It was to be a day of celebration, not a morning of angry tears and bitter rage directed at the ignorance of mankind.
I have always sympathized with Dian Fossey and her misinterpreted passion, I understood how her love for the mountain gorillas ran so deep and fast that strangling poachers bare-handed seemed like the only viable solution to her. I’d like to stop the beating heart and breathing lungs of the guy who decided to rob Ikia of her life in the wild just to make a quick buck.
Three weeks ago, Julius, a geologist in Kalemie, was approached at his home a chimp trafficker, and the proposal wasn’t out of the ordinary. As a wealthy Congolese mining survey freelancer who frequently entertains expats and foreign nationals, Julius has been targeted as an individual who can afford exotic pets—and would have connections to others who would be interested in similar transactions. Exotic pet traffickers routinely come to his compound with African grey parrots, crocodiles, monkeys, marabou storks, and as of late, three baby chimpanzees.
When Julius saw the grave condition that Ikia was in, he felt there was no other choice but to save the chimp from the greedy hands of the trafficker who had her tucked away in a burlap sack bound with twigs. She was bought for $120US after Julius refused the asking price of $200.
Ikia’s decline was immediate. Julius provided her with shelter in his courtyard, and the young chimp was immediately hostile and aggressive. Attempts at feeding her were in vain—she refused milk and would only eat small amounts of papaya. Julius contacted the Jane Goodall Institute (no response) and Chimfunshi in Zambia (also no response) for advice. The husband of a colleague of Chantal’s who was familiar with her work as co-director of J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi, cemented a connection between Julius and Chantal. Urgent phone calls and desperate emails ping-ponged between the two as Ikia’s health became critical.
Chantal immediately coordinated a meeting with the Minister of the Environment and an inspector from the Institute for Hunting and Conservation and Nature (notice how it’s the Institute of Hunting before other concerns like Conservation and Nature?) to obtain permission for the seizure and relocation of Ikia to the J.A.C.K. refuge where she could receive appropriate care and veterinary attention (from the one and only vet in Lubumbashi).
The Minister of the Environment was unavailable, but represented by a boozy stand-in, and the IHCN inspector proved to be shadier than a tree, working for financial motives more than animal welfare. The whiff of corruption was immediately evident as both men were asking for money to expedite the process and maintain their interest.
Kalemie is a two and a half hour flight from Lubumbashi. Due to Ikia’s deplorable condition, immediate decisions were necessary to ensure her survival. The documents that were to be signed by the officials on a Friday afternoon were somehow pushed to Monday in favour of whiskey, despite the urgent request for permission to fly Ikia to Lubumbashi that Saturday. On Monday, Chantal was to hear from the Minister by day’s end, but again, there was a delay in any formal action. When she was finally invited to the “office” of the Minister to receive the required documents, she was offered a seat (a plastic lawn chair) in a windowless office with only a table and one other lawn chair. The Minister’s stand-in had no paper and asked Chantal to borrow a pen—which confirmed the lack of professionalism and governmental resources from the beginning.
Chantal phoned Julius to confirm that the permission had been granted, a pilot had been contacted and the expense of the flight was going to be waived. Except, on that Tuesday, only Julius got on the plane in Kalemie– there wasn’t room in the cargo area of the plane for Ikia. Julius decided to fly to Lubumbashi to assist the refuge with negotiations and his colleague, Patrick, would fly with Ikia the following day.
The refuge staff anxiously prepared the quarantine cage and the vet was contacted. As we paced, waiting for the phone call indicating that Ikia was on the plane, Julius informed us of different news– the flight from Kalemie was cancelled, but Ikia would arrive the next day. On Wednesday the flight was delayed for hours. When we received the green light that Ikia was on the flight, we headed to the airport with the Minister’s useless sidekick and the seedy, glassy-eyed inspector. Halfway out of the city the sidekick realized he didn’t have the documents to present to the airport officials. We turned around. Then he decided he wanted to take his own vehicle—and asked Chantal for $10 to cover the petrol.
In separate vehicles we rushed to the airport, exasperated at the behaviour of the ministry. The officials continued to ask Julius for more money. The airport officials in Kalemie demanded $100 US to put Ikia on the plane. The Lubumbashi airport police stopped us at the gate and said we could only take one vehicle beyond the entrance. After removing the crate for transferring Ikia to the official’s car, he couldn’t unlock the back door of his Jeep, so we reloaded ours, and both cars were granted permission to proceed—with a bribe payment and a crooked smile.
The police officer wore a dusty uniform hat and a sweatshirt that my grandmother would have loved (it might have belonged to her at one point). The sweatshirt had LET IT SNOW written in big, sparkly letters and the snowflakes were carefully sewn-on sequins. The cardinals were also sparkly and of red glitter. I thought of the intense fear locals and the world have for the Congolese police. How could anyone be afraid of an officer wearing a nubby Grandma sweatshirt, even with a rifle slung over his shoulder?
The plane was landing as we made our way through the gate, the LET IT SNOW officer smiling like a fool with extra money in his pocket. Ikia had no idea of the life that was about to unfold for her, but already, the days had been too long. The daily setbacks in the process we tried to hurry would eventually determine her fate.
We don’t know how many days she spent in a burlap bag on the back of a bumpy truck from the mountains. We’ll never know how many chimps were killed in order for the trafficker to get his hands on Ikia. The chimp troop would have defended her and perished in a bloody battle to save their own from the trafficker.
Julius tells us the traffickers are infiltrating the Kalemie area from Tanzania–convincing local Bantus and a pygmy tribe that they can find a reliable income for their families by getting involved in the exotic pet trade.
Historically, the Bantus and Kalemie population have never eaten chimpanzee, but the ever-growing militia numbers in the area do, presenting another threat to the two chimp colonies nearby. No one knows the number of chimps living in this area—a survey has never been done. National Geographic biologists were in the region earlier this year, but their focus was on the snake and frog population.
For the chimps of Kalemie, habitat destruction is pushing them closer to local communities who are torching large stands of forest for charcoal (a major fuel source for locals for cooking) and farmland. Gold mining surveys are presently being carried out which could also upset the delicate ecosystem and range of the chimps in future years as mining exploits are carried out.
Many fingers of blame can be pointed in every direction. To the minister officials with questionable morals, to the inspectors with equally dark motives, to an uneducated population who have found exotic animal trafficking provides a lucrative income. There are no schools in a 120 km radius of Kalemie—the pygmy tribe still lives by nomadic principles, their quiet existence suddenly interrupted by outsiders who have found a valuable resource in their forests. The Tanzanian traders can be blamed too–for fulfilling a demand from Saudi Arabia, to supply wealthy oil barons and army officials asking for chimps to call their very own.
Although J.A.C.K. can celebrate 23 success stories, there is no progress being made when the alarming news of a lively chimp trafficking trade is illuminated. Lwiro Primates in South Kivu (near Goma) recently introduced two more chimps to its primate sanctuary, in addition to the 45 chimps and 50 monkeys that they already house. The existence of sanctuaries and refuges like Lwiro, J.A.C.K. and Ngamba Island (Entebbe, Uganda) are indications of human failure and the tremendously steep climb that is ahead.
Soccer balls, bonbons and old running shoes aren’t going to save Africa. The need for effective educational programs and a support staff to ensure their continuity are essential puzzle pieces in seeking equilibrium in this situation. Without education, poverty and corruption create an ugly piggy-back monster for a population surviving with limited resources.
Ikia is a product of the conflict, soupy morals and disorientation of the Congo. She died 12 hours after she arrived at J.A.C.K. Severely malnourished and dehydrated, her immune system and vitality was compromised long before we could be of assistance. Her weak, initial cries upon arrival were the last we heard. By morning, she was unresponsive, her limp body was unable to resuscitate. She died in Augie’s arms, unaware of the safety and security that finally surrounded her.
The Congolese traditionally bury their dead the very same day, and by 2:30 that afternoon, Ikia’s body was placed in an elaborate coffin decorated with ivory bows and lined with cloth. She was customarily buried with tree branches pushed into the dirt of her grave, as the branches would take her back to nature when she went to the otherworld. The service was brief; the emotions of the J.A.C.K. staff were visible on drawn faces and in clenched fists. The tug-of-war between anger and inconceivable sadness for her death pulled at each of us.
Ikia reminded us of the consequence of poverty and the desperation of a beleaguered Africa. Her death provided insight into the existence of chimp colonies that were unheard of. Of course we envisioned a different life for her, but understand that her death was for a purpose that will prove to be greater than her life.
Please tell everyone you know about the chimp trafficking situation in the Congo. And if you want to donate money to a cause that will directly influence the future, wild population of chimpanzees in Africa, visit the J.A.C.K. website or Facebook link at:
Or if you’re bilingual like the Congo believes all Canadians to be due to Celine Dion singing French songs, visit the J.A.C.K. site on Facebook (en francais):