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Trafficked: Kidnapped chimps, jailed rhino horn traffickers, and seized donkey parts

Two chimpanzees in the wild

Two chimpanzees in the wild. Image courtesy of JACK Primate Rehabilitation Center.

  • Armed intruders who kidnapped three young chimpanzees from a sanctuary in the DRC have threatened to kill them unless a ransom is paid for the apes’ return.
  • Calls for renewed focus on organized crime in wildlife trafficking, as specialized courts in Uganda and the DRC are delivering convictions for wildlife crimes that in the past would likely have gone unpunished.
  • A seizure in Nigeria has sounded the latest alarm over growing exports of donkey parts for traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Trafficked is Mongabay’s bi-weekly bulletin rounding up brief stories from the illegal wildlife trade in Africa.

LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo — Three chimpanzees have been kidnapped and are being held for ransom after intruders broke into a primate sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Franck Chantereau, founder of the J.A.C.K. Primate Rehabilitation Centre, says the kidnappers got into the 7-hectare (17-acre) facility in the southern city of Lubumbashi at around 3 a.m. on Sept. 9 and took the chimps away.

Since then, the kidnappers have sent the center repeated messages demanding a ransom. Chantereau says they have threatened to kill the apes, aged between 2 and 5 years old, and send their heads back to the sanctuary if their demands are not met. J.A.C.K. is working with law enforcement agencies and other partners to find the kidnappers and rescue the young chimpanzees; law enforcement has asked that some details of the case be withheld.

“It is a nightmare … it was such a disaster,” Chantereau told Mongabay by phone from the DRC. “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.”

Three young chimpanzees were taken from the J.A.C.K. Primate Rehabilitation Centre in Lubumbashi in the early hours of Sep. 9. Image courtesy of J.A.C.K Primate Rehabilitation Centre.

J.A.C.K. is one of three ape sanctuaries in the DRC and is currently home to around 40 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and diverse primates, including the endangered golden-bellied mangabey (Cercocebus chrysogaster), lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) and Wolf’s mona monkey (Cercopithecus wolfi). Since it was founded in 2006, the center’s team has rehabilitated chimpanzees and other primates rescued from wildlife traffickers, provided shelter, food, and medication for the animals, and worked to improve public awareness of the illegal wildlife trade.

Adams Cassinga, director of ConservCongo, a Congolese NGO that investigates and helps prosecute wildlife crimes, says the incident is a worrying sign that wildlife traffickers are becoming bolder in the absence of effective law enforcement.

“This is very rare, this is the first time, not just in Africa but the world, that I am hearing of this. 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,” he told Mongabay in a phone interview.

“These criminals have taken the entire wildlife crime to a new level. And it demands that law enforcement agents step up their games as well. There is panic and fear.”

The chimps’ kidnapping from the Lubumbashi sanctuary comes just weeks after an apparent arson attack on the offices of APPACOL-PRN, an NGO that confiscates protected animal parts and live wildlife from traffickers, and frequently cooperates with animal sanctuaries like J.A.C.K.

The Aug. 8 fire in Lodja, a city in the central DRC province of Sankuru, destroyed all the organization’s records, campaign materials, and equipment.

“We are certain that this fire was set deliberately by people linked to animal trafficking, APPACOL-PRN director Heritier Mpo said in an email, “because in the two months prior, we received many threats after helping with the confiscation of pangolin scales, bonobos, okapi skins, parrots, and the arrest of traffickers with weapons they use to kill animals.”

Mpo says the incident will hamper the group’s work, but the organization plans to rebuild and continue.

The Aug. 8 fire in Lodja, central DRC, destroyed all the NGO APPACOL-PRN’s records and equipment. Image courtesy of J.A.C.K Primate Rehabilitation Centre.

BLANTYRE — Ahead of publishing a new assessment of threats to rhinos worldwide, Olivia Swaak-Goldman, executive director of the Wildlife Justice Commission, says greater international cooperation is needed to identify and investigate criminal networks behind poaching, purchasing, and trafficking rhino horns.

Swaak-Goldman told Mongabay that analysis of rhino horn seizures over the past 10 years suggest organized crime as the driving force for rhino poaching and trafficking of their horns.

“The poaching of rhinos and the trafficking of their horns continues to pose a threat to their existence and increasingly at a level which is indicative of transnational organized crime. Over the past ten years rhino horn seizures increased significantly in weight, despite a reduction in poaching, largely dominated by six countries and territories.”

In August, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and wildlife trafficking organization TRAFFIC published a report suggesting poaching of both African and Asian rhinos has declined to its lowest point since 2018. The report said 2,707 rhinos were poached across Africa between 2018 and 2021, but rhino poaching rates on the continent have declined from a peak of 5.3% of the total population in 2015 to 2.3% in 2021.

Ninety percent of recorded cases of rhino poaching occurred in South Africa, mostly killings of the near-threatened white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) in Kruger National Park. Overall, white rhino numbers declined by almost 10% in the three years up to 2021, while populations of the critically endangered black rhino (Diceros bicornis) increased by roughly 12%.

“There is irrefutable evidence pointing to the involvement of organized crime that is driving rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking,” she said.

“It is clear that countries and territories along the rhino horn supply chain can benefit from looking at this issue through a criminal justice lens and not only conservation lens,” said Swaak-Goldman.

“Broader and more consistent use of advanced law enforcement practices typically applied in other types of organized crime must be employed to ensure a coordinated global response to address rhino horn trafficking.”

White rhino in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Image by Rhett Butler.

KAMPALA — The Uganda Wildlife Authority has welcomed the latest in a series of successful prosecutions by a special court focused on wildlife crimes. Al-Maamari Maged Mutahar Ali and Abubakari Mustafa, who were arrested at Entebbe airport on May 29 with 26 pieces of rhino horn weighing 15 kilograms (33 pounds), were on Sept. 14 convicted and fined the equivalent of $42,000 by the Utilities, Standards and Wildlife Court in Kampala.

Bashir Hangi, communications manager for the UWA, says the specialized court, established in 2017, has helped strengthen prosecution of crimes like poaching and trafficking of wildlife. Before it was set up, Hangi says, judges too frequently released defendants despite strong evidence of their guilt. He said this was due to poor understanding among members of the judiciary of the value of wildlife.

“There are individuals who will play games here and there,” he told Mongabay, “but somehow you find that generally we are enjoying support lately from these agencies because they realized that wildlife is not for UWA but for Uganda and Ugandans, and it is in their interest to protect it.”

Earlier this month, on Sept. 1, the same court sentenced Vincent Tumuhirwa and Robert Ariho to 10 years in prison for illegal possession of a protected wildlife species. The two men had hunted and killed lions (Panthera leo) and white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) in the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Specialized courts for wildlife crimes have also recently been set up in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. In July, a 10-day session of a mobile court established to hear the large backlog of cases against wildlife trafficking, illegal fishing, and natural resource exploitation in Virunga National Park tried dozens of cases, including trafficking in elephant ivory, hippo teeth, and lion skins.

Alongside trying wildlife trafficking cases, the mobile court held information sessions about laws protecting wildlife attended by around 600 members of local communities.

Poachers Vincent Tumuhirwa and Robert Ariho hunted and killed lions like these in the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Image by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

LAGOS — Nigeria Customs Service officers have seized around 7,000 donkey penises at Lagos’s international airport. The consignment, falsely declared as bull penises, was destined for Hong Kong.

While Nigerian law enforcement does not keep statistics, customs officers have intercepted several large outbound shipments of donkey skins in the past two years, primarily destined for China for use in traditional medicine. In 2021, customs officers intercepted 2,820 pieces of donkey skin.

“The scale is shocking. The scale shows there are cartels involved in this. This cartel might not necessarily be operating from Nigeria,” says Olajide Oladipo, executive director of Netlink Environmental Organization, a nonprofit conservation and advocacy organization. “It calls for serious action. It shows that awareness is still very low.”

In 2020, a Nigeria senator proposed a ban on the killing of donkeys or trade in its skin or other parts.

While the Donkey Dealers Association of Nigeria opposed the bill two years ago as too restrictive, the association has more recently called for stiffer penalties against smugglers of donkey body parts.

Donkeys in Africa are increasingly being killed for body parts trading. Image by Africa Gómez via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal are among African countries that have recently banned the export of donkey skins and derivatives to meet growing demand from China.

According to The Donkey Sanctuary, a U.K.-based animal welfare and rescue charity, around 4.8 million donkeys are slaughtered every year for their skins, rich in collagen, an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. The charity says domestic supplies meet less than 50% of China’s demand for donkey skins.


CORRECTION (Sep. 22, 2022): An earlier version of this article said that WJC’s threat assessment of rhinos would be published on Sep. 22. In fact, it will only be published in October.

Banner image courtesy of J.A.C.K Primate Rehabilitation Centre.

Benjamin Jumbe in Kampala, Charles Mpaka in Blantyre, and Orji Sunday in Lagos contributed to this bulletin.

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