Three baby chimpanzees were kidnapped from a wildlife sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier this month, and the abductors are demanding a six-figure payment for their return.
“This is very rare. This is the first time, not just in Africa but the world, that I am hearing of this,” Adams Cassinga, director of Congolese wildlife conservation nonprofit Conserv Congo, tells Mongabay. “We have heard [of] people using wildlife as a shield or as a political or social agenda. This is the first time I have heard of people literally kidnapping animals so that they can ask for money.”
The kidnappers broke into J.A.C.K., a sanctuary in the Congolese city of Lubumbashi, around 3 a.m. on September 9, taking three of five baby chimps held there. The animals—named Hussein, Monga and César—had been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade and recently brought to the sanctuary. An hour after the break-in, one of J.A.C.K.'s founders, Roxane Chantereau, received WhatsApp messages from the kidnappers and a video of the three baby chimps.
“It is a nightmare… it was such a disaster,” Roxane’s husband, Franck, tells Mongabay. “We have faced a lot of challenges for 18 years now. But we have never experienced anything like this: the kidnapping of apes. They also threatened to kidnap my own kids and wife.”
In the following days, the kidnappers continued to message Roxane, threatening to decapitate one of the chimps and sell the others to traffickers if the ransom was not paid, per the New York Times’ Rachel Nuwer.
The Times reports that wildlife trafficking is common in the DRC, where few international conservation groups work. This leaves the country underserved and without the necessary resources to fight the illegal industry, Cassinga tells the publication.
Now, smugglers may be becoming bolder—and fueled by the demand for exotic pets, Franck tells CNN. Baby chimpanzees can sell for around $12,500 on the black market and sometimes garner an even higher sum, a BBC News investigation revealed in January. Most are captured by poachers, who shoot as many accompanying adults as possible to keep them from resisting and to sell as bushmeat. The capture of one baby results in up to 10 adults being killed, per BBC News. The DRC is both a main area of origin and transit country for the trafficking of great apes.
Chimpanzees are considered endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, with a declining population trend because of poaching, infectious diseases and habitat loss.
Franck says paying the price for the three babies may only lead to future kidnapping scenarios.
“Obviously, it’s impossible for us to pay the ransom,” he tells CNN’s Xiaofei Xu and Marguerite Lacroix. “Not only do we not have the money, but you need to understand that if we go their way, they could very well do it again in two months, and also we have no guarantee that they will return the baby to us… There are 23 sanctuaries across the continent doing this. If we pay the ransom, it could set a precedent and it could give ideas to others, so we must be extremely vigilant.”
J.A.C.K. has been targeted before. In 2006, shortly after its founding, arsonists set fire to the baby chimps’ sleeping area, and two of the five babies that the sanctuary had at the time died, per CNN. In 2013, another fire was set in the sanctuary’s education center, but that time, no chimps were killed.
Franck says to CNN that great ape abductions from sanctuaries will likely become more common as the animals disappear in the wild. Still, he tells the Times that he hopes the public attention drawn to their baby chimps will lead the kidnappers to return them.
“Franck and I feel desperate and lost,” Roxane wrote on a fundraising campaign. “We don't sleep any more. We hardly eat. Our minds are focused on these little ones as we don't know how they feel, how they are or if they are still alive.”