Advertisements on the Internet to woo buyers into taking "playful primates" from Cameroon into their homes have become one of the primary means of further threatening already endangered species.
Such sales would be illegal, since dealing in primates is forbidden in the central African country. In the past three years, however, the Internet has led to a flourishing trade in endangered species, according to an environmental activist in the front line.
Ofir Drori directs a small non-governmental organisation, the Last Great Ape Organization (Laga-Cameroon), which works in conjunction with the Cameroonian ministry of forestry and wildlife to try to stem the lucrative trade in beasts both dead and alive.
"Kiki is ready for a new family. He has gentle and charming manners. Kiki is handsome and playful," reads an advertisement on the Internet to sell a chimpanzee from Cameroon.
The ad says that the chimpanzee comes with "veterinary health documents, a "permit" from CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and a year's health care guarantee."
CITES, whose ban on trade in listed endangered species is a ban on international trade, does not, however, issue such individual "permits".
The seller alleges that he lives in the forested region of Kilum and "is incapable of giving Kiki the good home and all the care that he deserves," but the whole advertisement is a scam.
Laga-Cameroon tries to infiltrate the black market sales networks and carry out investigations in conjunction with the police. They found and partially dismantled eight groups of Internet fraudsters between 2007 and August 2009.
"To begin with, we thought that the sellers we found on the Internet were simple swindlers, who extorted money without providing the product announced," Drori said. But some of the traffickers were genuinely dealing in endangered species, including animal heads and hides for use as trophies, he said.
In February, the police arrested a 27-year-old man who had in two years made 22 sales on the Internet, mainly for the skulls of primates, but it took a team effort to track him down.
Authorities in the United States helped Laga and Cameroonian officials to locate him via his exchanges on the Internet, and the man now faces up to 20 years in jail.
To reassure clients, the cyber-dealers use a false sales permit, with the forged signature of the wildlife minister. They are able to do this because trading in some protected species is legal under a quota system.
In 2008, another trafficker was arrested while he was trying to sell turtles to a Malaysian importer with the help of a Cameroonian accomplice based in China.
John Sellar, the enforcement assistance chief at CITES in Geneva, said that "the Internet certainly facilitates illegal trade in wildlife, but it is very difficult to assess the scale," in email comments to AFP.
"We are aware of some of the work that has been conducted in places like Cameroon with regard to trade in primates and recognize that the Internet is used to sell live animals," he said. But he said the majority of such offers he has seen "are simply criminal frauds" to scam people out of money, with no intention to supply live animals.
He said CITES has issued fraud warnings and "in general are examining trade that is facilitated by the Internet." In fact the anonymity of the Internet has helped law enforcement agencies in catching some criminals, he said.
To initiate contact with clients, the dealers generally place advertisements on specialist websites, and demand is high in the United States, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa, particularly for primates like gorillas and chimpanzees.
A successful sale can be rewarding. A baby chimpanzee sold locally for 75 euros (105 dollars) can sell for 100 times or even 200 times that much abroad.
The Internet has "a potential that can facilitate connections between the buyers abroad and the local dealers," Drori said. "One of the things that up until now has prevented a massacre of animals has been the absence of such a connection."
A specialist in wildlife crime who asked not to be named added that people trying to prevent the traffic were hindered by corruption and "complicities in the public administrations, the banks, airports and the police."
"For the struggle to make progress, the authorities should get more involved," the source added.
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