Last Great Ape (LAGA) Wildlife Law Enforcement had been watching a couple of suspected wildlife traffickers for some time. The pair were tracked as they traveled from southern Cameroon to the capital, Yaoundé. Then, in September 2017, they were apprehended and one of their backpacks opened. What it contained was truly shocking.
The suspected traffickers were found carrying a petrified animal and some 80 pounds of pangolin scales. Pangolins are an extremely sought-after animal in Asia where the meat is regarded as a delicacy. Meanwhile, the scales themselves are used in traditional “medicines.”
Around a million pangolins have been removed from the wild illegally in the last ten years, making them one of the world’s most trafficked animals. Their numbers in Asia have dwindled dramatically and, while the ones found in Africa are slightly safer, increased demand means they too are now under threat. Indeed, two species of pangolin are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The two suspected traffickers, a 23-year-old man and a woman aged 22, were stopped in a hire car and arrested. The woman had traveled to Yaoundé from Mintom a day earlier, carrying the pangolin scales with her. The man followed later with the backpack.
Following their arrest, the two were taken to a police station and remanded in custody pending trial. The first hearing, during which they pleaded not guilty, was held on September 15, 2017. The judge dismissed their bail application and sent the pair back to the Kondengui central prison in Yaoundé.
Jean Ngnondete is from Cameroon’s regional delegation of the ministry of forestry and wildlife (MINFOF). “Accompanied by LAGA, we stopped a car and arrested these suspects who had suspicious-looking bags,” he explained. Everything found in the search was, as Ngnondete states, “all forbidden by the 1994 law.”
But it was what was inside the backpack that makes this trafficking story truly distressing. Zipped up in the holdall was a living mandrill. Ape Action Africa reported that the backpack was “filled with urine and excrement.” Futhermore, the mandrill was “soaking wet from sitting in his own waste.”
Ape Action added that the suspects had “admitted purchasing the mandrill from a local man for 2,000 CFA [around $4] and intended to sell him for nearly 200 times that price.” Time had run out for the pangolins, but thankfully the mandrill was still alive when the authorities pounced.
Mandrills, like pangolins, are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The animals are found mostly in evergreen rainforest areas. Sadly, though, their habitat is being heavily affected by ruinous deforestation.
The destruction of mandrill habitats over time is one reason for the decrease in the species’ numbers. However, a more immediate threat is posed by bushmeat dealers. Mandrills, particularly those living close to towns or main roads, are hunted for food. Bushmeat is highly prized, especially in Gabon where some of the mandrill population resides.
Ape Action Africa defines bushmeat as “the meat of any wild animal hunted for food.” The list includes elephants, antelopes, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys and crocodiles. Apes are especially vulnerable because of their slow reproductive rate; females generally give birth only every three to five years.
Hunting apes for bushmeat is, in fact, illegal. However, with the meat increasingly seen as a highly valuable delicacy, the law is often broken. But it’s not the poachers making the mega bucks; the big money is generally found further along the smuggling line in Asia and South America.
In January 2017 the BBC revealed some of the shocking statistics behind this secretive trade in wild animals. Quoting the UN Environment Program, the corporation stated, “An estimated 3,000 great apes, including orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, are lost from the wild every year as a result of illegal trade.”
Happily, the mandrill confiscated in Cameroon escaped being sold as meat. Aged about one, the animal was clearly too young to be separated from his mother. Young mandrills tend to stay with their mom until the female gives birth to another juvenile.
The rescued mandrill was transferred to a sanctuary at Mefou and given the name of Mintom, after the place where he was found. Vets at the sanctuary will ensure his health is up to scratch before he joins a group of other young mandrills.
Mefou Sanctuary is run by Ape Action Africa, a conservation organization in Cameroon. Its stated aims are “to address the immediate threats faced by gorillas and chimps in Africa, and to work with communities to develop long-term solutions to ensure their survival in the wild.”
Formerly known as Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund, the group also cares for sick and injured gorillas and chimpanzees. Furthermore, it takes in young primates who, like Mintom, are orphaned and too young to be separated from their mother.
Mintom was reportedly starving when he arrived at the shelter. Once fed, though, his inquisitive nature began to show. A video posted to Ape Action Africa’s Facebook page declared “it wasn’t long until he started exploring his new home.” The footage showed him feeding himself and even catching insects. “He got a cricket in less than a minute!” the video stated.
Ape Action Africa says that, once strong and healthy, young orphans like Mintom are reintroduced to groups of their own species in “safe and controlled environments.” The organization hopes that “one day the great apes and monkeys in our care will be released back into the wild, where they belong.”
As for the pair who were caught allegedly smuggling the mandrill? Well, if convicted, they face up to three years in prison and/or a sizeable fine of about $18,000. Food for thought for any other would-be traffickers, perhaps.