meat, whether it be an antelope, monkey, chimpanzee. For them, it is not a conservation issue or conscious decision to terminate a species, it is simply food for their families. If a chimp or gorilla is too small to provide meat, then everyone knows that the infant can be sold for a decent price, again food for their families.

Who exactly is buying these animals?

Locally, it is primarily the ex-pats working in these countries (the UN operation in DRC, MONUSCO, is one of the main perpetrators), military, wealthy officials or mineral tycoons and larger scale traffickers, for a start. The illegal great ape trade is no different than the drug trade, and they often go hand in hand; there are various tiers, players and profit margins involved that range from local hunters to large-scale international cartels. The poacher or middle man usually earns substantially less than the guy at the top, who can earn up to $40,000 for each gorilla. When you stop and think about how often you have seen a chimp out of its natural environment- in a movie or tv show, at a circus, as a photo op on the beach or amusement park, at a zoo or safari park…Michael Jackson’s little friend- all of these animals were hunted, captured, smuggled or traded and shipped off, except for those that were ‘bred in captivity’, of course (and you know where I stand on that issue). For these people, it is not a question of survival. The decision to capture or purchase an animal from the wild is a calculated, self-serving decision that will ultimately result in a miserable, abused animal trapped in a cage or chained to a tree.

The realities of the trade (cited in IUCN source listed above):

In 2006, a drug dealer was arrested in Cameroon with 50 kilo of marijuana, cocaine and a baby chimpanzee wedged between two sacks in the boot of his car. He confessed to regularly trading primates and employing at least five poachers to hunt them.

Since 2007, pending requests from zoos and private owners in Asia instigated the export of over 130 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas from Guinea. This transaction, using false permits, was only possible  through an established, well-coordinated network across Central and West Africa.

In 2010, 69 chimpanzees had left the country with valid CITES permits, declaring the animals captive-bred, all shipped off to Chinese zoos or safari parks. There is no captive-breeding facility in Guinea, but there are export routes established by Chinese ‘development’ companies. It is estimated that as many as 138 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas have been shipped to China using these routes, and these are only the ones that were reported.

Between 2005 and 2011, only 27 arrests related to the great ape trade were made in Africa and Asia combined. One-fourth of these arrests were never prosecuted.


The New Normal

ImageGoing to bed at 8pm

Waiting until the chimps stop screaming to finish my sentence

Finishing a book a week

Walking into a dark room and trying to locate the flashlight before even bothering to turn on the light switch

Inspecting all clothes and shoes for spiders before getting dressed

Speaking 3 different languages in a day

Knowing what day of the week it is based on whether there is cabbage or a pile of beans on my plate

Passing cows, goats and men with machetes on my way to work

Sharing the dinner table with 5 cats

Dousing myself with Deet instead of scented lotion

Missing my boys

Bathing with a bucket

Beans and Bananas

Being stared at…constantly