Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters file
A Thai wildlife official holds an orangutan while an Indonesian official scans its microchip before it is repatriated to Indonesia on Nov. 21, 2006. The animal was one of 50 smuggled orangutans rescued from a Thai amusement park.
LONDON — The illegal trafficking of great apes by organized crime gangs and others prompted international action Wednesday that was hailed by experts as a major step toward saving them from extinction.
For the first time, governments agreed to set up a global reporting system in a bid to establish how many of the animals are being taken from the wild to perform in theme parks or to be shown off by wealthy collectors.
The decision was made by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora, which has 177 member countries, including the United States, at its 16th conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
The move came after a United Nations body made the first attempt to quantify how many apes are being stolen from their natural habitats in Africa and South-East Asia.
The United National Environment Program produced a report, Stolen Apes, earlier this month that estimated nearly 3,000 great apes were stolen alive every year.
The report said that a local poacher might sell a live chimpanzee for $50, but a dealer could resell the same animal for 400 per cent more. Orangutans can fetch $1,000 at resale, it added, noting gorillas illegally sold to a Malaysian zoo in 2002 reportedly cost $400,000 each.
Drugs, guns, money laundering
UNEP said in a statement that this illicit trade was "increasingly linked to organized crime and trans-boundary networks that move the animals in the same ways as drugs, arms and laundered money."
Doug Cress, one of the authors of that report, said Wednesday’s decision by CITES showed it recognized there was "an environmental crisis and that it needs to bring its full weight to bear on it."
Cress, of the U.N.-backed Great Apes Survival Partnership, admitted the figures in the Stolen Apes report were "so conservative" that they were "almost laughable."
A baby mountain gorilla is safe with Rwandan authorities after they rescued the endangered animal from poachers. TODAY.com's Dara Brown reports.
"We were trying to err on the side of caution, but we know they are far worse," he said. "That’s why this reporting mechanism that CITES adopted today is so important."
Cress said the demand for stolen apes came mainly from from zoos and theme parks in Asia and wealthy collectors in the Middle East.
"A zoo will say, 'We need two chimpanzees, go get them' and the dealers will fill these orders," Cress said. "It’s not a byproduct trade, it’s a systematic, cold and calculated business."
"Whereas in the Gulf states, it tends to be private menageries," he added.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species,the populations of the eastern and western gorilla, bonobo, chimpanzee, Sumatran and Bornean orangutan are all decreasing.
The western gorilla and Sumatran orangutan are critically endangered, the others are all endangered. It also lists humans, saying the population trend is increasing and its status is of "least concern."
'Our closest cousins'
Asked whether great apes would survive this century, Cress said it was "a coin flip right now."
"I think we’re waking up to the problem. The problem is human beings are in direct competition with great apes," he said. "They are our closet cousins we’re fighting with. We’ll win because we’re that much smarter, but we will also lose by winning."
"Unless we give them the space they need, it could be a bleak future," he added.
The CITES decision was also welcomed by Wendy Elliott, manager of WWF International's species program, who described it as a "significant" and "very positive sign of intent."
"The future for great apes across both Africa and Asia is really concerning," she said.
But Elliott said while international trafficking was a problem, the trade in apes for their meat at a local level was "the key factor that’s probably driving the poaching."
"If you are a wealthy or high status person, serving gorilla at a banquet gives you a certain amount of gravitas," she said.
"Unfortunately we’re seeing decreasing levels of great apes almost everywhere," Elliott said.
However she said there was "one glimmer of hope" in Uganda, where numbers of mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla, have been increasing, partly because they help provide an income for local people through eco-tourism.