It is an attraction that Mexican authorities and campaigners would rather not exist at all. Yet tourists, often unaware of the private cruelties and illegal trading, flock to pay their dollars for a souvenir. This is the exploitation of wild, sometimes endangered animals, as props for beach photographers. Cancun and Playa del Carmen have been hotspots for this lucrative business, but awareness and arrests are stamping out the practise.
José Adolfo Caram had long been the target of activists. He was a common sight in the heat of Cancun, parading his 21 year old female chimpanzee, Coco. Tourists awwwed and giggled over her exploits. She could smoke a cigarette or drink a beer. For $10, she would pose for a photograph. For $20, she would be staged in risque positions, like cupping the breast of a woman for the camera.
It was all viewed as very innocent by those onlooking. It was all a bit of fun. It was cute. When asked, Caram explained that he had rescued her from a laboratory, paying extra, as Coco was a prime candidate for experiments. She was his life. All of his money went on her care. He loved her like a daughter. Friends and family would flock to defend him, when anyone expressed any doubts. They all repeated the party line. Coco loved doing this. It was all she knew. Everything was alright.
But the truth was far murkier. By Mexican law, Caram had to be caught in the act of animal cruelty, before the police could intervene. He was very adept at rushing away, when the patrols came into view. Then, last September, he was spotted close to Barceló Hotel, on Boulevard Kukulkan km 4, in Cancun, with a line of tourists awaiting their photograph. The police swooped in.
Caram was not able to produce a single document as evidence of his legal procurement of Coco. An examination of the chimpanzee showed that her teeth had been removed. Caram was immediately arrested and faces up to nine years in prison, along with a hefty fine. Coco has been confiscated, along with the van that he used to transport her.
It is feared that Coco has been a victim of the illegal trafficking in chimpanzees. Native to Africa, hunters will shoot dead the mother and any other adult chimp that gets in their way. Four or five adults may die, simply to be able to pluck the baby from where it's clinging to its mother's corpse. The infants will then face arduous journeys, often across the world, in small boxes. Many do not survive.
Baby chimp rescued from traffickers.
Those which do face a life of beatings and sedatives, in order to keep them calm before the tourists. Some are forced into human clothes, in which they over-heat; or into boots and shoes, which may deform their growing feet. They are estranged from their own kind and forced into unnatural acts, like walking on two feet. They are worked for long hours and encouraged to imbibe anything that the tourists offer, including harmful food, cigarettes and alcohol. At puberty, many chimpanzees become too strong and aggressive to handle, so they are killed.
PROFEPA, the Federal Attorney's Office of Environmental Protection, is currently investigating precisely how much of this common scenario has applied to Coco. In the meantime, she is being housed in a local zoo.
Last year, we told you the story of another chimpanzee, which had also been owned by Caram. (Xcaret - The Secret Sanctuary.) Three year old Bryan was in a terrible state. His baby teeth had been smashed out with a blunt instrument. This had been so brutal that shards of them were deeply embedded into the infant's gums. But it did prevent him from ever biting a tourist. After his rescue, Bryan lived safely at Xcaret EcoPark, before being flown to more suitable premises, at Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, in Great Britain.
It is always nice to know how these stories pan out, so we contacted Monkey World's Animal Manager, Jeremy Keeling, to ask on the progress of Bryan. "Bryan's doing great now. He's a lovely, little lad. He still has his moments, sitting in the back of the room rocking, but overall he's doing great."
May 2011: Bryan (right) enjoying a quiet moment in the sun with foster mum, Sally (left).
Bryan has a home for life at Monkey World. At eight years old, he is being looked after by chimpanzee foster mum, Sally, and a team of human care staff. His adult teeth have all grown, fine and strong. He enjoys playing with foster auntie, Lulu, and the other rescued infants, Ash and Rodders.
Eventually it is possible that Bryan will be introduced to one of the three larger chimpanzee troops. But this is all future speculation. For now, Bryan is happily settled in Sally's group and there are no imminent plans to move him.
Meanwhile, Mexico takes seriously its signature on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), which includes the protection of chimpanzees. Hesiquio Benítez, the director of International Relations for the National Biodiversity Commission (CONABIO), explained that wildlife trafficking has been a growing concern for some time. He said, "There is considerable illegal transport of wildlife, and according to some estimates, the amount of money involved in the activity may approach that of arms trafficking."
CONABIO and PROFEPA have joined forces, with advice from national and international specialists on each species, to come up with the National Strategy for Combating Illegal Wildlife Trafficking. This has come into force over the past six months and the seizure of Coco was just part of that.
Hesiquio Benítez of CONABIO
Mexico, along with Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and the Philippines, formed a delegation, last month, which took such issues to the United Nations. In April, 2011, a Resolution was passed at the 20th Session of the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which was held in Vienna.
The Resolution renders it a legal requirement, under international law, for individual governments to work together in combating wildlife trafficking. It also calls for those governments with lax national laws to substantially tighten them up. The hope is that, with UN backing and the raising of awareness, then the cruelties and brutality of this issue will soon be a thing of the past.