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The owner of a sanctuary where three orphaned chimpanzees were kidnapped by a gang demanding a six-figure ransom, fears it was an inside job.
Roxane Chantereau, a Belgian who runs the JACK shelter in the Democratic Republic of Congo with her French husband Franck, says he is “pretty sure” that the criminals have a connection with their staff.
The chimpanzees were seized at 3 a.m. on Sept. 9, although it’s not clear how the gang managed to pull off the heist.
The nighttime armed guards said they saw or heard nothing during the kidnapping and there is no evidence of burglary.
The first thing they knew about the robbery was when they got “proof of life” videos from the kidnappers the next morning.
The gang then threatened to kill the owners and kidnap their children.
Ms Chantereau told MailOnline: ‘This situation is very hard to bear.
“I still hope the babies are still alive. They went through so much trauma before we rescued them. We were so happy that we could finally offer them a better life.
A gang has kidnapped three young chimpanzees from a Congolese sanctuary and demanded a six-figure ransom for their safe return
“But human greed has once again changed the course of their lives and once again deeply traumatized them.
“I hope these little ones come back to us.”
Footage shared by the kidnappers shows two of the orphans, Hussein and Cesar, clambering over upturned furniture, while Monga, a five-year-old woman, has her arms tied above her head in the bare brick room.
Cesar had only been at the shelter for a few weeks after he was rescued from a market and taken on a three-day trip on the back of a motorbike and two flights to the shelter.
Ms Chantereau said she is now taking the animals home to sleep with them for fear they will again be targeted by a people-smuggling ring.
Her husband said of the images: “You can see how terrified they are.”
He is working with law enforcement agencies to try to locate the chimpanzees and ensure they return safely.
But the couple hasn’t heard from the traffickers since their first video, leaving them worried they won’t be reunited with the animals.
Footage shared by the kidnappers shows two of the orphaned animals, Hussein and Cesar, clambering over upturned furniture
The chimpanzees have already been orphaned as a result of the pet trade, a trade estimated to be worth £20 billion a year.
Mr Chantereau said: ‘They had all been given a second chance, but now this new horror.’
The black market is driven by collectors of body parts and live animals in Asia and the United Arab Emirates.
Adams Cassinga, director of ConservCongo that investigates and prosecutes wildlife crime, said: Mongabay: ‘This is very rare, this is the first time, not only in Africa but in the world, that I hear of this. We have heard [of] people who use wildlife as a shield or as a political or social agenda.
‘This is the first time I’ve heard of people literally kidnapping animals to ask for money.
“These criminals have taken all wildlife crime to a new level. And it requires law enforcement to step up their game too. There is panic and fear.’
A baby chimpanzee costs around £10,000, but if you take one in the wild, you normally have to kill the whole family.
The chimpanzee population in Africa has plummeted from one million in the early 20th century to about 300,000 today.
Mr Chantereau, from France, established his facility in 2006, one of three in the Democratic Republic of Congo and home to approximately 40 chimpanzees and 64 monkeys of 14 species.
It helps to rehabilitate the animals rescued from traffickers by providing food, shelter and medicine while raising awareness of their plight.
The kidnapping has raised concerns about a new kind of crime targeting shrines.
He told Mongabay: “We have been facing a lot of challenges for 18 years now. But we’ve never seen anything like it: the abduction of monkeys. They also threatened to kidnap my own children and wife.’
Florence Teneau, of the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, which helps fund the Jack Sanctuary, said: “These shelters receive a lot of aid and money from international associations, like ours, and the traffickers benefit because the animals are the most important more precious.”