Nearly 3,000 chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans are illegally killed or stolen from the wild each year, according to a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme's (UNEP) Great Apes Survival Partnership (GASP). The report, released to coincide with this week's meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok, links the activity to organized crime and the same international trade routes used by gunrunners, drug smugglers and money launderers.

GASP—a partnership between the many of the countries which still have great ape populations—estimates that more than 22,000 apes were "lost to the wild" (killed or captured to be sold) between 2005 and 2011. During that time only 27 arrests connected with the great ape trade were made in Africa and Asia, a quarter of which were never prosecuted.

The majority of these "takes" are for the illegal pet market or to disreputable zoos or tourist attractions, where they rarely survive the stress of capture, transfer and sale. For every ape that makes it to its final destination, many more have likely been killed; during hunts as many as 10 chimpanzees die for every one that is caught alive. The report says this illegal activity has grown dramatically in recent years.

The people doing the hunting don't make a lot of money. According to the report, a poacher can earn as little as $50 for a live chimpanzee. Prices are much higher by the time the apes are sold to their final consumers: The report says a zoo in Malaysia reportedly paid $400,000 each for several gorillas in 2002.

"It is important to establish baseline figures for the illegal trade in great apes, even if these numbers only hint at the devastation," GRASP coordinator Doug Cress said in a prepared statement. "Great apes are extremely important for the health of forests in Africa and Asia, and even the loss of 10 or 20 at a time can have a deep impact on biodiversity." Research has shown that apes play an important role in distributing seeds throughout their forest habitats.

"The taking of great apes from the wild is not new—it has gone on for well over a century," Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director, says in the report's preface. "But the current scale outlined in this report underlines how important it is that the international community and the organizations responsible for conserving endangered species remain vigilant, keeping a step ahead of those seeking to profit from such illegal activities."

The numbers cited in the report are actually extrapolations. It documents a total of 643 chimpanzees, 48 bonobos, 98 gorillas (representing two or three subspecies) and 1,019 orangutans (two species) that were captured from the wild for illegal trade. Most of these were living animals, but the number also includes a few dozen dead animals or body parts. According to the report:

These numbers are based on figures from 2005 to 2011 that comprise confiscation and arrival rates of orphans at sanctuaries in 12 African countries and rehabilitation centers in Indonesia, expert reports, and great ape bushmeat and body parts seized from traders. Many studies suggest that far more apes are either killed during the hunt or die in captivity than are ever confiscated, and law enforcement and customs officials admit that only a fraction of any contraband is ever seized.

Rehab centers and sanctuaries play an increasingly large role in great ape survival. Many young apes lack their mothers' education on how to survive. All rescued apes have been exposed to human pathogens, which more often than not precludes their rerelease back into the wild, as they could transmit these viruses back to their communities.

The illegal trade is hardly the only threat great apes face. All great ape species face dramatic habitat loss from logging, deforestation, agriculture and mining. Many species are also hunted for bushmeat, the often-illegal trade of wild animals for consumption, based on a taste for traditional foods.

The report includes a number of recommendations, including DNA-testing all confiscated apes so their country of origin can be properly determined; establishing transnational criminal intelligence units to target environmental crime; training law-enforcement officials about issues related to the great ape trade; and calling for an end to the use of great apes in entertainment such as movies and commercials. (Previous research has shown that many people do not know that chimpanzees are endangered because the primates seem happy in TV commercials.)

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photos: Caged chimpanzee by Dhammika Heenpella. Caged orangutan hand by Robert Kirberich. Both used under Creative Commons license