Exporting Chimpanzees from South Africa to China: Utterly wrong but technically allowed by CITES loopholes?

It has come to our attention that 18 chimpanzees have recently been exported from South Africa to China (https://news.sina.cn/gn/2019-09-16/detail-iicezueu6071304.d.html?from=wap).

When we enquired about this export with Mpho Tjiane (Deputy Director CITES Policy Development and Implementation in the national Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries – DEFF) he would not confirm the export was from South Africa but he did refer us to Jonathan Denga (Director: Biodiversity Management in the department of Rural, Environmental and Agricultural Development in the North West Province). This indicates very strongly that the chimpanzees were exported from the North West Province. As far as we are aware the only place in the North West province that breed and has chimpanzees is the Hartbeespoort Snake and Animal Park (https://www.hartbeespoortsnakeanimalpark.co.za/). All our attempts to engage with and confirm this with both the North West province (including their spokesperson) and the Hartbeespoort Snake and Animal Park have been unsuccessful, as neither returned our calls or responded to our enquiries.   

A recent long-term investigation by BBC reporters David Shukman and Sam Piranty revealed a secret global trade in baby chimps, in which the animals are seized from the wild and sold as pets or to zoos. Trade in endangered species is regulated by CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – an international treaty that aims to protect endangered species from being traded. According to the BBC, under the convention, ‘chimpanzees, which are awarded the highest level of protection (a listing under what is known as Appendix I), can only be exported under a very limited number of exemptions. For example, the animals need to have been bred in captivity and exporting and importing organisations need to be registered with CITES.’ See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-5e8c4bac-c236-4cd9-bacc-db96d733f6cf?ocid=socialflow_twitter&ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbcnews&ns_source=twitter

CITES is, unfortunately, riddled with loopholes and the BBC investigation showed that with the right money and connections the smuggling networks can evade controls. The CITES permit – obtained through an undercover investigation – itself was riddled with spelling mistakes and other inaccuracies. A simple internet search would have revealed that the fake address was not a CITES-registered institution. In 2016, Don Pinnock reported on an investigation by Karl Amman which found that Chinese officials often sign off on CITES import permits knowing full well that there are no registered captive breeding facilities in the permit’s country of origin. In that instance, it was Guinea. See: https://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/opinion/wild-apes-traded-in-cites-false-permit-scam-2084223

Chimpanzees are not endemic to South Africa but are bred in this country for clearly commercial purposes. There is zero conservation value in doing so and huge welfare concerns with keeping intelligent animals in captivity. But the unanswered question is whether it is legal to export captive-bred Appendix I species? Appendix I offers the highest levels of trade prohibition under CITES, whereas Appendix II offers less protection. The present and obvious loophole is that captive-bred Appendix I species are treated as Appendix II species, which means that they can be traded for ‘non-commercial’ purposes. The only requirement is that the importing country determines that the exchange (which could be for an extraordinary amount of money) is non-commercial. By CITES’ definition, apparently, ‘non-commercial’ is defined as not being sold on to another facility beyond the listed importing facility. No checks and balances exist to ascertain – on the exporting side – whether the importing country has done its due diligence properly.

On the CITES website, under Frequently Asked Questions, the relevant question appears: ‘Do animals that were bred in captivity also require permits?’ The answer given reads:

Yes. However, if a commercial breeder of a CITES Appendix-I species fulfils certain conditions and is registered with the CITES Secretariat, specimens from the breeding operation may be treated as if they are of Appendix-II species, meaning that they can be traded commercially (permit requirement is not waivered). If the animals were not bred for commercial purposes they may be traded simply with a certificate of captive breeding.

The obvious loophole is that a commercial transaction can still take place but be deemed – expediently – by the importing country’s management authority to be ‘non-commercial’. Under the cover of ‘non-commercial’ transactions, breeders in South Africa can export captive-bred chimpanzees. Unscrupulous breeders, to maintain genetic variation among their ‘stock’, may extract chimps from the wild and export them under the CITES loophole. However, it appears from the CITES website that such facilities must still be registered with the CITES secretariat.

As mentioned, we were referred to the North West provincial authority by the national CITES directorate of DEFF, which clearly indicates to us that the 18 chimps exported from South Africa to China came from the North West province. We therefore contacted the CITES authority in the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), who informed us that – under the current application of CITES regulations – the captive-breeding facility does not have to be registered with CITES. The only requirement is that it be registered with the relevant provincial authority and that the importing country’s CITES management authority determine that the transaction is non-commercial. The only facility that we know of in North West that houses captive chimpanzees is a commercial entity called Hartbeespoort Dam Snake & Animal Park. It is not registered with CITES as a captive breeding facility. The facility also appears to breed tigers (also an Appendix I species) and lions.  A major loophole is that zoos (including private zoos) are deemed non-commercial facilities by CITES and this is obviously a massive issue that needs urgent attention.

CITES does, however, recognise that ‘the significant increase in trade in produced animals has given rise to some concerns related to the control of the production and trade, including false or incorrect declarations of the source of the animals.’ At the 17th Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg in 2016, members expressed concern that:

‘the incorrect application of source codes and/or misuse of false declaration of source codes can … have negative implications for conservation and undermine the purpose and effective implementation of the Convention… there is growing evidence of cases of illegal trade in wild-caught specimens of CITES-listed species, through fraudulent claims that wild-caught specimens are captive-bred… in some cases there are doubts as to the legal origin of the parental stocks of captive bred specimens that are bred outside their natural range.’

South Africa is of course ‘outside


natural range.’ Despite the concern expressed by CITES, South Africa’s official reading of the situation is that if a facility that is breeding Appendix I species in captivity for locally commercial but internationally ‘non-commercial’ purposes, then that facility is not required to register with CITES. It can also trade in live chimpanzees without DEFF’s knowledge, as the provincial authority does not report to the national department on live exports of Appendix I species. So-called ‘exotics’, even Appendix 1 listed animas such as chimpanzees and tigers have little to no protection in South Africa.

This is Orwellian dystopia. Appendix I is designed to protect highly endangered species from being traded. But you can breed chimpanzees (Appendix I) in captivity in South Africa (never mind whether the original parents of the ‘stock’ were extracted from the wild’) for locally commercial purposes, but sell your chimps to China as long as the buyer claims that the importing purpose is non-commercial (even if they pay a lot of money for it). The regulations here certainly seem to be ambiguous. At the very least, facilities breeding Appendix I species in captivity should be registered with CITES. Beyond that, a credible set of checks and balances needs to be implemented to ensure that the importing entity is legitimate and genuinely non-commercial. Even there, though, lies a rub. We are meant to believe that a local commercial entity has sold 18 chimps to China for non-commercial purposes (but nonetheless for a lot of money). It may be technically within the bounds of this convoluted regulation, but it defies logic, coherence and rationality. It also seems blatantly immoral to exploit a loophole for commercial gain under the pretext of a ‘non-commercial’ transaction.


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