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Exposing The Secret Trade In Baby Chimps

06/02/2017 16:57 GMT | Updated 06/02/2017 16:57 GMT
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A secret network of wildlife traffickers selling baby chimpanzees has been exposed by a year-long BBC World News investigation for flagship documentary strand, Our World. The tiny animals are seized from the wild and sold as pets. The BBC's research uncovered a notorious West African hub for wildlife trafficking, known as the "blue room", and led to the rescue of a baby chimp.

In a dusty back street of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city, a tiny chimpanzee cries out for comfort.

His black hair is ruffled and his dirty nappy scrapes the concrete floor as he crawls towards the familiar figures of the men who have been holding him captive.

The baby chimp, ripped away from his family in the wild, is the victim of a lucrative and brutal smuggling operation, exposed by a 12-month-long BBC World News investigation spanning half a dozen countries.

In demand as pets in wealthy homes or as performers in commercial zoos, baby chimpanzees command a price tag of $12,500, a little under £10,000, but sometimes more.

Up to ten adults are typically slaughtered to obtain one infant alive. Poachers often shoot as many of the adults in a family as possible, preventing them from resisting the capture of the baby.

Once captured, the baby chimps then enter a sophisticated chain that stretches from the poachers in the jungles to the middlemen, who arrange false export permits and transport, and ultimately to the buyers.

The trading of endangered wild animals and plants is tightly controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) agreement. Despite this, the determination of the smugglers and the ease with which international laws on buying and selling endangered species can be evaded, makes the illegal trade in great apes possible.

Posing as an Indonesian pet shop acting for wealthy clients, the BBC team made contact with a young dealer in Guinea called Ibrahima Traore. Communicating over a secure messaging service, the team built up a relationship with Traore, aged just 22, who began to send us videos of chimpanzees - in the setting of a small room decorated in distinctive blue tiles. It became clear that the room was being constantly re-stocked.

Traore said he could sell us one or two baby chimps as well as a Cites permit. The document the BBC team received looked genuine, though it was falsely filled in, and was signed and stamped by the national parks of Liberia.

Traore sent a video of the baby chimp and himself inside the room holding a piece of paper showing the date at the time of the deal - to show that the footage was genuine and that the animal had previously been captured and was ready for sale. His face was clearly visible and he seemed not to worry about incriminating himself.

Days later our undercover reporter visited the property - purportedly to discuss arrangements for buying the chimpanzee - where they confirmed its presence and tipped off police.

This resulted in the exposure of a major trafficking ring. And during the police operation, they discovered the small blue room where the baby chimp was hidden in a wooden crate. This turned out to be a notorious holding centre for trafficked chimpanzees which wildlife investigators had called "the blue room" and for years had never been able to find - until now.

Ibrahima Traore was arrested and, along with his uncle Mohamed, is facing charges related to wildlife trafficking.

The data captured from Traore's phones and laptops revealed a goldmine of information about a sprawling international network of great ape traffickers, working across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Cites certificates found on Traore's computer documented the possible illegal movement of dozens of different primates, as well as other endangered species.

The detective in charge in Ivory Coast, Colonel Assoumou Assoumou, pledged to delve into the entire illegal supply chain - from the hunters to the traffickers to the buyers.

The baby male chimp discovered in the blue room, was initially taken to the Interpol building in Abidjan, before being handed over to wildlife officials from the Ministry of Water and Forests. He was named "Nemley Junior" after his rescue and is now safe and said to be thriving.

See the full investigation on Our World: The Chimp Smugglers on BBC iPlayer.