Traffickers have slaughtered gorillas and chimpanzees in Cameroon's rainforests to supply the demand for bush meat and conservationists were concerned about the sustainability of the great ape population. Now, conservationists fear that a previously unrealized trade could cause the demise of great apes within a single decade, according to Al Jazeera.
Ape heads, bones and limbs are valuable trade items and poachers are taking advantage of the new source of wealth.
"We may be looking at something that is developing down the road of ivory trafficking," Eric Kaba Tah, deputy director of the Last Great Ape Organisation (LAGA), told Al Jazeera. LAGA is a non-profit wildlife law enforcement body based in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde.
"Gorillas and chimpanzees were hunted mainly for bush meat," Tah said. "The babies were captured and sold as pets. Heads and limbs were cut off and left behind because they resemble human parts."
But that has changed.
"What we are seeing increasingly is that poachers are recovering the heads and limbs of chimps and gorillas and leaving the bodies behind to rot," Tah told Al Jazeera. "Limbs and heads fetch more money and if they think the body is going to be a burden to remove from the forest, they simply abandon it and bring out only the high-value products."
This new poaching method could end the great ape population in Cameroon within 10 to 15 years, according to Al Jazeera.
"Body parts are easier to conceal and transport. Because of this, poachers will be tempted to kill more animals than they already do," Tah said.
The number of gorillas and chimpanzees in Cameroon's rainforests is not exactly known to researchers, but wildlife officials estimate that there are a few hundred per species remaining, according to Al Jazeera. The Cross River gorilla population is estimated at less than 300.
In the last four months, officials have arrested 22 traffickers and confiscated 34 chimp skulls and fresh heads, 24 gorilla skulls and heads, and 16 ape limbs, LAGA reported according to Al Jazeera.
"We think ape products are being used for mystical practices," said an official at the ministry of forestry and wildlife, who wished to remain anonymous.