Toto the baby gorilla, international wildlife law and me

The smuggling of apes and other endangered wildlife has happened for decades and authorities can never seem to control the illicit trade despite international laws.

Recently there was publicity in the media about the smuggling of baby chimpanzees and it took me back forty years to my days at Heathrow Airport where I was confronted with the same situations.  It is so frustrating and depressing to realise that authorities are so incapable of solving such issues after decades of abuse by the illicit pet trade of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

On the 31st August 1979 while performing my duties as an animal health inspector at London Heathrow Airport and patrolling the cargo sheds I was approached by cargo staff and informed of a crate containing a “monkey” that they were concerned about.

This monkey was an endangered baby lowland gorilla dressed in a woollen jumper that had been accepted by the airline and transported unaccompanied without any thought to its welfare. She was only 10- 12 weeks old and like a human baby obviously needed  regular feeds of mother’s milk and companionship. I cannot explain how angry I was at that point.

Her presence caused an international incident

Luckily I had powers under animal welfare and transport laws to seize her which I immediately did and directed that she went to what was then called  the Heathrow Animal Quarantine Station (AQS) for further investigation and examination by a vet. When the crate was opened she immediately jumped out screaming into the arms of the nearest person.

Her name was apparently Toto and she had been shipped from Cameroon, West Africa via an unscrupulous animal dealer in Vienna and was in transit to Japan, another arduous and long journey. I informed our contacts in Customs who also agreed to seize her under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations which supposedly forbids the trade in endangered species and which the UK had ratified in 1976. I also informed every major international conservation organisation I knew of and contacted the national press who covered the story in detail.

I sometimes wish I had gone on the run with her.

I was confident that with all this exposure Toto would be permanently seized one way or the other and stay in the UK for proper care, but I was very wrong and it was all to no avail. Her presence caused a diplomatic incident and while we strived to get her back into good health at the AQS, where a string of eager foster mum attendants kept her company day and night, all the authorities wrangled over her fate.

It was eventually decided by the UK Government that they didn’t have the powers to detain her and following arguments from ourselves that she was too young to travel so far to Japan unaccompanied, officials and the airline agreed to return her to Vienna and the animal dealer despite everyone’s protests. I was able to delay her departure a little longer by insisting that a specialised crate was required and constructed by the airline for any further movement. At this point I just felt as though I should scoop her up and go on the run with her. Sometimes I wish I had.

Baby gorilla, smuggled apes, smuggled wildlife
Toto and me. It is was love at first sight. I wish I had gone on the run with her.

We only had her in our care for a week, but it was an emotional wrench for everyone involved when she departed and so unjust. I hate to think what the rest of her life was like. Toto went back to the dealer in Vienna who just sent her to Japan via another route avoiding Heathrow, where on arrival she was so weak a veterinarian was called.

This unfortunately was not the last time I came across smuggled or illegal shipment of animals through the airport. There were several incidents of baby chimps as well as other monkeys and endangered reptiles and birds. Back then no one in officialdom seemed to care or believe they had the powers to do anything. The situation sadly seems to be little changed.

This was my first experience of international wildlife regulations which has always tarnished my belief in their effectiveness. When it comes to practical realities they are far from ideal. Although I am sure such incidents at Heathrow are now rare, it is obvious that illicit traders can still find countries to aid and abet them and money always overcomes any complications in regard to paperwork or turning a blind eye. And huge sums  are involved. In 1979 she was worth £7,000, but the price tag now is nearer £300,000.

The saga of the ivory trade and the elephant’s future

In our age of high-tech capabilities it beggars belief that we are unable to stop poaching once and for all

Elephants head, ivory trade, CITES
Safe until his growing tusk makes it profitable to kill him.

Yet again the illegal ivory trade and the killing of elephants is in the news with the UK  Environment Secretary Michael Gove at the forefront of the publicity announcing new measures to end the slaughter. I hate to think how many times have I heard this over the last forty years.

So many mixed messages it all becomes a bit of a farce.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was heralded as being the saviour of endangered species back in 1976 and several hundred countries signed up with the UK being one of the first but most, including the UK, never took it that seriously in enforcing it. In effect it was just a trade agreement and not for the protection of animals and I remember listening in disgust when attending the CITES conference in Buenos Aires in 1983 to countries discussing the size of quotas on elephant culling on the pretext that they were destroying the trees and habitat. Jump forward thirty years and elephants are now being complimented on shaping the landscape and making space for new plants and trees to grow when they tramp through the forest. Source

The UK has been its usual hypocritical self by being fully involved in the ivory trade for decades and according to a recent report exported 36,000 items between 2010 and 2015 more than three times the next largest exporter, the USA. Source 

The problem is that despite campaigning the situation hasn’t changed over the last 50 years

There has been the usual massaging of figures on how many elephants are poached and how many are left in Africa and the same doom laden prophecy of extinction within ten years. Some reports state that 50 elephants are being killed each day while others quote over a hundred. Estimates state that there are 380,000 African elephants left, a third of them in Botswana and that 144,000 have died in the last 10 years. Others reckon we are losing 30,000 each year which would equate to 300,000 in 10 years. The UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently quoted 20,000 killed every year so who really knows. Source  Rarely do figures differentiate between those that may have died naturally or through accidents, disease, malnutrition and legal hunting over the decades.There are so many mixed messages it all becomes a bit of a farce.

African elephant, baby elephant, poaching, ivory trade
We must make sure there is a future for such wonderful creatures.

The bottom line is that is doesn’t really matter what the correct figures are as long as it highlights the plight of the elephant and keeps the subject in the news and public awareness. The problem is that despite campaigning the situation hasn’t really changed over the last 50 years and unfortunately there is little chance it will improve in the future.

As long as there are cash rich people willing to spend money on unnecessary trinkets to prove their wealth and status we will continue to have an illegal ivory trade. And there will always be the corruptible government officials and traders to make it possible. In our age of high-tech capabilities it beggars belief that we are unable to stop poaching once and for all, but unfortunately there has never been the will to tackle the problem on a sustained basis and probably never will be.

Forty years on we still have poaching

Elephants have been my favourite animals ever since I first went to Africa in 1972 when I was dumbfounded by my first close up and personal encounter with them. I was lucky enough to make several visits to them during the 1970’s and 80’s and once lived for several months in Kenya. I have sat for hours and days watching them live their peaceful and complex lives and have always believed that no one should have the right to harm or kill such intelligent, family orientated and magnificent animals either for legitimate or illicit purposes.

Elephant herd, waterhole, ivory trade, CITES, poaching
It was an uplifting experience to find hundreds of elephants still enjoying life. Long may it continue.

Even at that time there were prophecies that the poaching would eradicate elephants within ten years, but here we are 40 years later and they are still surviving and we still have poaching and the ivory trade.

Recently I returned with my elephant loving partner to Africa after a twenty-five year gap and visited the Etosha National Park in Namibia purely to wallow for ten days in the presence of elephants, rhinos and lions, but expecting in the present climate of doom to see none. It was an uplifting and almost spiritual experience to find hundreds of elephants still roaming the landscape and I was even more delighted to see dozens of babies of all ages. The visit gave us continuing hope that there may be a future for the elephant. I am pleased to relate that we also saw many rhinos and lions. Long may it continue.