Orphaned chimpanzees given sanctuary

A chimpanzee eats at the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo on April 7.

LWIRO, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) — A young chimpanzee wrapped his arms around the neck of his rescuer in a brief hug as he was released from a wooden cage to scamper off to play in his spacious new enclosure.

The chimp was captured from an illegal owner by staff from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s nature conservation agency, who brought him more than 600 kilometers by road, boat and plane to the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Center.

The new arrival joined 111 other chimpanzees staying at the center, a sanctuary for orphaned primates that opened 20 years ago in a village about 40 kilometers north of the provincial capital Bukavu in eastern Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Congo Republic are home to the largest number of great apes in Africa, but most species are declining in population due to factors such as forest loss, hunting and trafficking, based on the latest report by the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).

Poachers seek out young primates to sell to zoos or as pets and they often kill a young chimp’s family to capture it, conservationists said.

“It’s horrible because the year 2021 was the worst year in the history of our center, we had 15 arrivals. And you have to think that for every chimpanzee that arrives here at the sanctuary, there are 10 more that died in the forest,” said Itsaso Velez del Burgo, the center’s director.

“The situation is serious. If we don’t act to protect the forest, soon it will be empty.”

A poacher may sell a live chimpanzee for $50 to $100, while a middleman can resell that same chimpanzee at a mark-up of as much as 400%, a United Nations report on the illicit trade in apes said.

In eastern Congo, militia violence has made it hard to release the apes back into the wild, which is the sanctuary’s ultimate goal, Claude-Sylvestre Libaku, manager of the center, said.

“There are already groups [of apes] that are ready to be reintegrated, but the presence of armed groups in the forest is blocking us,” Libaku said.