Chimp traffickers holding three monkeys captive are sending "proof of life" videos to support their ransom demand in what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind hostage situation.
The gang kidnapped the young chimpanzees from a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this month and are threatening to kill them unless a ransom is paid.
They have repeatedly sent messages demanding a six-figure ransom, with proof of life videos that show one of the chimps with her arms tied above her head.
The gang says that they will decapitate the animals and send their heads back to the sanctuary if they do not get the money.
The apes, who are aged between 2 and 5, were kidnapped earlier this month when a gang broke into the JACK Primate Rehabilitation Centre in the dead of night.
"It is a nightmare … it was such a disaster," the centre's founder Franck Chantereau told the environmental outlet Mongabay. "We have faced a lot of challenges for 18 years now. But we have never experienced anything like this: the kidnapping of apes."
Kidnapping of apes could be first in the world
JACK is one of three ape sanctuaries in the war-stricken Central African country. It is home to around 40 chimpanzees and other primates, such as the endangered golden-bellied mangabey. The organization is working with law enforcement agencies to rescue the chimps.
Adams Cassinga, from ConservCongo, a Congolese NGO that investigates wildlife crimes, told reporters that it might be the first kidnapping of an ape in the world.
"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 said.