Congo wildlife centre gives orphaned chimps a sanctuary

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LWIRO, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 4 (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 Democratic Republic of Congo's nature conservation agency who brought him more than 600 km (373 miles) by road, boat and plane to the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Center.

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

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Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring 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 say.

"It's horrible because the year 2021 was the worst year in the history of our centre, we had 15 arrivals. And you have to think that for every chimpanzee that arrives here at the sanctuary, there are ten more that died in the forest," said Itsaso Velez del Burgo, the centre'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-$100, while a middleman can re-sell 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 centre, 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.

Eastern Congo has been beset by militia violence for decades, but there has been a resurgence of some armed groups in recent years, leading the government to declare martial law in parts of the east.

Although there's no evidence that the illegal trade in great apes is linked to armed groups, their presence in the forest still constitutes a threat, Johannes Refisch, coordinator of the United Nations-led GRASP, said.

"I would agree that (the apes) are more at risk when there are more guns around," he said. "There is a higher risk for wild meat hunting, and even in areas where great apes are not targeted, hunters might bump into a gorilla and kill the animals because they feel threatened."

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Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; Additional reporting and writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Hereward Holland and Jane Merriman

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