Armenia’s Monkey Business
Sixty-one Armenia-bound monkeys were seized in Tanzania last week in the latest manifestation of the South Caucasus country’s role in the exotic-animals trade.
The monkeys were about to take a flight from the Kilimanjaro International Airport on March 25, when local authorities prevented what they described as a large-scale wildlife theft – despite a ban on such exports, plans existed to whisk out of Tanzania a total of 450 monkeys, according to the country’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Jumanne Maghembe, the local Daily News reported. Maghembe has fired several senior officials over the scandal.
The Yerevan-based Zoo Fauna Art company told News.am that it had ordered the 61 monkeys and did so in full compliance with Tanzanian law, but it did not claim ownership of the other would-be travelers. The company’s director, Artur Khachatrian, claimed that the two Dutch nationals of Armenian origin whom police arrested in connection with the incident were just friends of his who had decided to use the flight to send some “luggage” to Armenia.
Brothers Artyom and Edward Nalbandian were arrested on smuggling charges. In 2013, Artyom Nalbandian, who owns a private zoo in Armenia, was embroiled in another wildlife scandal, when an investigative report by Hetq.am alleged that he had illegally acquired an endangered bonobo primate.
Having exotic animals as pets or held in private zoos long has been a fad of Armenia’s rich. In 2014, residents of one Yerevan district complained about lions roaring in the neighborhood. A year before, tiger cubs were found roaming the streets of Etchmiadzin, a town near Yerevan.
Earlier this year the British tabloid The Daily Mail ran a damning story about a rundown, private animal enclosure, described as the saddest zoo in the world, in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri. A local activist group has helped to find new homes for the derelict bears and lions abandoned there.
The database of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement to which Armenia is a signatory, does not appear to have exhaustive information on Armenia’s export/imports of wildlife. CITES data claims, however, that Armenian imports of mammals dropped sharply between 2011 and 2013, the latest year shown. http://dashboards.cites.org/national?id=AM The database shows that Armenia imported 50 cholorocebus monkeys that year.
Armenia, though, is not alone in its love of exotic animals – though perhaps in its sales of smoked crocodile for New Year’s.
In Georgia, the former political boss of the Black Sea region of Achara, Aslan Abashidze, once kept a flock of ostriches. In the same region, ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili now keeps a private zoo with lemurs, penguins and at least one zebra.
Animal-rights activists throughout the South Caucasus long have targeted restaurants and hotels which keep bears in cages to entertain visitors, but, so far, the practice, like private zoos, persists.