Meet 54-year-old Heba Abdel Moty Ahmed Saad. She lives in Cairo and wildlife trafficking is her family business. Heba is the mastermind, her son and three daughters are her travelling sidekicks and her husband assists from Nigeria where, conveniently, he owns a transportation company that also has offices in Cameroon and Egypt.
With dual citizenship, Heba has been operating between Nigeria and her homeland for almost 30 years, selling primates to influential buyers throughout the Middle East. The power of bribes has been instrumental in keeping her in business. Under CITES, permits are necessary for the import and export of all fauna and flora listed under Appendix I, which includes gorillas, chimps and bonobos. But, as Dr Mohammed Assad, quarantine manager at Cairo Airport, points out, ‘It’s very easy in Africa to get documents, illegal papers.’ Mike Pugh, now an inspector for the RSPCA in the UK, says he learned about Heba in 1997 when he was working undercover at the animal market in Kano, Nigeria. ‘I was informed by two wildlife dealers at the market that she was the main exporter,’ he recalls.
‘They estimated that she was exporting around 50 chimps annually and a dozen or so gorillas.’
This was confirmed in May 2005 when Mier travelled undercover to Nigeria and visited the house of Heba’s husband. He recalls how the doorman offered to sell him chimpanzees for US$360, provided him with two phone numbers of suppliers and promised to deliver the primates by car to his hotel in a week. Of equal mention, says Mier, was the doorman’s insistence that the chimpanzees would have to be supplied from Cameroon as they were no longer available in Nigeria.
The country’s chimp population has been depleted to such an extent that Heba has turned to suppliers living on the Nigeria–Cameroon border, breaking laws in two countries before the chimpanzees are even in her possession. Even worse, she has never been jailed or fined, and continues to operate freely. One might think that the authori ties would have penalised her at some point during her 30 years of smuggling activity, but a chronic lack of law enforcement has allowed Heba to slip through the net. Although Egypt signed and ratified CITES in 1978, the country still has no prison penalty for wildlife traffickers. They can only be held accountable by Law 4 of 1994 under the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), which imposes a rarely enforced fine of less than US$1 000.
This infuriates Ammann. He says the problem with CITES is its dependence on the efficacy of the member country to enforce it. ‘This doesn’t work in poorly governed African countries like Egypt, where you have corrupt officials investigating themselves. You end up with a situation where the wolves are left watching the henhouse. It’s a mockery.’ Dr Ragy Toma, the CITES wildlife officer in Egypt, admits there has to be a harsher punishment. ‘When I this. The law for smugglers here is too easy. It must have more power. The EEAA is making corrections to this law to introduce a prison penalty.’
It also doesn’t help that Heba’s clientele consists of high-powered people whose status and money seem to exempt them (and their suppliers) from the law. One example is Gamal Omar, owner of a private resort called Tower Hotel in Sharm el Sheikh. His establishment caters to rich people and foreign dignitaries, such as Hosni Mubarak and Tony Blair, who go there to soak up the rays and feast their eyes on his private zoo, which currently houses 11 chimps and two gorillas.
Another collector is Tarek Abouel Makarem, owner of Africa Safari Park on the highway between Cairo and Alexandria, who has every animal imaginable, including three chimps: two adults and one baby.
The young chimp is kept alone in an indoor glass cage with bare walls and a dirt floor; the adults live on a rock structure situated in the middle of a large pond. Last year, one drowned trying to leave the island.
Ammann describes the conditions there as ‘a total disaster’. Asked about CITES permits for both of these places, Toma pauses and says,
‘Maybe they got some chimpanzees from Heba, but what can we do about this? Confiscate them? Send them where?
Dr Samy El-Fellaly, head of the CITES management authority in Egypt, emphasises that people like Omar and Makarem were given permission by the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment to ‘keep’ the animals, not to ‘own’ them. ‘They will stay there until we decide what to do. These chimps are lucky to be living in these private zoos. You cannot compare Nigeria with Egypt; we conserve our wildlife. You know what they do in Cameroon, in Congo? They eat the ape meat. If we stop smugglers and ask them why they take this animal from the wild, they say, “We do it to save the animals”. So what can we say?
’ This defensiveness regarding Egypt’s lackadaisical approach to a trade that is threatening the survival of Africa’s great apes is common among Egyptian authorities. El-Fellaly did not even file a report about the January 2005 case until Ammann and Mier placed pressure on the authorities and informed Interpol of what was happening. In fact, when confronted with their lack of enforcement, the authorities unanimously point the finger at Kenya Airways for allowing illegal shipments of wildlife on its planes in the first place.
The airline has been pegged by many as the worst for wildlife smuggling. Asked about its poor track record, George Faltaous, Kenya Airways area manager for North Africa, says it is up to the customs officials, and not the airline, to inspect luggage and check for the correct documentation. ‘Maybe Kenya Airways routes are convenient for the smugglers,’ he elaborates. ‘We are always the final transporting carrier or the connecting carrier. We don’t even see the bags in transit when we are the connecting flight. We are responsible for the ticket purchases and the check-ins. The airport authorities check the luggage, not the airline.’ Mier claims that this is not true. ‘According to the IATA (International Air Transport Association), the airlines are ultimately responsible for everything that gets on their planes. Throughout Africa, the more responsible airlines use their own staff, two people on each flight, who search all hand luggage right after the airport authorities have done it.’
Such a policy would have undoubtedly found – and possibly prevented – another illegal shipment, this time of eight vervet monkeys that were drugged and stuffed into a carry-on suitcase on a Kenya Airways flight last year. When pressed for more answers, Faltaous calmly replies, ‘We are not a loose carrier. We are strictly against smuggling and we want to do the right thing. But this is Africa. These things happen because of poverty.
We have lots of animals, there are lots of poor people and the governments are corrupt. The customs people and authorities in airports are not exactly well taken care of, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were accepting bribes and letting smugglers go through.’ While there may be no easy solutions to those deeprooted problems, Ammann and Mier’s vociferous anti-smuggling campaign, with Heba as its poster girl, is having an effect.
In October and November last year, El-Fellaly met with Faltaous to discuss wildlife trafficking. He also sent letters to Sudan Airways and Egypt Air. Then he met with the Nigerian ambassador to Egypt (and suggested to Ammann and Mier that Heba could be extradited to Kenya or Nigeria if she had broken any laws there). And, finally, he sent Ammann’s documents to Maher Hafez, general director of Egypt’s Environmental Police, and asked him to investigate Heba and her family, as well as place their names on the passport and immigration watch list. Although Ammann points out that this last action failed to include a vital Interpol ‘Blue Listing’, which requires police and immigration authorities worldwide to monitor suspicious parties, this collective effort is a step in the right direction. Both he and Mier just hope that action comes sooner rather than later, or there won’t be any apes to save. Last March, I visited the surviving chimpanzees from the January 2005 case in their new home at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya, where they were nursed back to health. The newly named Edvard, Julia, Jane, Romeo and Victoria were swinging on ropes, making faces and running around like little kids. I would never have guessed that they had been on the brink of death just one year ago.
Dr Mona Hakib Al
l am, head veterinarian at Cairo Airport, says she once asked Heba why she was a wildlife trafficker. Apparently she wailed, ‘I haven’t any job. This is the only way for me to get money. I am poor with no food at home, and I have three daughters who need money for university.’ When confronted in front of her apartment building, Heba refused to comment and sped away in her brand new Renault. see a chimpanzee in Egypt I think it is probably from Heba but I cannot prove
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Vater, Mutter und die Jungen, erschossen für Ihr Fleisch. Bushmeat nennt sich dies.