Thailand seizes Nigeria’s smuggled ivory as rescued chimpanzees face uncertain future

Feeding Champa, the older of two chimpanzees rescued from a smuggling operation. By the time they arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal, from Nigeria, they had lost nearly half their body weight. PHOTO: Samantha Reinders for The New York Times


FG calls for Champa, Chimpu to be returned

Ivory worth 15 million baht ($469,800) smuggled from Nigeria has been seized in Thailand, customs officials said.Three elephant tusks and 31 ivory pieces weighing a combined 148 kilograms were seized at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Kulit Sombatsiri, director general of the customs department told a press conference.

The smuggled goods were shipped from the Nigeria’s commercial centre of Lagos to Bangkok on an Ethiopian Airlines flight on December 20, according to German Press Agency – DPA.Two weeks later, as no one came to pick up the packages, airport officials opened them up to find the smuggled goods, Kulit said.“The registered address in Thailand also doesn’t exist,” the director general said.

“The massive size of the tusks indicate that they did not belong to Thai elephants. We will need to conduct a DNA test to determine where they really come from,” he added.Ivory trade has been outlawed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but smuggling from Africa into Asia persists.

Thai customs officials believe ivory smuggled through Thailand is intended for China, one of the world’s biggest consumers of ivory products.But as China’s government-sanctioned ivory trade came to a close at the end of 2017, it remains unclear whether smuggling into China will drop.Since October 2016, Thai customs agents have seized more than 1 billion dollars’ worth of smuggled endangered species and their products in 52 separate cases.Thailand serves as a popular transit for the smuggling of endangered species from Africa into other parts of Asia because many flights from the continent arrive in Bangkok.

Meanwhile, a group of plainclothes investigators assembled outside an animal smuggler’s house in the Himalayas recently, waiting for signs of life.
Working off a tip that two baby chimpanzees were illegally passing through Nepal, the investigators burst into the building, where a menagerie of exhausted animals began to wail.

To get through airport customs, smugglers had stuffed the chimpanzees into the center of a giant trapdoor crate, surrounding them with cages containing dozens of parrots, pheasants and monkeys to disguise their presence. By the time the chimpanzees arrived in Kathmandu, the capital, from Nigeria, they had lost nearly half their body weight and had contracted pneumonia.

“It was difficult to get a sense that the chimps were even in the crate,” said Jeevan Kumar Shrestha, Nepal’s superintendent of police. “They could have died from suffocation,” reports New York Times.”Nepal is emerging as a major hub for criminal gangs moving wildlife and animal parts around the globe. In recent years, the authorities here have arrested hundreds of smugglers who have taken advantage of Nepal’s porous borders with India and China, corrupt law enforcement and loose customs rules to illegally transport rhinoceros horns, wool from Tibetan antelopes and live, rare owls and endangered apes.

But for seized animals, problems continue after they have been intercepted. In Nepal, the two chimpanzees rescued on Oct. 17 are now at the center of a spat between the Nigerian government, which is calling for them to be returned, and local wildlife officials, who have named the animals Champa and Chimpu and are trying to keep them at Nepal’s Central Zoo.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a multinational treaty, states that the authorities are required to send confiscated animals back to their country of origin or to an accredited rescue center.But enforcement of the treaty is not easy, said Doug Cress, the head of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an organization that provides support to animal shelters.

Most countries lack proper rehabilitation clinics for trafficked animals, he said, and for places that do have facilities, the cost of providing food and medical care to wildlife is high. He said repatriation could take years.The Nigerian government has called for Champa, above, and Chimpu to be returned.

“Simply sending those animals back to the country of origin would be reckless,” said Mr. Cress, who has two decades of experience working with great apes.
Smuggling of endangered apes, some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, has become a multi-million-dollar business. Wildlife activists say thousands of gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans are sold on the black market every year to unscrupulous zoos, as exotic pets and even to brothels.

Seized animals are sometimes needed as evidence to prosecute smugglers, which can lead to further delays in their return. That is the case in Nepal, where the police are holding the chimpanzees to help indict five trafficking suspects from Nepal, India and Pakistan who could each face up to 10 years in prison under a national law on organized crime.

The investigators, part of a sting operation called Wild Eagle, said the chimpanzees and more than 100 other animals had been shipped by Haruna Kago, a supplier affiliated with Yomu and Yami Travel Agency, a Nigerian company that manages a supply of birds and other animals in Istanbul and Doha, Qatar.The animals had passed through Istanbul before landing at Kathmandu’s international airport, where investigators say that two of the men who were arrested, Mohammad Usman and Sanjib Bhari, divided a $6,000 bribe among customs officers to give the crate clearance. Both men run bird supply stores in Kathmandu.

The crate was then transported to Mr. Bhari’s home, where officials say the two men were joined by two smuggling suspects from India, Chandbabu Mohammad Shariff Sahid and Mohammad Faim. A fifth smuggling suspect, Jawaid Aslam Khan of Pakistan, was apprehended after he landed at the airport in Kathmandu.Working off information provided by an informant who had embedded with smugglers in Nepal, the police said the suspects had planned to transport the chimpanzees to India, which has become another hot spot for animal trafficking. The police said it was still unclear what they planned to do with the chimpanzees in India.

Gopal Prakash Bhattarai, the deputy director general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, said the Nigerian authorities had contacted him and asked for the chimpanzees to be returned. But he said that the animals would remain in Nepal at least through the end of the investigation and that the Nigerian government needed to cover transportation costs for the animals.Elizabeth Ehi-Ebewele, the deputy director of Nigeria’s Department of Forestry, confirmed that she had made the call, adding that the chimpanzees were needed for the country’s own investigation.“I told Nepal that they should send them back to Nigeria,” she said by telephone.

Mr. Cress, the ape specialist, said DNA testing was still required to determine whether the chimpanzees were originally from Nigeria or from another country in Africa. He said that a representative from his organization had visited Nepal’s Central Zoo this month to see the chimpanzees and that the group was trying to facilitate their release. He said the zoo was not equipped to properly care for them.

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