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Unheeded call of Africa's apes

Trade in primates is thriving in Egypt and spilling over to the Middle East and Asia as regulations remain paper tigers.

Image Credit:Supplied photo
Karl Ammann's documentary Ape Smuggling -- The Cairo Connection (2006) exposed the prevalence of the illegal trade in Egypt
Weekend Review

Two years after Egypt was fingered as an African hub for ape smugglers and documentary filmmaker Karl Ammann exposed the country's chimp cartels and breeding centres, the illegal trade in endangered animals continues to thrive there.

Great apes — gorillas and chimpanzees — and monkeys are being brought illegally into the country to satisfy the demand created by zoos, hotel resorts and private collectors. The trade has, eventually, spread to the Middle East and Asia, too.

It is estimated that more than 100 chimpanzees and gorillas are languishing in private zoos in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and other tourist destinations, most of them believed to have been illegally imported.

According to a recent report by the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), a body which unites sanctuaries that care for chimpanzees, gorillas and other endangered primates across Africa, a smuggling network spanning West-Central Africa to Egypt — identified in 1996 — is still actively plying the illegal trade.

Chimpanzees and gorillas are listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and it is illegal to capture, kill or sell any animal on the list.

Nevertheless, an estimated 25 chimpanzees are smuggled into Egypt every year and many of them are then sold to private zoos in the Middle East and Asia.

In 2001, an infant gorilla and an infant chimpanzee were confiscated at Cairo airport.

Customs officials who had seized the animals, however, drowned them in a vat of chemicals, instead of turning them over to some animal welfare organisation.

In another incident four years later, officials at Cairo airport came across a crate containing six infant chimpanzees and four monkeys. They resealed the crate and sent it to Nairobi.

One of the chimpanzees and all the monkeys died in transit.
Egyptian authorities have refused an offer by the PASA to underwrite DNA testing for confiscated primates to pinpoint their origins.

The authorities have also refused to provide documentation on the chimpanzees they claim to have confiscated.

The Enforcement-Needs Assessment Mission report, prepared by CITES officials following a six-day visit to Egypt in November 2007, states: “Egypt appears to have been also, for many years, both a destination and transit point for illicit trade in great apes — mainly gorillas and chimpanzees.

There have been several significant incidents and certain individuals have been identified as being involved in these activities.

However, none of them has been prosecuted or sentenced.''
John Sellar, Senior Enforcement Officer of CITES Secretariat based in Switzerland told Weekend Review by telephone that “it isn't known [outside] that smuggling is going on in Egypt''.

Sellar had travelled with the Assessment Mission, which has made 17 recommendations for Egypt to act upon.

“Egypt has now started to act on the recommendations and we have no reason to think they are not doing adequately. The Egyptian government has undertaken to give us progress reports,'' Sellar said.

The 57th session of the Standing Committee for CITES, convened in Geneva in July, however, refused to adopt resolutions for international sanctions or a crackdown on the illegal trade of primates in Egypt.

“The meeting [of the standing committee for CITES] pushed for trade sanctions to be put in place for Egypt, but we saw no reason to do that. The carrot is better than the stick and we see no reason to bring out the stick,'' Sellar said, adding that the committee would be capable of applying sanctions if and when it saw fit.

The fact-finding trip to Egypt was necessitated by the unsatisfactory situation that prevailed earlier, Sellar said.

“The issue had been raised for a few years. We had received reports that things weren't going correctly. … Last year we decided to go for ourselves to see what was going on. [But] we need to give Egypt time to implement the recommendations. It won't happen overnight,'' he said.

“There have been arrests. A covert police mission at the end of last year rescued two chimps.''

Nevertheless, the trade continues. “We know who is doing this. But knowing something and proving it in court are two different things,'' Sellar said.

According to this former officer from the Scottish police force, the people who provide CITES with video evidence, photos and reports regarding smuggling of primates in Egypt do not have an understanding of the law enforcement process.

“There was a significant amount of intelligence on smuggling of great apes for gifts or for private collections'' Sellar said.

Smuggling of primates in Africa, he said, is based mainly from and between Nigeria and Egypt.

Going by some reports that said young gorillas were being illegally traded since 2000, it appears that the trade has spilled over into the UAE .

Sellar was unwilling to give an estimate of the going price for a primate on the black market. “We would only be encouraging the trade,'' he said.

Kenya-based photographer and documentary filmmaker Karl Ammann has been investigating the smuggling of primates for years.

His documentary Ape Smuggling — The Cairo Connection (2006) exposed the prevalence of the illegal trade in Egypt.

Ammann is convinced there are four or five facilities in Egypt that hold collections of great apes.

“The same goes for lion and tiger breeding facilities. The national zoos are actively participating in breeding more and more with the government stand being that the animals are assets and the more the better,'' he told Weekend Review.

In June, Ammann visited some locations in Egypt where chimps and apes were known to have been previously kept.

At the Hauza Hotel in Sharm Al Shaikh, one of the locations the filmmaker visited, he observed that the five chimpanzees which had been there earlier were no longer there.

Ammann got in touch with the CITES authorities. Going by the information given by them, the chimps had been confiscated and moved to the Giza Zoo.

But when Ammann made inquiries, he discovered that the chimps at the zoo had been brought from other locations.

“It would be interesting to receive some information as to where these five chimpanzees are housed today. What conditions are they in? Are they in any kind of approved facility?''

“On a past visit to the Hauza Hotel the chimp keeper informed me that the owner of the hotel kept various apes at his house and farm in or near Cairo. Ashraf Enab provided me with his business card which lists his ostrich farm venture.''

Recounting his visit to the farm, Ammann said: “Going into the corresponding website, one finds the farm is located at kilometre 68 on the Alexandria road and it offers services such as providing feasibility studies for new investors in ostrich farming.

“We asked at some other farm gates and were directed to a gate and walled-in property some 3 kilometres from the main road.

"Our driver asked at the gate if we could visit the ostrich farm. We were told to wait while some phone calls were made. Then the gate, which had been open, was closed.

“[Our driver] looked [in] through the viewing hole in the gate and suggested that we leave since a man in a blue jalabiya was approaching with a semi-automatic weapon.

"We turned the cars around to leave when the person in charge [of the farm], ‘the engineer', arrived and there were some heated discussions with the drivers in Arabic which I did not understand.

"Eventually they got back in the cars and we started driving away when two shots were fired.''

Ammann feels the shots were fired over the wall as a warning.

“Our driver concluded that the level of the threats uttered in Arabic, the display of a semi-automatic weapon and the actual shooting could not possibly be all because of some ostriches or chimpanzees. There had to be other reasons. …

"There are no signs on the Cairo-Alexandria road which state that foreigners are not allowed to leave the road and enter the desert,'' he said.

Many other zoos or public displays often acquire primates through unknown means.

Whenever he is in Egypt, Ammann visits the Africa Safari Park on the Cairo-Alexandria road to monitor the status of the chimps there.

On his latest visit he saw two adult chimps and three babies at the safari park, two of which were additions to the group he had seen earlier.

He also saw three new adult chimps on a separate, relatively large island.

The owner said he had bought four of the new additions seven months earlier but wouldn't divulge where the three adult chimps had come from.

He also had 23 new baboons crammed in cages which had just arrived from a facility in Egypt.

Ammann believes a lot could be achieved in shutting down the trade of apes and other endangered wildlife into and out of Egypt if the Environmental Police Department prosecuted traders and showed that the internal trade of illegally imported apes would not be tolerated.

A known primate smuggler, Heba Abdul Moty Ahmad Saad, has now been officially listed by the Interpol.

“We were told that Heba had fled the country, supposedly back to Nigeria, and that the Environmental Police had visited her premises several times.

"There was no sign of her. I sent two contacts, who had in the past helped me to offer [her] ‘the right to respond' to allegations made in the film Ape Smuggling, to visit her premises and find out her present whereabouts. The doorman confirmed that she was in residence,'' Ammann said.

Despite recent ministerial decree updates, which take into consideration all the specific CITES-compliance requirements which make it illegal to possess, transport, export, import or trade in these species, alive or dead, no legal proceedings against Heba have been started, Ammann said.

“Even in [developed countries] wildlife conservation and animal welfare issues are generally not priorities. When it comes to poorly governed [developing] countries, enforcement becomes a joke or actually amounts to asking the fox to watch the hen house,'' Ammann said.

“I have now done four films on wildlife trade. In each case the CITES and its contravention ended up being a major component. The problem is that a lot of the key players prefer good news to bad news,'' he said.

Thanks to some local contacts, Ammann is now frequently getting information on sightings of chimps, gorillas or big cats for sale.

Some animals die because of unsatisfactory living conditions — lack of heating or cooling to deal with extreme temperatures, inadequate space or sleeping arrangements.

“We are dealing with anything between 50 to 100 illegally held apes in various facilities, some classified as ‘rescue centres', some not.

"All the owners of these facilities seem to actively trade chimps among themselves. The Environmental Police and the CITES officials know of all these facilities,'' Ammann said.

He believes the required veterinary expertise is not there to manage the apes as two chimps died due to an overdose of anaesthetic.

“The changing [number] of apes in various facilities in the past three years indicates that there is a considerable die-off and replacement from wild imports taking place.''

Deliverance from slavery for these primates can be achieved only when real deadlines and guidelines are set for the Egyptian government and private parties to comply with CITES recommendations, Ammann said.

“Accepting the status quo means condemning a large number of chimps and gorillas to death on an annual basis.

The authorities are now hiding behind the fact that not only do they know where the apes come from but also that there is no help from international experts to improve existing facilities,'' he said.

“As such, this has now become as much an animal welfare issue as it is one of conservation. While the continued smuggling of apes is tragic, the suffering of the ones [in captivity] is totally unacceptable.''

Made for the wild alone

Karl Ammann has been working to protect animal rights for many years and has produced four documentaries in three years.

Besides “Ape Smuggling — The Cairo Connection'' he also produced a film on wildlife trade along the China-Burma border which was aired in Europe and the United States during the recent Olympics.

The film depicts the animal trade in weekly markets there. Although the border posts between the countries see very little traffic in animals, there are “gaps in the hedge'' that the traders use.

As with Egypt, various broadcasters have given the Chinese CITES authorities several opportunities to respond, Ammann said.

“I went back with Spiegel TV after I left Cairo and we documented that essentially nothing has changed — except for some window dressing.''

“The four films I have done so far expose the role of some nine countries in tolerating the illegal trade in protected wildlife.

"As “The Cairo Connection'' showed, we were also happy to go after Kenya Airways and expose their role, which created a lot of controversy in Kenya,'' he said.

“The owner of the Africa Safari Park told us that he bought four chimps from within Egypt seven months ago [after a CITES visit]. I have a recording of the conversation.

"Would it not be appropriate to find out where these additional chimps came from? If the party who sold them has more? How many more?''

He believes the answer is to deal with the demand — being created by the owners of the private collections and breeding set-ups — and the supply, the dealers.

“Heba Abdul Moty Ahmad Saad and Al Shafy are probably the biggest eco-criminals operating in Africa today. The World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) estimates that Heba has been exporting some 40 chimps and eight gorillas a year for the past 30 years.

"If you then consider that at least ten animals are killed for each baby which arrives alive in Kano, Nigeria, you have the most serious ape poaching and trading situation in Africa today,'' he said.

The smugglers mainly capture baby chimps, killing the mothers to get hold of babies, as they are easier to train and to smuggle around the world.

Until Egypt steps up to international animal welfare standards, the first move towards protection of the primates could be to invite the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) to Egypt to evaluate all the facilities which hold apes and give advice on what should be done for animal welfare.

Ammann believes deadlines should be set to establish which “owners'' are serious about setting up facilities that meet basic standards for keeping these animals.

The late American animal activist Jim Cronin opened Monkey World, a sanctuary for monkeys established on an abandoned farm, in Dorset, United Kingdom. It had more than 150 animals from 14 countries.

Cronin was insistent that primates could never be domesticated or humanely trained and should never
be kept as pets.