LONDON-A secret network of wildlife traffickers selling baby chimpanzees has been exposed by a year-long BBC News investigation. The tiny animals are seized from the wild and sold as pets. The BBC’s research uncovered a notorious West African hub for wildlife trafficking, known as the “blue room”, and led to the rescue of a one-year-old chimp.

In a dusty back street of Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city, a tiny chimpanzee cries out for comfort.

His black hair is ruffled and his dirty nappy scrapes the concrete floor as he crawls towards the familiar figures of the men who have been holding him captive.

The baby chimp, ripped away from his family in the wild, is the victim of a lucrative and brutal smuggling operation, exposed by a 12-month-long BBC News investigation spanning half a dozen countries.

In demand as pets in wealthy homes or as performers in commercial zoos, baby chimpanzees command a price tag of $12,500, a little under £10,000, but sometimes more.

Each capture of a live infant like this one exacts a terrible cost on chimp populations. The usual tactic used by poachers is to shoot as many of the adults in a family as possible. This prevents them from resisting the capture of the baby and their bodies can then be sold as bushmeat. To obtain one infant alive, up to 10 adults are typically slaughtered.

“One has to kill the mother, one has to kill the father,” explained Colonel Assoumou Assoumou, an expert in wildlife crime with Ivory Coast Police. “If our ancestors had killed them, nowadays we wouldn’t even know about chimpanzees.”

Once captured, these baby chimps then enter a sophisticated chain that stretches from the poachers in the jungles to middlemen, who arrange false export permits and transport, and ultimately to the buyers.

The animals are in high demand in the Gulf states, south-east Asia and China, with buyers prepared to pay high prices and additional fees to help bypass international controls. And while they may be well looked-after while they are young, chimpanzees soon become too strong and potentially violent to be kept in a home.

Karl Ammann, a Swiss wildlife activist who campaigns against chimp trafficking, describes it as a “kind of slavery” and warns that when chimps cease being cute infants, they face a terrible fate. “They still have 90% of their life ahead of them,” he said. “They get locked in some cage and maybe even killed in some cases because they have outlived their useful pet stage.

That for me is just impossible to accept.”

The baby chimp discovered by the BBC had been bought from a poacher, according to one account, for 300 Euros (£257). But it was rescued en route as a result of our research - leading Interpol officials and Ivorian detectives to expose a major trafficking ring.

After months of work building relationships with dealers across a number of countries, our team tracked down the smuggling ringleaders to a house in Abidjan. Posing as prospective buyers, undercover reporters confirmed the infant chimp was at the property before alerting Interpol and local police who were waiting nearby.

During the police operation, a small room about the size of a shower cubicle was discovered, decorated with small blue tiles. Inside it, they found a tiny chimp cowering in a wooden crate.

The discovery was not only a moment of liberation for the little animal, but also a crucial turning point in a long search by wildlife campaigners to track down a notorious “blue room”, known to be used as a holding pen by traffickers and constantly restocked.

For years, when dealers had circulated videos showing captive baby chimpanzees ready for sale, the same distinctive blue tiles were visible. Understood to be in West Africa, no-one knew which country it might be in, let alone which city, until our research led police to it.

This revelation provides new insight into the potential scale of loss suffered by great apes, including chimpanzees.

An estimated 3,000 great apes, including orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, are lost from the wild every year as a result of illegal trade, according to the UN Environment Programme. They are either sold, killed during the hunt or die in captivity. About two thirds of the apes lost are chimpanzees - an endangered species.

Western chimpanzees, like the one freed in Abidjan, are judged to be especially vulnerable, so are categorised as critically endangered. There are no more than 65,000 left and probably far fewer.

Some 1,800 apes were seized by authorities in 23 countries while being trafficked between 2005 and 2011, according to the Great Ape Survival Partnership, an alliance of more than 100 governments and other organisations. A quarter of those apes rescued were chimps. Although it is unknown how many smuggled apes reach their destinations undetected, the BBC’s investigation suggests the total is almost certain to be higher than previously thought.

The illegal trade in great apes is made possible by the determination of the smugglers and the ease with which international laws on buying and selling endangered species can be evaded.

Trading of endangered wild animals and plants is tightly controlled under the Cites agreement - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - which aims to protect all wildlife under threat.

Under the convention, chimpanzees, which are awarded the highest level of protection (a listing under what is known as Appendix 1), can only be exported under a very limited number of exemptions. For example, the animals need to have been bred in captivity (which is not known to happen in West Africa) and exporting and importing organisations need to be registered with Cites.

Despite this, the BBC’s investigation revealed that with the right money and the right connections the smuggling networks can evade these controls. In fact, our team was able to buy two permits to export chimps for $4,000 each.

Posing as buyers for a client in Thailand, the team obtained their first permit in the Egyptian capital Cairo, which has long been known as a centre for animal trafficking.

Our undercover reporter began negotiations over a secure messaging service with two pet traders, Mahmoud Khaled and Ramadan Abdelnaiem. The pair shared videos of infant chimps held inside the infamous blue-tiled room and offered to secure Cites permits allowing the animals to be exported.

Khaled even promised to provide video footage of the chimp’s progress en route to its destination.

“When [the] thing is shipped and put in boxes, you will receive a video,” he said. “When it goes to the airport, you receive a video, when it lands at the airport, you will receive a video. [When] it is shipped, you will receive a video. When it is put in the airplane, you receive a video...”

While Khaled offered to obtain a Cites Appendix 1 permit, enabling the export of chimps, Ramadan suggested an alternative technique: getting permits for less endangered animals and then hiding the chimps among them. Both these methods are recognised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as “wildlife laundering”, when smugglers use fraudulent paperwork or mix protected species with legal shipments of wildlife.

A video sent to the BBC’s undercover team by a dealer in West Africa shows how chimps and other endangered animals are smuggled in secret compartments in specially-designed crates.

Here, this baby chimpanzee was hidden below animals including parrots, civet cats and mongoose which have less protection in international law. The shipment was made from West Africa and destined for Nepal.

The chimp shown in this video, however, never made it. Messages found on the dealer’s mobile phone revealed that the chimpanzee had died, still hidden in the crate in transit at Istanbul airport.

The BBC undercover team accepted Khaled’s offer and picked up the Appendix 1 permit two weeks later. Clumsily filled-in, with spelling mistakes and other inaccuracies, it appeared to be signed and stamped by a Jordanian government official. It showed our fake address and a simple internet search would have revealed it was not a Cites-registered institution.

The next step was to see if we could arrange to buy the chimps, but at this point Khaled, called the deal off, afraid of being exposed. With the Egyptian deal fallen through, the team decided to deal directly with the source of the chimpanzees in West Africa.

This time pretending to be an Indonesian pet shop acting for wealthy clients, our team made contact with a young dealer in Guinea called Ibrahima Traore. Again communicating over a secure messaging service, the team built up a relationship with Traore, aged just 22, who began to send us videos of chimpanzees - once more in the setting of the blue room. It became clear that the room was being constantly re-stocked.

Traore said he could sell us one or two baby chimps as well as a Cites permit. This time, the document the BBC team received looked genuine, though it was falsely filled in, and was signed and stamped by the national parks of Liberia.