Two weeks ago, Roxane Chantereau, co-founder of the JACK Primate Rehabilitation Center in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, woke up before dawn to the buzz of incoming WhatsApp messages. someone had sent it a disturbing video showing two baby chimpanzees scampering across a dingy dirt floor strewn with topped-off furniture. The video panned across the room to show a third chimpanzee standing on a dresser with his arms chained above his head.
In three voice messages, the senders threatened to kill the chimpanzees unless Ms. Chantereau paid them a six-figure sum. They also threatened to kill her and kidnap her two children.
Ms. Chantereau recognized the young chimpanzees in the video as Monga, Cesar, and Hussein. The animals had just been seized from JACK, a wildlife sanctuary that Ms. Chantereau, a Belgian citizen, runs with her French husband, Franck. The center provides a refuge for 40 chimpanzees and 64 monkeys of 14 species, all rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in the Congo.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is all too common in the Congo. But the chimp’s nap is the first time a primate is known to have been stolen from a sanctuary anywhere in Africa and held for ransom. While an endangered pangolin was held for ransom earlier this year in another region of the country, he was captured from a forest rather than abducted from a high-security facility. The two incidents worry the country’s wildlife crime experts, who fear that kidnapping animals for ransom could become a tactic used by more criminals in Congo.
“I think this shows how fragile the situation is in our country,” said Adams Cassinga, founder of conserve the congoa non-profit group fighting wildlife trafficking in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As designated care centers for confiscated wildlife, sanctuaries like JACK “are an essential partner in enforcing wildlife laws,” said Iris Ho, policy director for the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. “Protecting animals in sanctuaries is just as important as protecting animals in the wild.”
In the Congo, sanctuaries have the same legal protections as national parks. But for the Chantereaus, helping to rescue animals from traffickers is now more difficult because JACK no longer feels safe. “Now, we bring the remaining babies to our house to sleep with us, because we are so worried,” Chantereau said.
In the days after the kidnapping, Chantereau received more messages threatening to behead one of the chimpanzee babies and sell the other two to Chinese traffickers, Chantereau said. But since then, the hijackers have gone silent. “We don’t have news that worries us very much,” Chantereau said.
The National Intelligence Agency, Congo’s equivalent of the FBI, declined an interview request, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.
However, according to Chantereau, the authorities are taking the case “very seriously” and “consider the theft of these babies as a threat to the security of the country.”
Congo plays an invaluable role in conservation. It is home to the second largest tropical forest in the world and has the third highest diversity of primates, after Brazil and Madagascar. It is also the only nation in Africa where all four of the continent’s great apes live: chimpanzees, bonobos, mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas. It also has the largest population of chimpanzees of any country.
But the country has suffered decades of injustice, social unrest, civil war and corruption, Cassinga said, and combined with high levels of poverty and a geopolitical positioning “smack in the heart of Africa,” it has become a center for wildlife trafficking. Few international conservation groups work in Congo, Cassinga added, leaving the country, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, with few resources and insufficient services when it comes to combating illegal trade.
As well as being a hub for trafficking in ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales, poaching of live baby chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos is also on the rise in the Congo, fueled by a growing demand for primates as pets in places like China, Pakistan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Chantereau said. To capture a single baby, poachers often shoot up to 10 adults.
“There is collateral damage that is much more extensive than just that one animal,” Ms Ho said. “There is a whole family that has been killed.”
As with other primate sanctuaries in the Congo, JACK receives animals recovered from the illegal trade, which under Congolese law are considered state property. Many apes and monkeys arrive at the sanctuaries addicted to alcohol or drugs, Chantereau said, and all are left traumatized. “We managed to get them out of this hell,” Chantereau said of the three kidnapped chimpanzees. “Now the nightmare is starting again.”
JACK’s armed overnight guards said they hadn’t seen or heard anything the night of the abduction, and investigators also found no evidence of forced entry. Given this, the Chantereaus are “pretty confident” that the criminals must have a connection to at least one of their staff members, Chantereau said.
He is trying to remain optimistic that the public attention the case is drawing will encourage the kidnappers to return the three chimpanzees. “We hope to find them at the door one morning,” she said. “We hope they are still alive.”
Mr. Cassinga cautioned, however, that it would be important to bring criminals to justice. “If they get away with it, these cases are going to happen over and over again,” he said. “The government, civil society and the international community must come together and send a clear message that this will not be tolerated.”