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Click to like this: Is Instagram a hub for illegal ape deals?

  • A search on the photo-sharing site Instagram reveals a booming population of baby chimpanzees and orangutans in wealthy Arab Gulf nations.
  • Sellers offer endangered apes for sale on the site, apparently in violation of international law.
  • At press time, Instagram and its parent company Facebook had not responded to requests for comment on the discovery of this apparent market for endangered animals. Past crackdowns by online retailers eBay and Amazon appear to have effectively shut down illegal wildlife trade on those sites.

On September 9, I arrived back in Mombasa, Kenya, after an investigative mission to Dubai and Egypt for the independent conservationist Karl Ammann. No region of the world makes it easy for foreigners to document trade in endangered animals, but the Middle East is especially hard to work in. Karl’s writings on his previous missions there are as informative for the stories of stonewalling bureaucrats and run-ins with threatening animal breeders and police as they are for the facts gathered.

As tough as the trip was, we did make some interesting finds. One is the possible existence of a super-smuggler of endangered chimpanzees and orangutans who remains completely unknown to the public, though not necessarily to law enforcers. We now know his real name, but on my return in September we had only a nickname for him, the first half of which — Gorge — I use here, and the second half of which is the name of a country home to wild chimpanzees.

Gorge would still be unknown to us if an Egyptian conservation friend hadn’t mentioned him to me during our trip, at the end of August. She knew almost nothing about this man, but he was a foreigner and was stirring resentment among Egypt’s well established exotic animal sellers, many of whom keep their breeding facilities in a village near the Giza pyramids. An elder of one of those families had called our friend repeatedly to complain about this Gorge.

Shady dealers complaining about another shady dealer. When that happens, you know it could be big. And it happens to be a major tool we use to make breakthroughs.

We asked our conservation ally to work her network to shed some light on this character. It was to little avail: as I write this, she still claims she is being stonewalled. People there were “afraid” of Gorge, she told us in an email.

Egyptians have been relaying exotic animals, including chimpanzees, from Africa to collectors worldwide for generations. They are experts at it, and have come to see this business niche as an entitlement.

What kind of man scares people like them?

I would eventually come back to Gorge, but in an unexpected place.

Online and out of control

In Mombasa I put away my hidden cameras and other investigative equipment and began tying up some loose ends with Internet research. At some point I drifted onto Instagram. To most people, this website needs no introduction. Launched as recently as 2010, it has become the world’s largest photo sharing site. To most users it is a place to make their family, travel and social pictures look a little more attractive than on Facebook, which now happens to own Instagram. Thousands of shops also use the site to display their wares.

Smuggling gorillas is an even higher stakes venture than chimps and orangutans. It’s far more expensive (in part because many of the babies die) and few people attempt it. Open evidence of it would be rare on the Internet, but I took a chance and typed in the #gorilla hashtag. I scrolled through a few linear feet of shots taken by tourists in Rwanda and Uganda, and then I saw a picture of a baby gorilla with an unusual caption. It was posted by a pet shop, and the caption read: “Coming soon.”

The audacious post by a Dubai pet seller that launched our probe into Instagram. Note the high number of likes. The inset shows a baby gorilla actually in the possession of a Middle Eastern Instagram member. It appears to be in bad health and its fate is unknown. Photos are screenshots from Instagram.

Surely a joke, I thought. Smugglers wouldn’t go on a huge site like Instagram and basically say: “Hey everyone, we’ll be offering one of the world’s rarest and most iconic rainforest mammals, just message us on this WhatsApp number!”

I clicked on the account name, Amazon Pet, and browsed the shop’s other pictures. This was no gag. Amazon Pet is a serious business offering a wide range of exotic animals to people in the United Arab Emirates. Hyper-patriotic like many of their fellow citizens, the owners proudly tag their animal shots with #mydubai. More than 43,000 people follow Amazon Pet’s posts. And yes, it’s on WhatsApp, so if you have the bucks, your dream ape is only a few taps away. (This app, we learned, is the favored communication platform of wildlife sellers on Instagram, who must find that its privacy and cheapness override the inconvenience of typing out messages.)

Even more disturbing images followed. This same Dubai-based store had posted a truly haunting photo, reproduced here, of a young chimpanzee riding atop a luggage trolley at what appears to be an Arab Gulf airport.

This picture brought me up short. Was I actually looking at a chimp being flagrantly smuggled across international borders, the equivalent of a suitcase of cocaine or elephant ivory open wide in an airport lobby?

A baby chimpanzee in transit, apparently in a Middle Eastern airport, as posted by a Dubai-based pet shop. Instagram’s endangered animal dealers seem to have no fear of being disciplined by the site’s owner, Facebook. Photo is a screenshot from Instagram.

Skeptics might counter that it’s just a picture. We acknowledge that an online photo of a pet chimpanzee or orangutan is not, in itself, proof that it was illegally acquired. However, veterans like Karl, who has been studying the trade for decades, know that legal avenues for acquiring these animals are extremely small.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES; see sidebar) is the legal framework governing international trade in wildlife. Under CITES it would be legal to buy and import a chimpanzee if it were at least a second-generation captive-bred animal, coming from an accredited breeding facility. However, only zoos or research institutes in good standing, of which there are none in the Arab countries, are allowed to make such purchases — never commercial clients.

Furthermore, our veterinary contacts in the Gulf have been unable to identify any accredited breeding facilities there, and we know that none exist in Africa. Egypt has at least one facility breeding chimps, but it isn’t CITES-approved, at least in part because it refuses to allow legitimate foreign conservationists to inspect it. And its babies wouldn’t be legal anyway since they aren’t second generation. Breeding facilities in the Western nations are broadly compliant with CITES export rules, and even an unscrupulous Western breeder could not maintain the flow of young animals we were about to see.

Mindful that Amazon Pet is a widely followed account that takes itself rather seriously, we leaned toward taking this image at face value. And the usual questions swirled. Where had the baby chimp just come from? In what tropical African nation was it stolen, probably after seeing its mother cut down by gunfire as she tried to protect her baby? What are the precise routes and logistics now in use to move illegal animals like this out of Africa?

Those questions remain unanswered. But as investigators, Amazon Pet’s Dubai location made sense to us. Long before Instagram and other social sites, we’d seen problems there. Middle Easterners have always loved keeping animals, with their taste tending toward the exotic. Tropical birds, monkeys, and cheetahs have long been fixtures in the homes of wealthy and royal Arabs. Pet apes have also shown up in the mix. “I would guess that almost every palace there has a least a chimp or an orangutan baby. Terrifying!” we were told by a foreign vet who has worked extensively in the Gulf.

What is changing now — and further threatens the survival of some of these species — is the rocketing number of millionaires in the Gulf. Many of them wish to emulate the lifestyles of their social betters. Often the first toys they will buy are a high-end 4×4 vehicle and a ridiculously expensive and impractical exotic pet, like a lion, chimpanzee, or orangutan, to drive around with. Instagram has no shortage of pet ape photos from the Middle East, notable either for the way the animals are treated or for the sheer number that some people own. We’ve assembled a few examples in the montage that accompanies this article. Note the junk food — and nicotine — added to the diets of some of them, and the baby chimp set loose among serval cats, which might well maul it.

Instagram is littered with images of apes in unnatural and sometimes abusive poses. It is unlikely that any of the apes were acquired legally. Account names that appear to be the owner’s real name have been blurred. Photos are screenshots from Instagram.

While the iPhone cuddles and emoticon-laden captions seem to show real love on the owners’ parts, the horrors that are committed so this privileged group can have their jungle pets can’t be ignored. Karl has estimated that 10 chimpanzees must be killed to get one baby suitable for selling. Adult chimps are big and strong, and they aggressively protect their young. (It’s reasonable to ask what the source nations of equatorial Africa are doing to stop the trade. But their enforcement is hobbled by underfunding, corruption, and in some places wars. On the other hand, the well paid, crisply uniformed customs inspectors in the Gulf countries don’t face such structural challenges and seem well equipped to intercept a dodgy animal shipment.)

These babies also face a potentially dismal fate. Like the pythons that outgrow their owners’ homes and are dumped in the Everglades swamps, apes lose their cute appeal as they grow out of childhood. Instagram is awash with snaps of diaper-clad baby chimpanzees and orangutans, showered with toys and treats by their proud owners. Yet chimps should live about 60 years in captivity, orangutans about 50. Where are the older ones? With the ape “baby boom” we’re seeing now, it’s questionable whether the likely surge of cast-offs could be housed in some of the world’s biggest and best-funded zoos, much less the average-size facilities in the Middle East.

This Dubai animal collector has a lion-filled mansion and a whopping 850,000 Instagram fans. Here he poses with Dubai’s most expensive house pet, a young chimpanzee. The account name appears to be the owner’s real name and has been blurred. Photo is a screenshot from Instagram.

A bottomless pit

Back on Instagram, I was finding it hard to wind up my search. Probes into illegal animal trading have traditionally been a slow process involving plenty of hot, tiring legwork and tedious personal networking. From time to time we’d score a few “easy” finds via Internet searches.

Now, on Instagram, we were unearthing new owners, buyers, and sellers of endangered apes almost by the day. Though designed to show photographs, Instagram has enough elements of a social media site to allow communities to form. Account holders can follow other accounts, and going through these lists we began to trace a circle of pet-ape enthusiasts. Or perhaps a cluster of different circles would better describe it, since the diverse people involved aren’t necessarily one big happy group. The Egyptians’ reaction to the foreign interloper Gorge makes that clear.

Many of the Instagram accounts we reached via these networks are private, posing a further obstacle. We cannot check them for ape photos and any accompanying offers to sell without obtaining the account holders’ permission, and our undercover requests have so far been rebuffed. (Gorge, who we’ll say more about below, is one of those maintaining a private account.) We assume that the private accounts constitute a further reservoir of endangered animals in limbo, including but not necessarily limited to apes.

Since there is essentially no legal way for ordinary Gulf citizens to acquire apes, it’s reasonable to conclude that the Gulf apes were illegally gotten. But how?

One back door method that Karl and others have documented in the past is to bribe CITES country officials to issue a bogus export or re-export permit stating falsely that the animal was captive bred. Yet even these permits, if they existed, should have been filed with CITES’ Geneva office as the rules require. But when we went through the CITES database we found just a handful of ape exports to Gulf countries in the past decade. This could not explain the many baby chimpanzees showing up on Arabs’ Instagram feeds. The data for orangutans is even more clear-cut: not a single orangutan has entered any Gulf state since 2005 with a CITES permit, whether honestly or falsely filled out. And there look to be a lot of orangutans there.

Stills from a video showing how a Gulf-based dealer smuggles his baby chimps in fake grain bags. Photos are screenshots from an Instagram video.

There has to be some other pipeline in use. We’re forced to accept the likelihood that babies are being moved totally outside the CITES system. That is, smuggled. And possibly in the company of many other endangered, CITES Appendix I and II species. Tracing this pipeline is now an urgent priority for us.

And we may already have made a promising start.

Curious about Gorge

Gorge continued to tantalize us. As of August we knew his nickname, but still nothing else to flesh out this mystery man who was sowing fear among his competitors.

Then we had a breakthrough, and this one also came courtesy of Instagram. I spent over 50 hours on the site looking at ape pictures and videos and combing the captions and comments. I arrived at one video of two chimps (a screen capture of which is shown here) that stood out because the Qatari-based poster, another endangered animal supplier that has our attention, openly stated that they were for sale. Not only that, they mentioned the price, and for good measure the name of their supplier.

“For Sale Chimpanzee young age of about two months in collaboration with Gorge [last name], Kuwait 120 Negotiable” reads the Arabic caption. (120,000 Kuwaiti dinars equal about $36,000.)

The Instagram post that tied it all together: an offer of chimpanzees for sale, with interested buyers advised to call Gorge, the nickname of a shadowy Arab Gulf dealer. “Worthy of all the good,” Gorge comments next to the video (underlined in orange). Some identities have been blurred out to protect our ongoing investigation. Photo is a screenshot from Instagram.

Gorge is a relatively rare name in the Arab world, though not unheard of given the Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and neighboring countries. We can’t rule out the possibility of multiple Gorges separately working this trade out of the Gulf. But top-level exotic animals like apes are a rather small niche. These aren’t crates of tomatoes being imported and sold.

This video post also reinforced something I had suspected since finding a Facebook account that matched his full name: Gorge is a Kuwaiti, or at least describes himself as such. The Facebook page was fairly inactive and offered little additional detail about him. It did, however, feature some photos, such as the one shown here of a wheelbarrow full of baby orangutans, that support our theory about his line of business.

Gorge appears eager to promote what he evidently considers to be his superior live animal offerings. Next to the video of the baby chimps he comments, in Arabic, “Worthy of all the good.”

Still another find, a most curious one, soon came. I dug further into the Instagram accounts, widening my search by looking at followers and followers of followers. It was another lucky accident, but a Kuwait pet dealer’s account carried a curious graphic (shown here) that was a montage of exotic animal pictures, including rare cats and orangutans. Superimposed in large lettering was a by-now-familiar name.

A tribute to a man who seems almost godlike to his retailing partners. Boys put up posters of their sporting heroes. Now we had pet retailers who worshipped a man who could obtain virtually any forbidden animal.

An unusual tribute to the mysterious dealer Gorge, posted by another exotic-animal seller, possibly a trading partner. Photo is a screenshot from Instagram.

We found more Instagram pet “stores” posting similar tributes to Gorge. So far they are limited to Kuwait and Qatar. Could this upstart network be the source of the Egyptian dealers’ frustrations? They would be unlikely to welcome new competition from a Gulf citizen, especially given the latter’s greater access to wealth.

The extent of Gorge’s role in the supply of apes to the Gulf countries, especially his supply routes and methods, still needs more light shed on it. However, that video posting with the two chimps for sale leaves little doubt that he’s an active player. More evidence may lie undiscovered in the accounts that we haven’t had the chance to look at yet. One factor, though, seems to be in our favor, and that is Gorge’s own penchant for self-promotion, both through his Instagram comments and the idolizing graphics people post for this “Elvis” of animal dealing.

Another surprise — and an awkward question

The Facebook account that bears Gorge’s full name and promotes his live animal pipeline in a notably unsubtle way. Identifying details have been blurred. Photo is a screenshot from Facebook.

Since I began probing its account, Amazon Pet, that purveyor of the most illegal of illegal animals, the baby gorilla, has announced that it will open its first mall outlet in Dubai. We don’t expect diaper-clad baby chimps and orangutans to be romping in the front window of the shop in full view of everyone. But deals can be finalized in a back room after pictures have been shown and down payments handed over. We will obviously have someone checking this shop.

We will keep one good eye on that gorilla posting. As mentioned, baby gorillas still in need of their mothers are exceedingly difficult to transport legally, much less the smugglers’ way in small and inadequate boxes. However, what we’ve learned about the Gulf’s exotic pet people has taught us not to underestimate them. No one would try anything so crazy? The Gulf gang just might.

When we searched eBay and Amazon for terms like “chimpanzee” and “orangutan” we turned up videos and stuffed toys — no offers of live animals. Those two companies’ past crackdowns seem to have got the message out to animal sellers that they should try elsewhere. Which the sellers have evidently done. Instagram, by contrast, appears to be a safe space for people who offer illegal pets for sale and post pictures of them being abused.

We sent messages to executives at both Instagram and Facebook, sharing our key findings and asking for comment. As of publication day, we’d received no reply.


CITES and great apes

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was drawn up in the 1970s to regulate the cross-border movement of endangered species. Its rules prohibit all exports of wild-caught great apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. Captive-bred apes can be exported subject to strict rules: the breeding facilities must be approved, and only second-or-greater-generation apes — grandchildren of the wild caught ones — can be eligible for export. However, if the original breeding stock was illegally acquired, its offspring are disqualified from export. (Sellers commonly reassure buyers by saying their captured animals were bred in captivity.)

CITES is a decentralized system that leaves enforcement and reporting to its member countries. Each country is supposed to have a Management Authority (MA) that issues export permits for animals that are legally exportable. But as my collaborator, the independent conservationist Karl Ammann, and others have shown, corrupt MAs in African countries with wild apes have allowed these animals to leave with improper permits, often after large bribes were paid. The importing countries, which are generally wealthier, also bear responsibility under CITES for catching these permit scams; Karl found that laxity at their end is just as great a problem.

Although CITES does not have its own police force with powers to seize or arrest, the secretariat in Geneva does have punitive powers which, according to Karl and others, are underutilized. Under Article 8 of its charter, member countries must arrange for the “confiscation and return” of animals whose method of acquisition violated the rules at any stage. The violation could have occurred even before the animal was born if, as noted above, its parents were obtained improperly.

CITES is as responsible for endangered animals smuggled without any CITES paperwork as it is for those moved with permits. That is because no-permit smuggling can be considered a violation of CITES rules. Article 8 binds its member countries to “prohibit trade in specimens in violation” of the rules.