Great Apes and greater challenges: Trafficking in Cameroon

Chimpanzees and gorillas are under intense pressure from criminal traffickers who sell the animals as bushmeat and pets, or sell their heads as grisly trophies. One NGO is making a difference.

Ghaa, a Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee who was poached from the wild. Photo courtesy of Limbe Wildlife Centre.

Ghaa’s life changed with the sound of a gunshot. The bullet likely killed his mother and shrapnel from the exploding shell struck Ghaa on the side of the head; a wound that will stay with him the rest of his life. Ghaa is a Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, the most endangered chimpanzee sub-species. After the death of his mother (who was likely cut up and sold as bushmeat), the young chimp was traded, then transported in the back of a truck, sandwiched between sacks of marijuana, then sold by a drug dealer.

But Ghaa’s life changed when that dealer was caught and apprehended by wildlife officials, with the aid of The Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), an African environmental NGO committed to ending wildlife trafficking. Ghaa is just one great ape among many who are taken every year from the wild to be sold as pets, or traded for their meat across Africa and around the world.

With great apes under greater threat than ever, finding ways to stem illegal hunting and trafficking is a necessity if these primate species are to be conserved.

Corruption: “Wow, what’s going on here”

LAGA was founded in 2003. Its mission, to ensure that “perpetrators involved in wildlife trafficking are prosecuted,” founder and director Ofir Driori told in 2015. The NGOs fight is against the traffickers and middlemen, along with the insidious government corruption that allows wildlife traffickers to escape justice.

“When we started, we realized that the laws were there to tackle wildlife trafficking. But there were enforcement issues and the laws were never applied,” Eric Tah, Deputy Director of LAGA, told “We set out to see what was really happening.”

Fast forward to the present, where LAGA has built up an impressive record for tackling wildlife crime in Cameroon. The NGO works in close cooperation with MINFOF, the nation’s Ministry of Forests and Fauna. Together, they claim to jail at least one trafficker per week in the country. But LAGA isn’t only after small-time poachers, Tah explains, rather it is working hard to bring down the criminals who organize and run African trafficking operations.

“There are guys with all the logistics and money to run the trafficking,” says Tah, who explains that big-time wildlife traffickers keep a pool of hunters and small-time traders on their payroll. These criminal networks are sophisticated and fluid, and perpetrators are savvy to how law enforcement works — and to whom to pay bribes — which often allows them to evade capture.

One thing is clear: in Cameroon, as in so many other nations afflicted with wildlife crime; money talks. Payoffs and government complicity is so prevalent around the globe that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared corruption to be “an insidious plague” infecting the world.

John E. Scanlon, Secretary-General of the CITES Secretariat speaking to a UNODC panel in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2015, said that “Corruption is often an integral component [of wildlife trafficking] — and [that] the impacts of this corruption are not only affecting people, our institutions and quality of life, but they are also driving certain species of wild animals and plants to extinction.”

Corruption is the grease that spins the wheels that allow a trafficked chimp, chunk of bushmeat, or ivory tusk to reach its destination unhindered by national laws and international treaties including CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). The international trade in all great ape species is forbidden by law for CITES parties, which include Cameroon and many other African nations.

Tah notes that Cameroon’s 1994 wildlife law also prohibits the trade and traffic of wildlife parts, but until recently was rarely, if ever, enforced. “When we discovered this, we said ‘wow, what’s going on here’”, he recalls. Corruption, he states bluntly, is why this law was never put into action; even the judicial system itself was compromised.

Today, LAGA says that in almost every trafficking case in which they are involved there is some form of attempted corruption; whether a pay-off to law enforcement or a customs official, or pressure placed on a judge, the result is often the same: wildlife traffickers walk away free.

“What happens is that some of the wildlife officials who are in charge of doing the hard work of enforcement, easily fall prey to corruption,” Tah explains. But not only wildlife officials are being corrupted by trafficking money: “You can look at the top level, you start seeing bribes being taken [all] along the [trafficking] route.”

Seized charred ape meat and skulls alongside a confiscated baby chimp. Photo courtesy of LAGA

Getting the law to work

LAGA’s goal is to get wildlife laws to be enforced. One way the NGO does this is by working closely with MINFOF, the government agency that deals with trafficking. LAGA trains MINFOF officers, assists in investigations, launches sting operations and follows through on judicial procedures “to make sure that nothing funny goes on.”

The NGO’s role is to “body check” the system, says Tah. This “body check” can be as simple as having a LAGA representative present to observe the legal process so that bribery doesn’t occur, or it could mean a visit to a jail to ensure that traffickers haven’t bribed their way out. LAGA also keeps the media closely informed of what is going on regarding trafficking. When government officials know there are eyes watching, they are more reluctant to act illegally, Tah says.

On undercover operations, LAGA makes use of smartphones and hidden cameras to snare wildlife traffickers. “The traffickers have a wealth of information you can get through proper questioning and investigating,” notes Tah. LAGA undercover operations tease this information out, providing a broader picture of the trafficking networks involved in individual crimes.

A common stumbling block for LAGA is the perception among many people in Cameroon that wildlife crime isn’t a very serious crime. In one 2015 case, for example, two traffickers were arrested, caught red-handed with four chimpanzee skulls in their possession in Buea, in southwest Cameroon. But the illegal traffickers were duly released because, said the authorities, the skulls were very old — a fact, that, even if true, didn’t make the possession and trading of the skulls any less of a crime.

When something does go amiss in the legal justice system, LAGA uses its influence to prompt action. “When a corruption attempt is being orchestrated, we bring things up to a very high level, and use political influence.… We inform the [Wildlife] Minister when his staff are not plain about their business, and we protest vehemently,” says LAGA’s deputy director.

Still, Tah remains realistic concerning the scale of the problem and LAGA’s ability to solve it. The system is so corrupt, he says, that any group not playing by the same rules — lacking the money and insider trading capabilities of the traffickers — is likely to be excluded from the process, and to be playing catch up with the criminals.

He suggests that LAGA’s record of success to date should not only be based on the number of traffickers arrested or convicted. For him, true success lies in the fact that the people of Cameroon are becoming more aware of the importance of conserving wildlife, that trafficking is a crime, and that trading in great apes and other wildlife results in serious punishments. LAGA has helped achieve this public perception shift through aggressive media campaigns and by shouting the wildlife trafficking issue from the rooftops — and people seem to be sitting up and taking notice.

Bushmeat and skulls

LAGA’s efforts are all the more important today in light of a fast growing human population in West and Central Africa, which is intensifying the demand for food. Bushmeat hunted in Cameroon now often finds its way across the border to neighboring Nigeria, where higher meat prices make border-crossing worth the risk of detection for traffickers.

With bushmeat a traditional and important source of protein across Africa, many people today rely on the hunting of non-endangered and abundant species for protein, and as a must to survive. But as the trade has become increasingly commercialized, rare and endangered species have been added to the menu to feed urban markets. And often this rareness is used to boost price and profit.

The number of hunters has increased, and wild places are no longer remote due to expanding road networks, David MacDonald told The Guardian in October. He is a University of Oxford professor and a member of an international research team that recently concluded a study into the global impact of bushmeat trafficking; they found that 301 mammal species worldwide are at risk of extinction from the illegal trade.

“It becomes commercially possible to make a trade out of something that was once just a rabbit for the pot,” says MacDonald. “In places like Cameroon, where I have worked, you see flotillas of taxis early in the morning going out to very remote areas, [then] loaded up with the catch and taken back to towns.”

According to Tah, commercialization is especially taking a toll on great apes; with the meat of gorillas and chimpanzees fetching higher prices as they become scarcer. This has led to a vicious cycle: as bushmeat prices rise, so do profits, spurring hunters to kill more apes. This perverse supply and demand logic, he says, is causing great ape meat trafficking to become more and more organized.

In Cameroon, the traffic in ape skulls has emerged as a “specialized” and grisly threat. Whether for traditional medicine or simply to adorn mantels as trophies, the skull trade is currently placing intense pressure on African ape populations. With the heads and skulls now worth more than the harder to conceal meat, apes are being decapitated and their bodies left behind in the forest to rot.

LAGA has increasingly seen cases in which great ape skulls were confiscated while being prepared for export to the West. The NGO reported 89 ape skulls seized in 2015. Another 63 skulls (45 from chimps and 18 from gorillas), were confiscated as of October 2016.

Thirteen chimpanzee skulls seized from two traffickers. The skulls were taken from chimps in Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve, a World Heritage Site. Photo courtesy of LAGA

While he did not specifically quantify the scale of the skull trade, Tah notes that the number of seized skulls generally represents only around ten percent of the actual trafficking that is occurring; extrapolating the numbers mentioned above, nearly 900 great ape skulls were likely trafficked in Cameroon in 2015 alone. “It’s terrifying,” Tah says, remarking on the magnitude of the trade.

The live trade and the rehabilitation crisis

Meanwhile, the trade in live chimps, such as Ghaa, the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, is continuing unabated. It typically deals in younger animals and targets pet markets and zoos around the world.

The small percentage of Cameroonian animals lucky enough to survive the horrific ordeal of being hunted, captured, traded, transported, and then successfully confiscated, in the past often ended up at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in the southwest part of the country; that’s where Ghaa now lives.

Limbe is a rehabilitation center, not a refuge, and that’s an important distinction for Guillaume Le Flohic, the facility’s manager. For him, rehabilitation is just one stage in conservation; it allows trafficked animals seized by wildlife officials to have a second chance, of being returned to the wild. Centers like this cannot be a dead-end, a place to stock previously wild animals, Le Flohic insists.

But with the trade now so large and confiscations so many, the problem has become where exactly to release rehabilitated wildlife.

“We cannot release animals here, in the southwest part of Cameroon, which is far from humans. It’s not possible,” says Flohic. Enforcement in the region’s national parks is often lax, he explains, and if the animals were to be released into those preserves, there would be no guarantee that they would remain safe; they might very quickly fall prey to hunters once again.

After 20 years of providing a safe haven for Cameroon’s trafficked animals, the center has reached a crisis point: it is now full. “We are struggling and have less capacity to help the authorities.… They can [no longer] send us the animals they seize,” Le Flohic says.

The rehabilitation center director takes a strong stance regarding law enforcement priorities. He argues that the current focus on the endpoint of the trade — on confiscating bushmeat and skulls — puts far too much attention on the shipping of already dead animals.

He contends that authorities need to place more attention on protecting wildlife at its source, in the wild; and on newly captured animals that are still alive and relatively healthy, at the start of the trafficking chain. It is against the loss of biodiversity that we must fight, Le Flohic concludes. What is dead is dead. With little protection in the wild, rescued animals’ second chances may never come.

A new hope

Cameroon is home to a spectacular array of wildlife — pretty much all of it in decline. At least two species of gorilla still dwell there; the Western Lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli), and perhaps another sub-species that has yet to be confirmed. The country is also home to the Central chimpanzee (Pan troglydtes troglydytes) and the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglydtes ellioti), not recognized as a subspecies until 1997. The plight of the Nigeria-Cameroon chimps is iconic — fewer than 6,000 may be left in the wild.

“It’s a difficult situation for chimpanzees; they’re valuable [and in demand by traffickers], they’re hunted and they’re used for various kinds of magic and traditional rituals,” says simian researcher Katy Gonder.

In many parts of Cameroon where hunting is prevalent, chimps are now extinct locally. In other places, hunting has changed their natural behavior. In the past, the animals rattled the rainforest with their raucous calls, but the canopy is now filled with an eerie silence. “You really don’t see the chimpanzees, but they are definitely there. They are just very quiet, because they are hunted,” Gonder explains.

Cameroon’s chimpanzees have so far been understudied and may hold secrets with profound global medical implications. Gonder and her team conduct research into SIV (Simian immunodeficiency virus), a virus in chimp populations whose cross-over into humans, due to consumption of infected ape meat, is believed to be the cause of HIV-1, which kills around 1.2 million people every year.

“The Senaga River is the boundary for SIV positive, versus SIV negative populations,” Gonder reveals. Why the negative population does not contract the virus remains unknown, and her team wants to find out why. The scientists are collecting chimp faecal samples to further their research, even as their numbers dwindle.

“We don’t know what secrets [the chimpanzees] hold… it could be some really important information against the global AIDS pandemic,” Gonder says. But if rampant hunting is not stemmed and chimp habitat not protected, these great ape populations may well disappear in the next fifty years. When they go, the medical secrets they hold may well go with them.

Gonder is hopeful that given time and effective law enforcement, chimpanzee populations could rebound in hunted areas. She praises LAGA and believes that their work is proving effective.

She also agrees with Le Flohic, however, and says that greater enforcement in protected areas, and of great apes in the wild, is urgently needed. There are places within Cameroon, she adds, that are getting it right, while others are little more than “paper parks” — protected areas in name only. There are strong populations of chimpanzees in these parks, but hunting is cutting their numbers.

“[In] Mbam et Djerem National Park, down the Djerem River, there is this placed called Ganga… There are a lot of chimpanzees there,” Gonder says. She has travelled there on and off for about ten years to study the chimp population. When she first arrived, the national park had just come into existence; hunting pressure was still high and enforcement low. “You could tell that there were still chimpanzees around and in pretty big numbers, just based on the number of nests and signs of tool use,” she recalls.

After enforcement increased and MINFOF and the Wildlife Conservation Society began patrols, hunting declined, and the chimpanzees are now returning to the national park. Gonder and her team recently started what they hope will be a long-term research station in the preserve.

Thanks to increased protection, Mbam et Djerem National Park now boasts a new generation of “naïve” chimps. It’s possible to sit with them for up to an hour, Gonder reports, while the parents are more “skittish”, perhaps associating the scientists with the hunters of the near past.

The return of the chimpanzees there gives Gonder hope that with greater enforcement there can be many more positive results elsewhere. Lost chimp territory can be reclaimed and the psychological and physical wounds that all too often afflict trafficked chimps like Ghaa, can heal over time.

So the battle rages on, across Cameroon and West and Central Africa. The hunters, traffickers and criminal networks look for new ways to corrupt and beat the system — making bigger and bigger profits on rarer and rarer bushmeat, chimp skulls and live animals. Meanwhile, NGOs like LAGA, and enforcement agencies like MINFOF, apply new tools and strategies for foiling the traffickers. The future of Africa’s great apes hangs in a perilous balance, and the outcome is difficult to foresee.

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