“This is the first time in the world that baby monkeys have been kidnapped for ransom,” Franck Chantereau, founder of the sanctuary where the kidnapping took place, told CNN on Friday.
His sanctuary, called Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga (abbreviated JACK in French), is in Lubumbashi, near the DRC-Zambia border, on a key route from Congo to South Africa by which the monkeys are smuggled to the rest of the world.
Abductors broke into the sanctuary around 3 a.m. on September 9, Chantereau said, and took away three of the five baby chimpanzees he had rescued so far this year – César, Hussein and Monga. Later, he found the other two hiding in the kitchen.
An hour after the burglary, Chantereau’s wife received three messages and a video of the chimpanzees abducted by the kidnappers.
“They told us that they planned to kidnap my children because they were supposed to come here on vacation. But they didn’t come so the kidnappers took these three babies hostage and demanded a large ransom from us,” said Chantereau.
The kidnappers claimed to have drugged the chimpanzees and threatened to harm them if Chantereau did not pay the ransom.
“Obviously, it is impossible for us to pay the ransom,” Chantereau said. “Not only do we not have the money, but you have to understand that if we go their way, they could very well start again in two months, and in addition we have no guarantee that they will return the baby to us.”
Chantereau also feared it would open the door to more kidnappings. “There are 23 shrines across the continent doing this. If we pay the ransom, it could set a precedent and it could give ideas to others, so we have to be extremely vigilant,” he said. .
“We will not give in to this kind of demand,” Michel Koyakpa, media adviser to the Congolese environment minister, told CNN on Friday.
“(The kidnapping) is inhumane and unnatural,” Koyakpa said.
Authorities are still investigating and trying to identify the kidnappers, hoping to find them in the coming days or weeks, according to Koyakpa.
The kidnapping is “the first of its kind in the history of the DRC”, he added.
However, this is not the first time that the Chantereau sanctuary has been targeted. Months after it was founded in 2006, a group of people broke in at night and set fire to the baby chimps’ sleeping quarters, killing two of the five who were there at the time.
In September 2013, the shrine’s educational center was burned down, but there were no casualties, according to Chantereau.
It has now been almost two weeks since Chantereau received any proof from the kidnappers that the chimpanzees were still alive, and he is worried.
“We cannot go back to our daily lives, we are completely devastated,” he said.
But Chantereau said the kidnapping would not shake her resolve to save the baby chimpanzees from the clutches of smugglers.
“To catch the babies they have to kill the whole family in the jungle, usually between 8 and 10 individual monkeys, and a lot of the baby monkeys will die before they reach their final destination,” Chantereau said.
According to Chantereau, many of the buyers of the smuggled babies are wealthy people who want to keep exotic pets in their homes.
“They don’t understand the consequences of their actions because for just one little baby to come into their hands, at least 10 have been killed,” he said.
It’s also dangerous, because chimpanzees grow quickly and an adult chimpanzee can kill an adult human with their bare hands.
Chantereau has no hope for the future. “I know that unfortunately this (kidnappings) will happen more and more often,” he said.
“All these animals are becoming rarer in the forest. We in the sanctuaries, we have animals, they are in good health. It is clear that it is much easier for these people to attack us.”