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 citizen who runs the JACK shelter in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her French husband Franck, says she is ‘quite sure’ the criminals have a connection to their staff.
The chimpanzees were seized at 3am on September 9 although it is not clear how the gang managed to pull off the heist.
The overnight armed guards said they did not see or hear anything during the abduction and there is no evidence of forced entry.
The first they knew of the heist was when they were sent ‘proof of life’ videos by the captors the following morning.
The gang then threatened to kill the owners and kidnap their children.
Mrs Chantereau told MailOnline: ‘This situation is very hard to bear.
‘I still hope the babies are alive. They have been through so much trauma before we rescued them. We were so happy we could finally offer them a better life.
A gang has kidnapped three young chimpanzees from a Congolese sanctuary and are demanding a six-figure ransom for their safe return
‘But human greed has again changed the course of their life and brought them in deep trauma again.
‘I hope these little ones will come back to us.’
Footage shared by the kidnappers shows two of the orphaned animals, Hussein and Cesar, clambering 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 he was rescued from a market and taken on a three-day trip on the back of a motorcycle and two flights to the shelter.
Mrs Chantereau said she is now taking the animals into her house to sleep with them through fear they will be targeted by a trafficking gang again.
Her husband said of the footage: ‘You can see how terrified they are.’
He is working with law enforcement agencies to try to locate the chimps and ensure their safe return.
But the couple have not heard from the traffickers since their initial 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, clambering over upturned furniture
The chimps are already orphans due to animal trafficking, a trade worth an estimated £20billion a year.
Mr 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 prosecute wildlife crimes, told Mongabay: ‘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.
‘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.’
A baby chimp costs around £10,000 but taking one in the wild normally involves killing its entire family.
The chimp population in Africa has plummeted from a million at the start of the 20th century to around 300,000 today.
Mr Chantereau, from France, set up his facility in 2006 which is one of three in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is home to around 40 chimpanzees and 64 monkeys from 14 species.
It helps rehabilitate the animals rescued from traffickers, providing food, shelter and medication while raising awareness of their plight.
The kidnapping has sparked concern for a new type of crime targeting sanctuaries.
He told Mongabay: ‘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.’
Florence Teneau, from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, which helps to fund the Jack sanctuary, said: ‘These shelters receive a lot of aid and funds from international associations, like ours, and the traffickers take advantage of this, because the animals become all the more precious.’