Thousands of great apes are killed or trafficked each year in an illegal trade that is driving them toward extinction, according to a joint report from the United Nations and Interpol released last month.

The report, together with statements by conservancy groups, make it clear that the annual multimillion-dollar trade in human’s closest relatives was bringing them ever closer to extinction.

While the greatest threat to apes is habitat loss, the illegal trade in great apes, including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans is taking an increasingly large toll. More than 22,000 great apes were estimated to have been taken between 2005 and 2011, the years covered by the investigation. Many more are likely to have been killed or trafficked illegally.

The 3,000 apes taken per year, an average of eight to nine a day, involve the killing of many others. To capture one ape, other apes must be killed. In particular, illegal poachers kill the mothers of infant apes, usually with shotguns, in order to take the babies more easily. The mothers’ bodies are then used as “bushmeat,” a term that refers to the meat of wildlife, often illegally killed for profit, that is eaten as food, sometimes as a delicacy.

The total profits are hard to estimate, according to Interpol, because the trade remains so secretive. The animals are in great demand in Middle Eastern and East Asian safari parks, zoos and in the private menageries of Russian oligarchs and criminal kingpins.

Illegally trafficked great apes have been found in many different countries from Armenia, China, Egypt, Russia and Thailand to the United Arab Emirates

Of course, great apes are protected by international law and are specifically cited in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that their trade for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited. However, because many of those CITES officials are involved in large-scale trafficking networks, the illegal trade continues. All that is needed is an export permit stamped by a corrupt official.

Some activists have called the brutal and illegal treatment of these intelligent, social animals “slavery” because the treatment of such animals — transporting them long distances, caging them in brutal conditions and forcing them to perform in shows or zoos — is similar to slavery. The inhumane treatment of the great apes is also morally reprehensible and a sign that humans have not yet evolved very much themselves.

Humans have always compared themselves to their closest relatives as they study the hominid tree and discover what humans can be. In this case, the comparison does not come out well for human beings. The trade in great apes needs to be stopped.

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