Images from a dropped phone reveal the ugly truth behind bonobo trafficking

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In the early morning hours of Feb. 23, a gunshot rang out from deep within a Congolese forest. And then another, followed by one last bang.

The shots were fired about 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside the village of Mondombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an experienced anti-poaching team from local NGO Conserv Congo was on the ground following weeks of investigations in the area. The team rushed to the scene, to be met with gunfire on arrival. Amid the dodging of bullets, a foot chase ensued. The poachers, operating on familiar terrain, managed to escape but left four things behind: a homemade hunting rifle, a machete, a phone, and a bound and bleeding bonobo.

Bonobos, along with chimpanzees, are humans closest living relatives, sharing more than 97% of our DNA. Image by Jeroen Kransen viaFlickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The bonobo, a nursing mother, was still alive. Adams Cassinga, founder and director of Conserv Congo, placed the ailing ape in a basket and held her hand as she struggled to breathe. He also picked up the phone the assailants had left behind and began searching through its photo gallery. As he scrolled, he discovered shocking images of more murdered bonobos and their kidnapped infant — a screaming testimony to one of the most horrible threats bonobos face for survival, and a raw rendering of the ugly reality behind the trade in photogenic baby apes.

A deadly business

Bonobos (Pan paniscus), or pygmy chimpanzees, are one of our closest living relatives. They are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where estimates from their four remaining strongholds suggest that no more than 10,000 to 20,000 individuals remain; the exact number is unknown because only about of third of the species’ historic range has been surveyed. Although they are classified as endangered by the IUCN, most of their habitat is unprotected and under threat of being destroyed by deforestation.

Decades of violence and political instability in the DRC have accelerated the bonobos’ decline. Ongoing unrest, poor infrastructure and a struggling economy have led to an increase in hunting. Firearms, much more accessible in the DRC than they were before the war, have further exacerbated the bushmeat trade.

Bonobos have only one baby every four or five years. This means that when bonobos are killed, they do not regenerate quickly, unlike other species that reproduce more often and in greater numbers. One bonobo killed has an impact on the potential survival of the entire species. But it is rarely just one. “Sometimes baby apes are caught as a byproduct of the illegal bushmeat trade in ape-meat, sometimes they are captured on command to meet an order,” says primatologist Ian Redmond, chairman of the international conservation coalition Ape Alliance.“Either way, a baby gorilla, chimpanzee or bonobo in trade represents at least two dead adults. And as many orphans die en route, and each orphan is the result of the death of two or more adults, the number of dead apes multiplies to a frightening extent.”

“There is growing concern about the international trade in bonobo orphans,” says Sally Coxe, founder and president of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI). “Bonobos of unknown origin have been sighted in China and Thailand, for example. For every bonobo baby captured, at least one, and usually more bonobo adults were killed. The wildlife trade in rare and exotic animals poses a serious threat to bonobos and this is an area that requires greater vigilance across the board.”

The main drivers of the bonobo trade are poverty, lack of alternative means of livelihood, and ignorance. “Most hunters do not even know that it is illegal to hunt bonobos,” Coxe says. BCI has rescued many orphan bonobos from hunters who take them to larger towns or cities to try to sell at market as pets. “When we first started working in the habitat, around 2002, the provincial police force of Equateur province didn’t even know that bonobos were endangered and endemic to the DRC, nor did they know that it was against their own laws to hunt or sell them,” Coxe says. Another main driver of trafficking, according to Redmond, is “the widespread use of celebrity selfies with exotic pets on social media, causing their followers to aspire to owning pet primates or pets, and the use of trained apes in films, circuses, advertising and birthday cards — all of which give the impression that it is ‘cool’ to own one, and profitable to trade in them.”

A juvenile bonobo reclines on atop an adult. Females can go five or more years between births and young bonobos stay close to their mothers for the first years of their lives. Male offspring may spend their entire lives with their mothers. Image by pelican via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Unlike most forms of wildlife trafficking, where animals are killed on the spot, the trafficking of great apes involves the capture of live infants, an exceptionally cruel process. “Chimpanzee mothers, for example, don’t easily give up on their babies and are usually shot defending their offspring … and subsequently used for bushmeat,” Cassinga says. “Meanwhile, their traumatized infants are sold on as exotic pets or for use as entertainment in zoos, safari parks and other commercial enterprises.”

From Cassinga’s team’s investigations, primates, especially chimps, bonobos and common monkeys, are the most trafficked. The demand remains high and the supply chain is far from being broken. Primates have a high price on their heads because of their availability coupled with local demand for bushmeat, and the international need to populate mushrooming zoos, as well as the greed for owning a rare wildlife species. “At any given point in our investigations there are at least 20 live great apes and thousands chopped body parts in Kinshasa,” Cassinga says.

And it’s not just apes that are being killed. Out of 12 cases Conserv Congo is currently working on, at least six involve great apes, dead or alive. The others involve ivory and elephant body parts, pangolin scales and meat, feline skins, and birds.

A bonobo family, pictured here at the Fort Worth Zoo. Bonobos are highly social animals, famed for tight bonds among adult females and for defusing potential intragroup conflict with sexual contact. Image by Eric Kilby via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Dead or alive

The bushmeat trade claims the largest number of apes, but the live trade is the most lucrative aspect of the business.

A live infant chimp or bonobo, says Cassinga, trades locally for between $1,000 and $5,000. This price range depends on many factors, including how desperate the seller is, the health and condition of the animal, as well as the buyer and location where it is being sold. Cassinga explains that in Kinshasa, the DRC capital, a baby bonobo won’t go for less than $5,000, whereas in Mnadaka, the Equateur provincial capital, it won’t go more than $2,000. “That is why traffickers rush to Kinshasa, but it creates a huge risk factor for us on the frontlines, as well,” he says.

Dead apes are chopped up and sold for meat and body parts. Meat is generally consumed by middle- to upper-class urban families, as well as foreigners living there. “On average, a kilo of such meat would cost between $20 to $40 in local markets,” Cassinga says, noting that prices vary according to species and size. “Body parts such as the skin, hands, and head are used as medicine and in spiritual rituals,” he says. “The head takes the highest price at between $500 and $1,500, and hands between $20 and $50 each.

“The meat and body parts are usually concealed in bags of fish as they blend in easily, especially if the fish is smoked,” Cassinga says. “The main means of transportation from source to Kinshasa is via the Congo River, whereas live infants usually come through local micro flights and occasionally via boats and ferries.”

Adams Cassinga and the gravely wounded female bonobo his team recovered from poachers in February 2020. The ape, a nursing mother, did not survive her injuries. Image courtesy of Adams Cassinga/Conserv Congo.

When Cassinga and his colleagues arrived on the scene in Mondombe, the bonobo mother was writhing in pain with a broken pelvis and blood pouring from gunshot and machete wounds on her back. The poachers had been chased off in the initial phase of killing her. Had they succeeded, the next steps would have been chopping her into pieces and smoking her remains — a process that takes about two or three days.

There was no sign of her infant.

The young, nursing mother was placed in a handmade stretcher and brought back to the village. Team members called desperately for a veterinarian, but there was none within reach at the time. After six hours of struggle, the bonobo succumbed to her injuries. Her body was handed to local authorities as a routine procedure. The poachers, already identified by the community, are still at large, but an arrest warrant has been issued.

The mother whose death is captured in Cassinga’s shocking pictures was killed for one reason: She was the mother of a valuable great ape infant. The gallery of photographs and videos Conserv Congo found in the phone left at the scene depicted several more bonobos who had suffered a similar fate. The silent videos documented the brutal killings of two mothers, and their infants being snatched to feed the demand for baby apes to serve as pets or money-making entertainers.

Adams Cassinga is a passionate defender of animals, but he could quite easily have gone the other way. Cassinga was born in Bukavu, 40 km (25 mi) from Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. While he grew up in a place where tourists regularly came to see wildlife, his only childhood encounters with animals were in the markets, as bushmeat. A child refugee, he would not see a forest for decades, until later in life when he returned to his country and launched Conserv Congo, a nonprofit based in Kinshasa and made up of volunteer activists actively pursuing and capturing poachers.

Kinshasa remains a safe haven for wildlife traffickers. Porous borders, corrupt law enforcement, and a dysfunctional justice system are the perfect conditions for criminal enterprises to exploit.

Conserv Congo’s efforts include providing park rangers with specialized training and logistical support, and initiating community subsistence farming projects aimed at curbing poaching and ensuring food security. Their work is dangerous, as they fight illegal wildlife trafficking by infiltrating gangs and networks of traffickers, organize sting operations to make arrests, and then fight for justice in the face of corruption. The group’s members often receive death threats.

Since Conserv Congo’s inception in 2014, Cassinga and his team have investigated more than 200 wildlife cases, leading to more than 100 arrests and five convictions. The first nationally announced arrest of hunters trading in bonobo meat only occurred in 2019 because of Cassinga’s organization.

You can’t sensitize a hungry stomach

Humans are the only danger to bonobos: poaching them, destroying their habitat, and infecting them with diseases. Great ape parks across Africa have closed over fears that humans can transmit COVID-19 to the animals. But humans are also the only solution. Coxe says it’s important to help the people living in bonobo habitat by providing ways for them to earn a living and by improving their access to health care, education and other services while simultaneously protecting bonobos and restoring lost habitat. The challenge is making that happen on the ground. “It is critical to work within the local culture,” Coxe says, adding that doing so involves building upon existing local traditions as well as working with the people who share forests with bonobos to develop new strategies to protect the apes and the broader ecosystem. “If they are not fully engaged and leading conservation efforts, there is no way to win,” she says.

Addressing the local demand for bushmeat is also an important part of the solution. As recently as December 2019, a four-star hotel in Kinshasa was allegedly offering smoked baby chimpanzee on its à la carte menu. But the market for trafficked apes is a global criminal enterprise. Beyond the DRC, apes have been seized across the world, in countries as varied as France, Nepal, Thailand and Kuwait. “To get the baby to a transport hub from deep in the forest, they are stuffed into baskets or sacks and carried on the back of motorbikes or trucks,” Redmond says.“Private planes may be used to airlift them to their final destination in the Middle East, Europe, China or [Southeast] Asia, but some smugglers dress them up as human babies and try to take them on scheduled flights in a baby-carrier or drugged and hidden in carry-on baggage.”

Until the demand can be eliminated, the suffering of trafficked infants, and repeats of the brutal scenes involving slain nursing mothers as captured by Cassinga, will continue to play out.

Mireya Mayoris a primatologist, correspondent and director of science communication based at Florida International University. Find her on Twitter at @mireyamayor or visit to learn more about her work. This article by Mireya Mayor was first published on on 23 April 2020.

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