Roxane Chantereau, co-founder of the JACK Primate Rehabilitation Center in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, awakened before to morning two weeks ago to the chirp of incoming WhatsApp messages. Someone had emailed her a frightening video of two infant chimps crawling over a filthy, furniture-strewn dirt floor. The camera zoomed across the room to see a third chimpanzee tied above her head and standing on a dresser.
The senders threatened to murder the chimpanzees unless Ms. Chantereau paid them a six-figure payment in three phone messages. In addition, they threatened to murder her and abduct her two children.
Ms. Chantereau identified Monga, César, and Hussein as the juvenile chimpanzees in the film. The animals were recently taken from Ms. Chantereau and her French husband Franck’s wildlife refuge, JACK. All of the center’s 40 chimpanzees and 64 monkeys of 14 species were rescued from the illicit wildlife trade in the Congo.
In Congo, illegal wildlife trade is all too widespread. However, this is the first occasion that a primate has been kidnapped and held for ransom from a sanctuary anywhere in Africa. While an endangered pangolin was kidnapped for ransom in another section of the nation earlier this year, it was taken from a forest rather than a high-security institution. The two occurrences have alarmed wildlife crime specialists in Congo, who believe that animal abduction for ransom may become a common criminal technique in the nation.
As the official care facilities for seized animals, sanctuaries like JACK “are a crucial partner in implementing wildlife regulations,” according to Iris Ho, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance’s director of policy. It is as important to safeguard animals in sanctuaries as it is to preserve creatures in the wild.
In Congo, sanctuaries and national parks have the same legal protections. However, it is now more difficult for the Chantereaus to assist in the rescue of animals from traffickers since JACK no longer feels safe. Mr. Chantereau said, “We now bring the surviving infants to our home to sleep with us because we are so anxious.”
In the days after the kidnapping, Ms. Chantereau received more threats to behead one of the infant chimps and sell the other two to Chinese traffickers, according to Mr. Chantereau. Since then, though, the abductors have been quiet. Mr. Chantereau said, “We have no news, which causes great concern.”
Due to the continuing nature of the inquiry, the National Intelligence Agency — Congo’s version of the FBI — refused an interview request.
According to Mr. Chantereau, however, the authorities are treating the issue “extremely seriously” and see the theft of these infants as a national security concern.
Congo contributes significantly to conservation efforts. It has the second-largest tropical forest in the world and the third-highest variety of primates, behind Brazil and Madagascar. It is also the only country in Africa where all four of the continent’s big apes dwell, including chimpanzees, bonobos, western and eastern gorillas. It also boasts the greatest chimpanzee population of any nation.
Mr. Cassinga said that the nation has seen decades of injustice, social turmoil, civil conflict, and corruption, and when paired with high levels of poverty and a geopolitical location “in the heart of Africa,” it has become a centre for wildlife trafficking. Mr. Cassinga noted that few foreign conservation organisations operate in Congo, leaving the country – the biggest in sub-Saharan Africa — under-resourced and neglected in the fight against illicit trafficking.
In addition to being a hub for the trafficking of ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales, Mr. Chantereau stated that poaching of live baby chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos is booming in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, driven by a growing demand for pet primates in China, Pakistan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. In order to capture a single infant, poachers would generally kill up to ten adults.
As with other monkey sanctuaries in Congo, JACK accepts primates seized from the criminal trade, which are considered state property under Congolese law. Mr. Chantereau said that many apes and monkeys come in sanctuaries addicted to alcohol or narcotics, and they are all disturbed. Mr. Chantereau remarked of the three abducted chimps, “We succeeded to bring them out of this horror.” “The horror has begun once again.”
The nighttime armed guards of JACK said that they saw and heard nothing on the evening of his kidnapping, and police uncovered no signs of forced entry. Given this, the Chantereaus are “very certain” that at least one of their employees is connected to the crooks, according to Mr. Chantereau.
He is attempting to maintain optimism that the growing public interest in the case will convince the abductors to return the three chimps. “We hope to discover them one morning in front of the door,” he added. We hope that they are still alive.
However, Mr. Cassinga cautioned that it would be necessary to bring the offenders to justice. “If they get away with this, similar situations will occur again and again,” he said. Government, civic society, and the international community must convey a unified message that this behaviour will not be accepted.