Three young chimpanzees have been nabbed from their sanctuary by a gang now demanding a six-figure sum for the safe return of the animals.
The central Africa-based theft marks the first ever recorded instance of an ape being kidnapped and held to ransom, with "proof of life" videos sent to a shelter in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One of the chimps, Monga, 5, was seen to have been tied in a bare-brick room while two smaller chimps, Hussein and César, were seen to be scampering away from their captives.
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Founder of the Jack primate rehabilitation centre in Lubumbashi, Franck Chantereau, has said paying the "six figures" ransom is not an option.
Chantereau said that "you can see how terrified they are" but paying the ransom would do more damage as it "would put all the world's apes at greater risk than they already are."
The snatched chimps were rescued orphans of the wildlife trafficking trade for just a few weeks after being rescued from the sick sales market.
Chantereau added: "They had all been given a second chance, but now this fresh horror."
The rehabilitation centre founder admitted that it was unlikely the apes would ever be seen again.
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Chantereau also warned that the chimps are indeed quite dangerous, saying: "Monga is strong and probably tried to bite them. A grown chimp can kill a man."
The facility he currently operates is one of three ape sanctuaries, with the Jack primate rehabilitation centre established in 2006.
Since then, Chantereau says that the illegal chimp trade has "become a war", with the capturing of Monga, Hussein and César a cause for concern over the ability to protect endangered species.
Florence Teneau, from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation which helps to fund the Jack sanctuary, said: "These shelters receive a lot of aid and funds from international associations, like ours, and the traffickers take advantage of this, because the animals become all the more precious."
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