Zimbabwe repatriates 20 poached DRC primates in transit to South Africa

Zimbabwe repatriates 20 poached DRC primates in transit to South Africa


After months of coordinated international effort the Jeunes Animaux Confisqués au Katanga (JACK) sanctuary welcomed 20 monkeys to their new home.

The monkeys, natives of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were confiscated in September 2020 following a surgical strike on an international wildlife crime syndicate that operates between the DRC and South Africa.

The recovery of the primates has been hailed as a historic as it is the first such operation in Africa during which poached animals were repatriated to natural habitats.

The traffickers were intercepted by Zimbabwean immigration officials as they tried to cross into Zambia. Zimbabwean officials moved with speed to confiscate the animals and arrested the traffickers after the latter failed to produce requisite permits for wildlife movement.

The arrested persons were identified as MbambiI John, Msiwa Overton, Begoex Nzeyi Okitelanga and Bulangongo Ekaye. The four were charged under Zimbabwean laws on wildlife conservation that prohibit movement of rare species, a category to which the monkeys belong.

The four men were unable to produce a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) permit, export permit from the DRC, in-transit permit from Zambia, in-transit permit from Zimbabwe and an import permit from South Africa. That means they did not have the necessary authorisation to transport the monkeys.

They tried and found guilty of all the three counts by a Karoi magistrate’s court. The court fined them a total of $6000 or serve six months in prison in default. Being foreigners, will be deported to their respective countries upon payment of the fine or completion of the jail term.

The monkeys were subsequently surrendered to Zimbabwe for repatriation to the DRC. Zimbabwean judiciary has been hailed for bold decision and described as “understanding the importance of this case as well as the need for repatriation of the monkeys.”

During the repatriation the monkeys were taken care of by Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority supported by the Chirundu Anti-Poaching Unit, Hemmersbach Rhino Force and the Tikki Hywood Foundation.

The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) – a network of 23 primate sanctuaries across 13 African countries – was alerted as soon as the animals were confiscated.

“A truck with smuggled primates is almost certainly part of a wildlife crimes syndicate,” said Executive Director of PASA Gregg Tully. “We knew immediately that this was a significant rescue. In fact, it’s the largest in PASA’s 20-year history.”

The interception is one of the biggest illegal wildlife trafficking haulage in Zimbabwe and one which has led to better understanding of how the illegal wildlife trade is changing and how laws must be reviewed to take care of such as this within the structure of the different country’s legislation.

The success is an outcome of coordinated and combined efforts of the Zimbabwean police, Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, National Prosecuting Authority of Zimbabwe and the Department of Veterinary Services.

JACK received authorisation from the Congolese government to be the official repatriation site. Franck Chantereau, founder and chair of JACK worked with a joint mission of leaders at the ICCN, which is tasked with the protection of wildlife by the Congolese government. Chantereau is the governor of Katanga Province.

Acting in solidarity with the Provincial Minister for Environment, the organisations negotiated with their counterparts in Zimbabwe to work out the logistics of the rescue.

In addition, non-governmental organisations assisted in ensuring the operation was successful both in the DRC and in Zimbabwe. The groups include Conserve Congo, a non-profit that investigates wildlife crimes in DRC. In Zimbabwe, Chirundu Anti-Poaching Unit, Hemmersbach Rhino Force and the Tikki Hywood Foundation took part in the rescue.

“International rescues are quite challenging,” said Chantereau. “But working together and being patient yet persistent were the qualities we needed to be successful.”

In late January of 2021, Congolese Provincial Minister of the Environment who is also an ICCN representative as wells as JACK veterinarian, drove to Zimbabwe to retrieve the monkeys.

At the Chirundu border post, where the monkeys were confiscated, the DRC team was given custody of the wildlife. They relocated back to DRC following facilitation by Hemmersbach Rhino Force.

“The next morning,” said Chantereau, “it was wonderful to see the enclosures full of monkeys! They were running, playing, jumping.” He noted that the monkeys were still quite small and were probably very young when they were poached.

This case represents a victory in the fight against wildlife crimes. Many wildlife conservation organisations contributed to the success of this mission. Financial support came from Olsen Animal Trust, Réserve Africaine de Sigean, Foundation Brigitte Bardot, International Primate Protection League, San Diego Zoo Global, Dutch Federation of Zoos, Pro Wildlife, Columbus Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Global Wildlife Conservation, Zoo de la Palmyre, International Fund for Animal Welfare, GaiaZoo, LAJA Les Amis de JACK, Zoo Mulhouse, Kansas City Zoo AAZK, AZA Old World Monkey TAG.

In-kind support came from Prosteel, Panaco, Espace Zoologique de Saint Martin La Plaine, Forgotten Parks.

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