Ape populations around the world are facing multiple threats, ranging from deforestation and habitat loss to poaching. China has emerged as one of the largest importers of live apes worldwide, however in many cases these imports have been shady affairs, conducted without proper documents and patchy supervision. Of even greater concern is the fact that despite government efforts to dissuade zoos from holding live performances, many of these apes are being cruelly treated in an effort to woo visitors.
A chimpanzee infant sits during a recent drum performance at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park. Photo: Courtesy of Nature University
In four days the US blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will finish its run on Chinese screens. But its tale of ape dominance over humanity is somewhat ironic given the fact that mankind's closest living relatives are being pushed to the brink of extinction.
While China is not a country which normally appears in discussion on primate conservation, the country's role as one of the major importers of live chimps from Africa has thrust it into the spotlight, particularly given the sometimes brutal treatment the primates receive when being trained to perform at zoos.
Between 2007 and 2012, 138 chimpanzees and 10 gorillas were exported to China from Guinea, according to Stolen Apes, a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in March last year.
But the imports were possibly illegal and some documents must have been falsified, the report said. The CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) endorsed by 180 countries prohibits all trade in great apes caught in the wild for commercial purposes.
The imported primates were allegedly bred in captivity. But the report said that investigators determined there is no captive breeding facility in Guinea. To make matters worse, environmentalists have found that many zoos and safari parks in China use these chimps to provide entertainment rather than for breeding purposes.
Some animal welfare organizations and activists in China have begun taken action, calling for boycotts on any performances by apes.
Chinese authorities have denied any wrongdoing and declared that the country suspended all ape imports from Guinea immediately after being notified about the problems.
"All the procedures and papers we were given were complete. We have exchanged ideas with the CITES Secretariat. The problem now is that the new authorities in Guinea no longer acknowledge the authenticity of the export permits it previously granted," Zeng Yan, a staff member of the CITES branch of China (the Endangered Species Scientific Commission), told the Global Times. "There must be a misunderstanding. But it's not impossible that the Guinea authorities cheated us. Corruption has been serious in the country."
The problems are not unique to China, said 66-year old Karl Ammann, a German nature photographer and environmental activist. During a meeting which focused on the illicit trade of apes held by environmental NGO Nature University in Beijing on Tuesday evening, he said that private collections in the Middle East and Russia are also key destinations.
An ape peers through the bars of a cage. Photo: Courtesy of Nature University
In recent years, many zoos and safari parks in China have been renewing their collections to attract visitors. African great apes, especially the juveniles under 12 years old, have become popular drawcards. According to media reports, in 2009, the Taiyuan Zoo added nine chimps to its collection; in 2010, the Nanchang Zoo added six young chimps; in 2011, the Hangzhou Zoo added six chimp infants; in 2013, the Shanghai Wild Animal Park introduced four chimp infants, all below 2 years old.
"We just act as middlemen to earn commission fees from zoos or parks. But nothing can be done if the zoos have no import permits," an anonymous manager with the Tianjin Golden Land Animal Trade company told the Global Times. The company claims on its official website that it has managed the process of introducing a number of rare specimens, including elephants and chimps, for more than 100 zoos and aquariums in China in past 10 years. But he refused to reveal any information about apes.
"China appears to have an increasing middle class interested in entertainment such as zoos and safari parks and they want to see a range of popular species," Ammann told the Global Times.
Experts have found that due to the rising demand for ape infants, which used to be a byproduct of poaching for bushmeat, the poachers have started to specialize in the capture of the infants.
Ammann has been involved in the preservation of apes in Africa for more than 20 years and has been heavily involved in investigating and tracing the export destinations, and has made undercover inquiries and documentaries. He estimated that for every infant captured alive, 10 adult chimps die at the hands of poachers using shotguns.
According to the UNEP report Stolen Apes, a local poacher in Africa might sell a live chimp for $50 and the middleman will put the price at 30 times more than that. When it's exported with CITES documents, the price can reach $20,000. Gorillas sell for much more, and the price of a pair with a health certificate can reach $300,000.
An estimated 2,800 great apes - 64 percent of which are chimps - disappear from the wild each year due to the illicit trade, according to the report. Doug Cress, the coordinator of the UNEP led Great Apes Survival Partnership and the co-author of the report, admitted that the figures were "conservative," NBC News reported.
"There used to be millions of chimps in Africa. Today the remaining chimpanzees, maybe 200,000, would fit in one very big soccer stadium. Their population is declining on a daily basis," Amman said.
According to Ammann's investigations, some CITES officials in West and Central Africa even sell paperwork permits to dealers for $2,000 to $5,000.
"Pushing an honest governance and law enforcement on poachers and dealers in those African countries would be much more difficult than cutting the market demand," he explained the reason why they seek international assistance and crackdown.
Confirming the rampant fraud in Guinea, the CITES Secretariat in May 2013 urged all the other members to stop importing any specimens of CITES-listed species from the country.
A chimpanzee infant performs as a "bull" in an animal show at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park. Photo: Courtesy of Nature University
Liu Zhenni, a volunteer from Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, who is in charge of the Sina Weibo of Pax Animalis, a German wildlife protection organization, said uncoordinated management of zoological institutions has also led to criticism.
It's common for domestic zoos to stage animal shows. The young chimps are dressed up and trained to ride bicycles and scooters, and to play drums.
"I have been to several zoos to conduct inspections. Some chimps even performed 'smiles' by showing their teeth. But of course, showing their teeth means they are angry. This training goes against their natural instincts," Liu told the Global Times.
Mang Ping, a professor from the Central Institute of Socialism and a founder of Zoo Watch, said it's sad they use apes as slaves and tools to earn money.
"To amuse audiences, who are increasingly demanding tricky performances, the trainers have devised new training methods, which involve tactics like starving, beating and scaring the apes," she said at the Tuesday meeting on the issue, which drew 40 participants.
She also showed several pictures her students took last month from an animal show at the newly built Chimelong Hengqin International Circus in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. Three chimp cubs, dressed up separately as monkey Sun Wukong, pig god Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, staged a show depicting the classic literary tale Journey to the West.
Many countries have banned or restricted animal performances. China in 2010 issued a suggestion, asking urban zoos and parks to stop animal performances. But the suggestion didn't take hold.
"It's just advice, not a mandatory law. Even though we know of the regulation, we can only discourage them. And we will consider rejecting their applications for new specimen import permits in the future," said Zeng Yan, from the CITES branch of China, which is in charge of evaluating the zoo's cage facilities and veterinary services for imported animals.
Experts say that malpractice by the zoos is detrimental to the survival of the great apes.
The chimps, with a life span of 40 years, share 98 percent of their genes with humans. They have a long gestation period and care their children for years. They are highly social animals and often live in communities of 20 to 40 members.
However, some zoos have apes in solitary stuffy confinement with no toys. Ammann considers such treatment to be "criminal."
The history of zoology in China is much shorter than in other countries, Liu said, adding that the zoos in European countries and the US have both developed mature population management mechanisms.
"They almost produce apes by captive breeding themselves. Besides, they have a clear plan on breeding and reintroductions to the wild," she said. "But in China, the management is a bit chaotic. Some ape infants from different populations are put together, and their origins and deaths usually can't be publicly traced."
Zeng Yan said the authorities are collecting statistics on great apes from zoos and parks nationwide in an effort to remedy the situation.
In July 2013, the Chinese government issued a document on the development of zoos, pledging to transform the zoos from a traditional model to a more modern one within 10 years.
The guideline requires all kinds of zoos to adopt new strategies, improve housing and welfare conditions, ban any animal performances or abuse, and optimize population management and healthy displays of animals.
Grass-roots organizations and individuals are campaigning to protect the apes. Nature University initiated several activities on great apes this week, inviting media to watch films, specialists from home and abroad to exchange opinions on the illicit trade, and to give lectures in colleges.
Tan Jingzhi, a lecturer on Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke Kunshan University in China's Jiangsu Province, recently led his students to observe the Guinea chimps at the Shanghai Wild Animal Park. In addition, he has released articles on scientific websites, revealing the illicit trade of apes and appealing for more attention and boycotts.
Liu Zhenni keeps updating news about the great apes during her time off on her Weibo, which was established in July. Although she at present has just 130 followers, she is confident the influence will expand.
"Some students unions have recently contacted me, inviting me to offer more leaflets and even give lectures on the protection of apes," she said.
The CITES parties in a conference last year agreed to establish a global reporting system to monitor the illegal killing and trade of great apes. But Ammann is skeptical about the system: how can the "fox be put in charge of watching the hen house and be responsible for reporting any missing chickens?" he asked.
According to the CITES convention, the parties shall penalize those involved in the illicit wildlife trade and confiscate or return the specimens to their countries of origin. But this was not well enforced, experts say.
Interview requests submitted to the State Forestry Administration, which is in charge of endangered species import and export management, went unanswered as of press time.