'True survivor': How investigators saved a baby ape trafficked on the Dark Web

·News and Video Producer
·6-min read

A still from a 23-second online video shows a kidnapped baby primate staring off camera.

Resembling a crude Hollywood ransom movie, investigators say a date was scrawled below her as proof she was currently available on the dark-web.

The seller said the captured bonobo was still in Africa and he was keen to find a buyer in Dubai. 

A short online video offered a young bonobo for sale to buyers in Dubai. Source: Supplied
A short online video offered a young bonobo for sale to buyers in Dubai. Source: Supplied

Unbeknown to the seller, his advertisement had been flagged by a Pakistani member of an international network of individuals combatting wildlife crime. 

Word travelled to Southeast Asia, and by May 24 the report had travelled back to African investigators who determined her abductor's plan was to traffic the endangered bonobo to Dubai — where she would likely be sold to be a millionaire's "plaything" or into a zoo. 

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) based rescuer Adams Cassinga was determined to find her before she left the continent, and set about analysing the video for clues. 

"We could see the environment in which the animal was and it looked like a tropical forest," Mr Cassinga told Yahoo News Australia last night. 

"The people who were talking, they had an accent, which sounded very Congolese.

"We know the range of the bonobo in our country, so we we deployed investigators in the area and we started snooping around". 

Plan to stop ape entering smuggler's route

Bonobos are second only to gorillas in value on the live primate trafficking market, and once inside the emirate, the young female Mr Cassinga was searching for could have fetched a price of between US $100,000 and $250,000.

While commonly trafficked primates like chimpanzees have a wide distribution, bonobos are rarer and live in just one place, a 500,000 square kilometre area of the Congo Basin, in Central Africa.

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The rescuer's best hope was to secure her quickly, before she was smuggled across the border into Niger, then Ethiopia and into Dubai.

Once in the emirate it would be near-impossible to get her out.

Finances come together to fund ape rescue mission

Cash for the rescue had to be organised fast.

Described as "small non-profit organisation with no budget," 39-year-old Mr Cassinga's charity, Conserv Congo, approached a number of small groups for assistance, including Bonobo Aid, which is run by a US national out of the Netherlands. 

Its founder, Kenneth Jaworski, said the call came through after the bonobo's location was pinpointed on June 23.

"The team that was being sent to go rescue was bigger... and the location was extremely remote," he said.

While new to wildlife rescue, Mr Jaworski has skills in logistics, budgeting and fundraising.

"It's like spy work, really," he said.

Plans were drawn up to rescue the bonobo, and arrest the perpetrators for prosecution. 

Seller believes buyer on way to buy ape

DRC is home to Africa'a largest forest; believed to be up to 154 million hectares. 

Stationed in the heart of the jungle, in the village of Etsshuna, an army major in his 40s was holding the bonobo captive, padlocked inside a wooden crate. 

A call came through from a man asking to see her and a meeting was arranged for June 30.

A rescue mission was launched to find the bonobo. Source: Supplied
A rescue mission was launched to find the bonobo. Source: Supplied

There was a chill in the air as the major prepared for his guests, and the young bonobo was shivering without the warmth of her mother. 

Drizzling rain may have initially obscured the identities of the approaching group of eight men, which were not who he was expecting, but instead included police and military officers, a veterinarian, two representatives of the Ministry of Environment, along with Mr Cassinga and members of his team. 

Within 30 minutes they had arrested the major and seized the bonobo. 

"You could see (the bonobo) was feeling cold because she was also being put in the very corner of a mud house," Mr Cassinga said. 

The tiny creature had likely seen her family gunned down with the Kalashnikov found inside the Major's hut and thought she was going to die, when her rescuers took her out. 

Despite her situation she showed a remarkable will to live. 

A gun was seized as the young bonobo was rescued. Source: Supplied
The bonobo's captor was keeping an old Kalashnikov nearby. Source: Supplied

"For each ape that we rescue like that, you must imagine at least 10 family members were murdered on the scene for her to be able to be harvested," Mr Cassinga said. 

"For every 10 infants harvested in the forest, for them to reach the nearest city where they're going to be sold, at least eight die. 

"(Then) against all odds she's been able to fight against infections, fight against diseases, fight against hunger, fight against fatigue, fight against stress.

"So an animal such as this one is a true survivor."

Bonobo in care and awaiting flight

Fragile and frightened, the young bonobo was transported on the back of a motorbike for 700km along a dirt road to the town of Lodja which has an airport. 

On arrival, she was placed in the hands of a surrogate mother, Mama Elando, who is employed by Friends of Bonobos of the Congo (Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo).

They operate the world's only bonobo sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo, which houses over 65 bonobos, including 15 infants aged five and under in Kinshasa. 

The not-for-profit's communications director Karen Kemp said this morning that papers are being arranged to fly the young bonobo 1500km to the sanctuary, but as they are a protected species this could take time. 

The bonobo was driven to Lodja and then taken into the arms of a surrogate mother. Source: Supplied
The bonobo was driven to Lodja and then taken into the arms of a surrogate mother. Source: Supplied

Daily phone consults with a veterinarian are helping to ensure the youngster has the best possible chance of survival, but despite having a strong appetite, she is suffering from diarrhoea. 

If the young bonobo survives, she will be quarantined and then receive a permanent surrogate mother.

"Surrogate mothers who hold, feed, bath and play with them is key to the survival of these traumatised primates," Ms Kemp said. 

"Bonobos depend on and are carried by their mothers for up to five years in the wild, so losing their mother violently causes tremendous trauma."

If she reaches adulthood, the youngster may one day be released into the charity's protected 120,000-acre Ekolo, a Bonobo forest in Equateur.

Trafficking on rise as investigations continue

Instances of online wildlife tracking are increasing and Friends of Bonobos of the Congo reported that last year they rescued more bonobos than the previous six years combined. 

Mr Jaworski is now trying to raise an additional US$2000 to help fund the prosecution of the bonobo's captors in order to make it clear that wildlife crime will not be tolerated. 

Conserv Congo are continuing to investigate a number of cases involving other primates which due to security reasons cannot be revealed at this time.

"We are the unlucky ones who have got to come and immediately go to the front lines and start fighting," Mr Cassinga said.

"But if we don't do it, who else is going to do it?"

Donations to their work can be made here: Adams Cassinga at Conserv Congo, Kenneth Jaworski at Bonobo Aid and Friends of Bonobos of the Congo.

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