The Cairo Connection: How this vile smuggling trade is allowed to flourish
13 October 2006
By Anton Antonowicz
The chainsaw slices through the base of yet another huge tree in the African forest. We cannot hear it. But we know it happens every day.
A few weeks later, a man fires his shotgun in the new clearing. Again, it is unheard.
The hunter's first cartridge kills a female gorilla. His second slays the male he knows will try to charge.
The hunter relaxes, reloads and searches for the young who will be nearby. He has killed the family's elder offspring for bushmeat. The babies he may keep for sale.
Logging. Hunting. Death. Profit. And the looming extinction of humanity's closest relatives, the African great apes - chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.
Since the opening of Africa's forests to European and Asian logging companies, the traditional consumption of wild animal meat in central Africa has exploded. What once was subsistence is now a commercial and completely unsustainable business.
Unchecked, the rate of slaughter of the great apes will bring about their extinction in a few decades. And what of those left alive?
It is a decade since this newspaper launched a campaign to break the trade. It began when I travelled to Cameroon - a nation described as "the most corrupt on earth" by the Environmental Defense Fund.
With campaigning photographer Karl Amman, I witnessed bushmeat trains arriving in Yaounde, the capital. This trade, supposedly banned' this train slowing half-a-mile before the end of the line to offload three tonnes daily. Not a policeman in sight. Just a machete-wielding gang which ordered us away or face a slashing. We stopped to eat at Hotel Le Ranch and found two baby chimps in a wooden cage. Next to a tin of flyinfested fruit was a cardboard whiskybox marked "Fragile". Inside, beneath a soiled rag, a month-old baby gorilla.
The hotel manager offered it for sale at £300. We ignored him. He shrugged. There were plenty others ready to pay the price. And they still are.
For the past year, Karl and I have tracked one of the worst of their kind. The journey traced through Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya and on to Egypt...
This story begins in late January 2005, when six chimpanzees - with a black market value of £10,750 each - were confiscated at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Kenya. The consignment, disguised as a kennel of dogs, had begun its journey from Kano, Nigeria, to Khartoum, Sudan. It travelled on as a tarmac transfer to Cairo. Rejected there, it was redirected to Nigeria, where Kenyan officials impounded it.
ONE chimp died while the five others, so starved they were eating their own faeces, were taken to a rescue centre, where a wealthy American conservationist cares for them. (Chimps live 50 years. The owner faces a potential bill of $1million.)
When no such benefactor is available, the animals are killed. For example, in 2001, Egyptian airport officials drowned an illegally transported chimp and gorilla in a vat of chemicals. It caused an international outcry and a declaration from CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) that this would never happen again, with a vow to prosecute the smugglers. Empty words.
Both incidents are linked. Both shipments were sent by 54-year-old Heba Abdel Moty Ahmed Saad. This woman has both Nigerian and Egyptian citizenship. She has, according to Professor Samy El Fellaly, an Egyptian environment department official, been in "the Monkey Business" for 30 years and is one of Africa's major traffickers.
Under the CITES rules, permits are necessary for the import, export and trade of gorillas, chimps and bonobos. In fact, apes caught in the wild cannot be traded at all.
Heba plays fast and loose with permits and rules. "It is easy in Africa to get documents," says Dr Mohammed Assad, quarantine manager at Cairo airport. "Heba makes a lot of trouble. When we ask her why she takes these animals from the wild, she says she does it to save them. So what can we say?"
MIKE Pugh, an RSPCA inspector formerly with the World Society For The Protection Of Animals, shakes his head.
He tracked Heba down to the animal market in Kano in 1997. "There were chimpanzees there which had been taken from Cameroon," he says, "Heba was a well-known buyer. By my estimate she was exporting between 50-100 chimps annually and a dozen or more gorillas. She was notorious for it."
Many of the animals - and only one out of 10 are estimated to survive the journey - are bound for the private zoos of Gulf princes and businessmen. Some are allegedly imported for vivisection. Others go to tourist resorts in Egypt.
Eventually, our trail led to Sharm El Sheik and one of its best-known resorts - the Tower complex, patronised by Tony Blair, ex-president Bill Clinton, Egypt's leader Hosni Mubarak and owned by Gamal Omar.
The zoo he runs is situated behind guest villas. It is his pride and joy. Filming secretly, Karl discovered 11 chimps and two gorillas held in cages. "There was not a blade of grass or a tree. Just bare floors and bars," Karl says. "It is a miserable facility and a real animal welfare issue." Prof Fellaly, also CITES boss in Egypt, says: "We know Omar paid for the animals on the black market but we let him keep them until we decide what to do with them. These creatures are lucky to be living there. It is a good place, a recognised sanctuary by the Ministry. We don't have the money, so we leave it to Omar."
It is a classic Pontius Pilate washing-of-hands. The same reaction we find when we interview Dr Ragy Toma, director of wildlife in Egypt. "What can we do? Confiscate them? Put them where?" he asks.
So, despite the laws, Mr Omar can buy his animals on the black market, parade them for guests, knowing no one is willing or able to touch him. And no one willing to repatriate the animals to their country of origin as CITES demand. So this tragic travesty continues. In countries such as Egypt where traffickers like Mrs Heba flourish.
When confronted at her sixth-floor Cairo apartment, she wailed: "What can I do? I've no sources to get money. I have three daughters at university and I am a poor woman."
SHORTLY afterwards, we photograph her leaving home in her brand-new Renault.
So far, the only organisation to crack down is the World Zoo Association, which has severed all links with official Egyptian zoos. This means that Egypt cannot import any animals from accredited zoos.
CITES itself has only one official dealing with trafficking. He is John Sellar, a former British policeman, who says: "If there is evidence of animals having been illegally imported into Egypt, then we'd be willing to raise such issues with the authorities there. But it is difficult to pursue speculative cases."
Karl believes the problem with conventions like CITES is that they rely on the home country. "If that country is corrupt or poorly run, you have a situation in which the wolves are left guarding the hen-house."
And so laws are flouted. International authorities prefer to look the other way. Traffickers like Heba can give two fingers to the world. The rich can parade their living trophies...
While great trees fall and our closest ancestors scream into oblivion. Unheard.
"These creatures will be extinct in a few decades