Laundering the Wild Chimpanzee

January 25, 1991|By JANE GOODALL

TUCSON, ARIZONA — Tucson, Arizona. She was lying down, her face sweating in the heat, a rope tied around her waist, in the tourist market in Kinshasa, Zaire. When I made soft chimpanzee sounds she reached out, lethargically. Her mother had been shot, probably for meat. U.S. Ambassador William Hattop persuaded the government to confiscate her. I cut the rope myself.

Two weeks later, in the Canary Isles, I held, for a brief moment, another little orphan chimpanzee, this one dressed in baby clothes. Like his photographer master (who believed I wanted a holiday snapshot), he was heavily drugged. An addict. He is but one of the many abused infants smuggled into Spain from West Africa. What happens to them when they are too big for this work? We wish we knew.

Chimpanzees are vanishing in Africa. At the turn of the century there were hundreds of thousands of them in 25 African nations. In four countries they have already gone, in five others they soon will be no more. Even in the remaining stronghold -- Gabon and Cameroon -- chimpanzees are losing ground.

Partly because of the destruction of their forests as human populations grow. But partly because they are hunted ever more aggressively. Not just the males, for meat, as the old days, but the mothers too. They can be eaten, their infants sold. Sold in local markets as ''pets'' (who will live as part of a human family for four or five years, then become potentially dangerous, and be chained or put in local zoos, or killed). Or sold to dealers who ship them overseas -- those who survive -- for the entertainment and biomedical research industries.

In an effort to reduce trafficking in chimpanzees, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department agreed, in March 1990, to classify them as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This, along with attempts to enforce the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, makes it more difficult to import and export chimpanzees.

And to further protect the remaining wild populations, the U.S. government introduced legislation, in 1989, making it illegal to conduct research on captured chimpanzees born in the wild after 1975, or on their progeny, anywhere in the world. Efforts made by the biomedical establishment to have this inconvenient law revoked have, so far, failed.

These measures have forced international dealers to find

ingenious ways of ''laundering'' the wild chimpanzees that pass through their hands. Infants taken from the wild may be shipped to countries that are not members of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species -- particularly in South America and Eastern Europe -- or to countries where governments are finding it particularly difficult to enforce the law, such as Spain and Japan, then re-exported, with falsified papers, as ''captive born.'' Recently, for example, two infants from the forests of Uganda (or perhaps they were smuggled from neighboring Zaire) were intercepted as they were passing, illegally, through Dubai -- and returned to Uganda.

Even though endangered species may not legally be imported for commercial reasons by countries party to the convention, there is still much trafficking of chimpanzees for the entertainment industry. And even supposedly good zoos often send ''surplus'' chimpanzees, particularly males, to other parts of the world, to grim old-fashioned zoos -- or to medical research labs.

The last big consignment of infant chimps to enter the United States illegally was for the testing of pharmaceutical products. That was in 1975, two years after the ratification of the convention. I have visited the survivors. They are adult now, weighing up to 150 pounds, still imprisoned in steel-barred cages 5 feet by 7 feet high. They can live for 50 years.

Does it matter, this trading and exploitation of our closest living relatives? Beings who differ from us, genetically, by only just over 1 percent, who share many of our emotions, who show intellectual abilities once thought unique to our own species? Go and gaze into the eyes of an infant who has just been taken from his mother and you will find the answer.

Dr. Goodall's most recent book, ''Through a Window,'' documents her 30 years work in Africa.

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