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 national who runs the JACK shelter in the Democratic Republic of Congo with her French husband Franck, says she is ‘pretty sure’ the criminals have a connection to their staff.
The chimpanzees were seized at 3 a.m. on September 9, although it is not clear how the gang managed to carry out the theft.
The armed guards overnight said they did not see or hear anything during the abduction and there is no evidence of forced entry.
The first they knew about the robbery was when they were sent ‘proof of life’ videos of the prisoners the following morning.
The gang then threatened to kill the owners and kidnap their children.
Mrs Chantereau told MailOnline: ‘This situation is very difficult to bear.
‘I still hope the babies are alive. They have been 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 is demanding a six-figure ransom for their safe return
‘But human greed has again changed their lives and brought them into deep trauma again.
‘I hope these little ones will come back to us.’
Footage shared by the kidnappers shows two of the orphans, Hussein and Cesar, climbing over upturned furniture, while Monga, a five-year-old female, has her arms tied above her head in the bare brick room.
Cesar had only been at the sanctuary for a few weeks after being rescued from a market and taking a three-day ride on the back of a motorcycle and two flights to the shelter.
Ms Chantereau said she now takes the animals into her house to sleep with them for fear they will be targeted by a human trafficking gang again.
Her husband said of the footage: ‘You can see how scared they are.’
He is working with law enforcement to try to locate the chimpanzees and ensure their return.
But the pair have not heard from the traffickers since their first video, raising fears they will not be reunited with the animals again.
Footage shared by the kidnappers shows two of the orphaned animals, Hussein and Cesar, climbing over upturned furniture
The chimpanzees are already orphaned by the animal trade, a trade estimated to be worth £20 billion a year.
Chantereau said: ‘They had all been given a second chance, but now this fresh 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, which investigates and prosecutes wildlife crimes, said Mongabay: ‘This is very rare, this is the first time, not only in Africa but in the world, that I hear about 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 so they can ask for money.
“These criminals have taken the whole of wildlife crime to a new level. And that requires law enforcement agents to step up their game as well. There is panic and fear.’
A baby chimpanzee costs around £10,000, but taking one into the wild usually involves killing its entire family.
The chimpanzee population in Africa has declined from one million at the beginning of the 20th century to about 300,000 today.
Chantereau from France established his facility in 2006, which is one of three in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is home to around 40 chimpanzees and 64 monkeys from 14 species.
It helps rehabilitate the animals rescued from human traffickers, provides food, shelter and medicine, while raising awareness of their plight.
The kidnapping has sparked concerns about a new type of crime targeting shrines.
He told Mongabay: ‘We have faced a lot of challenges for 18 years now. But we have never experienced anything like it: the kidnapping 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 help and funding from international associations like ours and the traffickers take advantage of this because the animals become all the more precious.’