Gorilla Warfare

Vilified by animal protectionists, indicted for smuggling, praised by the feds. Matthew Block surprised everyone. Maybe even himself.

The big jet from Frankfurt, Germany, dropped gently through vaporous clouds to the runway at Miami International Airport, and Kurt Schafer's heart raced for a few seconds as he wondered, again, if the threats had been serious. Somebody was going to pocket $10,000 for shooting him as he disembarked; at least that's what a voice had told him in several predawn phone calls. He wasn't sure who was making them, but he took them seriously. And he certainly believed that several of his former business associates certainly wouldn't mind seeing him dead, or probably even killing him themselves.

When he entered the terminal, he did find two people waiting for him, but they weren't hit men. They were agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who accompanied Schafer out into the heavy heat of that August afternoon. Together they drove from the airport toward downtown Miami.

Safe in his room at the Sheraton Brickell Point, gazing out over a placid Biscayne Bay, Schafer settled in and waited for Monday, August 24, when the trial of Matthew Block was to begin. Block, a prominent Miami animal dealer, was facing federal charges of brokering a complex and illegal scheme to smuggle endangered apes from the jungles of Indonesia to Moscow. Schafer had been part of the scheme, and it was he who had provided the information to break open the case in early 1990, and revealed a rare glimpse into the secret, highly lucrative world of illegal animal trade. Now, with a guarantee of immunity, Schafer was to be the U.S. government's star witness against Block, the only person then charged in what was clearly a far-flung cooperative venture.

But Block did not go to trial that Monday. Hurricane Andrew's early-morning arrival changed everything. The storm destroyed Block's secluded South Dade home and became one of several disconcerting twists in a case that is still unresolved, and is still provoking the kind of extraordinary public passion reserved for the most difficult of moral dilemmas A in this case, the responsibilities of human beings toward nonhuman beings. Matthew Block, a pale, bearded young man of just 31, has become an international symbol of that dilemma and a lightning rod for that passion.

Kurt Schafer remembers meeting Block in Thailand, early in 1989, when neither was yet 30 years old. Schafer, a native of Germany, had been living in Bangkok for about six years, trading in exotic birds. Both men had begun their careers as teenagers, Block while still a student at Miami Beach's Mesivta of Greater Miami-Louis Merwitzer Senior High School. Schafer knew of Block long before their first encounter. "His name is very famous all over the world," Schafer says. "Huge dealer, especially for monkeys. Top guy. Top gun." But despite their professional similarities, the two were strikingly different: Block slender and reserved, his manner opaque; Schafer large, robust, articulate.

It was a brief meeting, Schafer recalls, arranged through Dutch animal dealer Kenny Dekker at the home of a Thai trader. No business was discussed then, but some months later Schafer says Dekker and Block asked him to help with some bird and monkey shipments from Guyana to Miami. That transaction didn't work out, but in late 1989 they again approached Schafer for his help in getting some baby orangutans from Singapore to Moscow.

In February 1990, inspectors at the Bangkok airport x-rayed three small wooden crates registered as the excess baggage of a German citizen named Kurt Schafer. The crates, labeled "live birds," were bound for Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and then Moscow. But cargo handlers heard humanlike cries coming from inside. Instead of birds, Thai authorities found six young orangutans and two siamang gibbons, both species of highly endangered apes. All appeared to have been drugged and shipped without food or water, in their own vomit and excrement.

The baby orangutans, packed three to a crate, were pulled out with swollen bellies, nearly dead. Schafer had already flown on to Belgrade, unaware the cargo wouldn't be waiting for him when he arrived. The Thai government confiscated the apes and local primate specialists agreed to nurse them back to health; three orangutans that had traveled upside down in one crate later died. The incident was widely publicized and became known to angry animal protectionists as the case of the "Bangkok Six." (The gibbons, not in as critical a condition, now are in a zoo in Indonesia.)

Fewer than 35,000 orangutans are left in their native habitat, the jungles of the islands of Borneo in Indonesia and Sumatra in Malaysia. Prized for their intelligence and orange-haired beauty, orangutans A particularly young ones A are in great demand by zoos and collectors and even, in some places, as pets and curiosities in nightclubs and circuses. A female orangutan can fetch as much as $50,000. Illegal trade thrives, according to conservation groups and wildlife authorities, even though export of any orangutan born in the wild is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international protocol. Capturing one infant orangutan, dependent on its mother for survival the first seven years of its life, almost always involves the killing of the mother. Experts estimate that at least ten wild-born orangutans die for every one that comes on the market. Animal conservationists call that genocide.

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