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In the footsteps of Cesar, Monga, and Hussein

In the footsteps of Cesar, Monga, and Hussein

By Susana Pataro, Chair of the JGI Global Policy & Advocacy Committee. Lubumbashi, April 2023

Top photo: Visit to H.E. Msg Fulgence Muteba, Archbishop of Lubumbashi, appointed by Pope Francis in 2021. Strongly committed with the message of the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ On Care of Our Common Home. Credit: Susana Pataro

Visiting the JACK Congo Rehabilitation Centre in Lubumbashi, DRC was a profound experience for me. It provided me with a clearer understanding of the challenges faced by Franck and Roxane, the founders of the centre, ever since the heart-breaking kidnapping of three chimpanzee babies: Cesar, Monga, and Hussein, on that fateful day on 9 September, 2022.

The impact of this tragedy was still palpable, and as I walked through the centre, I could see the immense efforts taken to ensure that its activities continued uninterrupted. JACK had swiftly implemented special measures in response to the incident, including the deployment of additional security personnel to safeguard the facilities.

Living alongside the central figures of this story, both human and non-human, allowed me to witness first-hand the emotional trauma inflicted by this brutal episode. The pain and suffering experienced by these innocent animals were evident in their eyes, and it deeply affected me and added names and faces to this ongoing tragedy.

During my time in Lubumbashi, I had the opportunity of meeting some of the key individuals involved in this tragedy. I learned their names, heard their stories, and saw the determination in their eyes to make a difference. Each person I encountered played a crucial role in the fight to rehabilitate and protect these chimpanzees.

Witnessing the devastating consequences of wildlife trafficking and the immense efforts undertaken by Franck, Roxane, and their team only strengthened my resolve to support their cause.

Leaving Lubumbashi, I carried with me a profound sense of responsibility to spread awareness about the plight of these chimpanzees and do not spear means to combat the illegal wildlife trade. The visit renewed in me what Dr Jane Goodall tirelessly repeats about the interconnectedness of our world and the shared responsibility we have to protect and preserve all living beings, no matter their species. Cesar, Monga and Hussein (pictured left), the three baby chimpanzees from the sanctuary on September 9th, 2022.

Lubumbashi, with a population exceeding 2,800,000 inhabitants, stands as the third largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and serves as the mining capital of Haut Katanga province. The city is home to numerous regional mining companies, predominantly engaged in the extraction of copper, cobalt, zinc, coal, and manganese. The presence of these mining activities attracts a substantial number of Chinese nationals, whose lively presence is immediately felt upon arrival at Luano International Airport.

Located approximately 400 km away from Lubumbashi are the national parks of Upemba (established in 1939) and Kundelungu (established in 1970), which hold immense untapped tourist potential. However, due to ongoing security concerns, the rich biodiversity within these parks, consisting of zebras, elephants, buffalos, lions, leopards, black rhinos, and antelope, has suffered severe depletion over the years. Additionally, local fishermen have almost completely depleted the fish population in Lake Upemba. To address these challenges, a public-private partnership was established in 2017 between the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the NGO Forgotten Parks, and UICN NL, with the aim of developing the parks through training and other measures.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to 40% of the remaining chimpanzee population in Africa, estimated at 300,000 individuals. It is also the habitat of mountain gorillas, Grauer’s gorillas, and bonobos. While these species are protected by international law, and the DRC ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1976, the implementation of these regulations at the local level is often disregarded or hindered by various factors.

Considering the vast size of the country, comparable to most of Western Europe, there are currently only three Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) sanctuaries officially responsible for rehabilitating and reintroducing seized apes and other primates. These sanctuaries are Lola ya Bonobo, located near the capital city of Kinshasa; Lwiro, situated in South Kivu; and JACK, operating in Haut Katanga. In 2022, JACK formed a partnership with a Congolese NGO called APPACOL-PRN, based in the central province of Sankuru. Together, they combat the widespread smuggling of primates in the region. Many of these animals are either killed for bushmeat consumption or captured alive for the pet trade. The province of Sankuru, particularly the city of Lodja, has become a central hub for the illegal trafficking of protected species. APPACOL’s efforts in the area focus on combating the bushmeat and pet trade of great apes and small primates, extending their impact across the entire region.

Source: Camapaday – Ihe size of the DRC compared to Western Europe.

Image credit (top) Fernando Turmo

If I had to define the couple that Franck Chantereau and Roxane Coutenier make, I would say without hesitation that they were born for each other. If I sided with the primates of the Congo and imagined that they had their own pantheon of saints, I imagine that they would stand among their favourites.

Born in Lubumbashi, from a Belgian family with ancient roots in the Congo, Roxane is an affectionate, dedicated mother of humans and non-humans, , multilingual, with the gift of immediate and magical connection with animals. Franck, born in Lyon and obsessed since childhood with saving animals in Africa, teaches Spanish at the French Lyceum and runs a family hotel.

Their lives are rhythmed by the attention of the various animals they have rescued and the primates – most of them chimpanzees – residents in the Center created by them in 2006 in a reserve located in the city that was part of the primitive Lubumbashi Zoo. Currently, the zoo remains in a smaller space of the reserve adjacent to JACK, both with ICCN partnership.

Franck and Roxane’s primary goal when they established the centre was to put an end to the trade of chimpanzees in and around the city of Lubumbashi, where these endangered animals were being sold on the streets. And they succeeded in achieving this objective.

However, at present many chimpanzees from all over the country are in desperate need to be rescued given the increase in wildlife trafficking.

In September 2020, a truck carrying 20 primates endemic from the DRC bound for South Africa was intercepted by the Zimbabwean authorities. The operation took place on a route found to be commonly used to transfer live trafficked animals before they are exported to destination countries in Asia and the Middle East. It took 5 months, and thanks to international support, JACK was able to build the facilities to host the primates and went from being a rehabilitation centre for great apes to an official centre for the rehabilitation of primates.

This operation had enormous repercussions, it meant a blow to the traffickers and marked a milestone in the collaboration of the authorities of both countries.

On September 9, 2022, at dawn, Cesar, Monga and Hussein, three baby chimpanzees, were kidnapped from JACK – where they were in process of rehabilitation after a traumatic rescue – in exchange for a colossal ransom. Roxane was threatened with death.

The kidnapping occurred exactly two years after the Zimbabwe operation. Describing this episode as a mere coincidence, I recall J.L. Borges who said that to “accept chance exists would be ignoring the complex machinery of causality”.

The brutal episode marked a before and after in the life of the centre, the staff and founders who had to assume and extra budget for security. Roxane can no longer walk alone – a police bodyguard accompanies her at all times.

​​Worldwide media echoed the unprecedented news. A group of 36 personalities – among them renowned scientists and conservationists, addressed a special request to the President of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi. The School of Criminology of the prestigious University of Lubumbashi, in a workshop on wildlife crime in DRC, honoured with the presence of the highest provincial authorities, shared the story to a shocked audience. Soon after resources were allocated by the Provincial government and the authorities carried out several operations.

Despite the efforts made, seven months later, the investigations have not reached definitive conclusions, the babies have not been returned and there is no news of their whereabouts or their current situation. Moreover no definitions have been reached on the identity of the masterminds and those responsible for the kidnapping, who necessarily relied on some facilitator/s within the Centre itself to operate in a synchronized manner. With so many unanswered questions, it is obvious that more research is needed.

Susana is pictured here with H.E. Maghoma Nyembo, Serge, High Commissionaire in charge of the Environment, Sustainable Development and Territory Development where they shared a “fruitful exchange on the challenges of international wildlife trafficking.”

Credit: Susana Pataro

Susana pictured here with Elmer Delgado, physician, his wife Silvia and the team at Fondation Vie et Sante, Center for Surgery and Traumatology. A Prestigious Health Center for the local population. Thanks to a visiting surgeon Tommy one of JACK resident chimpanzees, was successfully operated from his right arm and a bullet removed. Credit: Susana Pataro

Great apes are still illegally hunted for their meat and parts of their body; the babies are trafficked as pets either in the local circuit or in the international market to satisfy the growing demand from Asia and the Middle East and fuelled by the social media platforms. The situation is even worse for other primate’s endemics of the DRC. Their dead and smoked bodies in numbers ranging from 900 to 1,000 are transported daily on motorbikes to large urban cities, like the capital Kinshasa. Those kept alive, along with their various injuries, are sold or trafficked as pets. The forest is emptying at a speed previously unthought of and becomes silent without the vital presence of those who make its regeneration possible.

The violence, destruction, immense suffering and planetary health risks are at the heart of organised criminal activities, a scourge that must be eradicated. Human memory is short. HIV and Ebola originated in the forests of central Africa, as SARS COVIP 19 from a wet market in Wuhan as a consequence of wildlife manipulation. The fate of the forest and its inhabitants is ours.

Education and awareness are essential, however, we are running out of time. Political leadership is more necessary than ever, from high-level authorities of the countries’ source of illegally trafficked species, to those at the point of destination and transit, as well as international agencies and specific partnerships, created to stop this fleo and protect apes.

The kidnapping of three baby apes is an obscene display of interspecies violence. Silence, apathy and inaction cannot and should not be the answer. There is a wealth of information about the kidnapping; gaps can be filled – if needed – with international assistance. The perpetrators and accomplices of the kidnapping must be identified and brought to justice. Monga, Cesar and Hussein must be find and returned to the Sanctuary.

Exceptional people like Franck and Roxane do not deserve to live under threat. Their fight should be everyone’s fight. Let’s put hope into action.

“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom” (Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ Of The Holy Father Francis On Care For Our Common Home, p.205)

With Roxane and Franck, before her departure from Lubumbashi. Credit: Susana Pataro
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