Guardian (UK)

Outrage over alleged plan to export rare animals from Congo to China

Fury among wildlife groups as leaked letter to Congolese minister suggests Chinese zoos want gorillas and other endangered species

Mountain gorillas in Virunga national park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
 Mountain gorillas in Virunga national park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is thought that only 200 remain in the country. Photograph: Brent Stirton/WWF

Mountain gorillas and other endangered species from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are at risk of being taken from the wild and exported to Chinese zoos, conservation groups have alleged.

A leaked letter from the DRC’s environment minister to a Chinese company, apparently referring to a request for a number of rare species, has sparked outrage from wildlife charity Born Free and other organisations.

The correspondence, posted on Twitter by an environmental activist, refers to a request for a dozen mountain gorillas, 16 pygmy chimpanzees or “bonobos”, 16 chimpanzees, eight African manatees and 20 okapi. The animals, all of which belong to species threatened by extinction, were apparently requested for Taiyuan zoo, in the northern province of Shanxi, and Anji Zhongnan zoo in eastern China.

The DRC has no captive breeding programmes, so it is understood that any agreement would necessitate the animals being captured from the wild. Only 200 mountain gorillas are thought to remain in the DRC, while bonobos are endemic to the country.

A four-week-old male okapi calf
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 A four-week-old male okapi calf. The okapi, a relative of the giraffe, is native to the rainforests of central Africa. Photograph: Ken Bohn/AP

The news has stoked wider fears that huge investment by Chinese companies across large swathes of Africa may be affording China leverage to access and exploit wildlife in order to supply potential markets back home.

The letter, dated 8 June 2018 and signed by the DRC’s environment minister, Amy Ambatobe Nyongolo, appears to agree to the export of the animals and states that a team of Congolese experts should be hosted in China to ensure the appropriate introduction and conservation of the various species at the two zoos.

The reply is addressed to Liu Min Heng, CEO of Tianjing Junheng International Trade Corporation Ltd, and cites an alleged agreement between the Chinese zoos and the Institute in Congo for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the custodian of the country’s fauna and flora.

Adams Cassinga, an investigative journalist turned environmentalist and founder of the organisation Conserv Congo, was passed the letter by a source. He posted it online and launched a petition to prevent the export of the animals, which has been signed by nearly 3,000 people.

Cassinga said: “I was in complete shock when I saw the letter. All these animals are highly protected and endangered. There has been a lot of effort from local and international organisations to preserve them, and then this guy comes from nowhere and decides to send these animals to China without consensus.

“Most of us here have never seen these rare animals. I, for one, have not seen a manatee in the DRC. I wish the Chinese were involved in conserving our wildlife, but instead they are among those destroying it. We do not have pandas in our zoos. Why should our rare species appear in theirs?”

Pygmy chimpanzees, or bonobos, are unique to the Democratic Republic of the Congo
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 Pygmy chimpanzees, or bonobos, are unique to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

According to Cassinga’s sources, the agreement between the government and the Chinese company stipulates that any offspring of the animals should be returned to the wild in DRC. Cassinga, however, cast doubt on the practicality of such a plan.

He said: “This is something which is unlikely due to many challenges, mainly the Congolese state’s ongoing lack of resources. Even though the process is claimed to be legal and above board, nobody knows what the government of the DRC has been promised in return for the trade of these precious animals.”

The ICCN issued correspondence distancing itself from the proposal to export animals, urging the government to respect the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (Cites).

However, the DRC government has since issued a statement claiming no deal has been reached and that Cites is still evaluating the situation.

In a letter to Cites, Born Free and 15 other civil society groups raised concerns and asked for action to prevent potentially fraudulent exports. The organisations claim any removal of great apes form the wild would be illegal under national law.

Travers conceded that Chinese investment may be attractive to struggling African economies, but said it should not occur at the expense of the continent’s unique fauna and flora.

Capturing live great apes from the wild usually entails disrupting entire social groups and killing other family members, with devastating consequences, the charity has warned.

“With its huge investment capability, China has a big responsibility to ensure that its international activities do not harm the world’s beleaguered wildlife,” said Travers.

Amy Ambatobe, who denied that he had agreed to export the animals, said he had referred the request to the country’s conservation experts.

Amy Ambatobe Nyongolo, the DRC environment minister
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 Amy Ambatobe Nyongolo, the DRC environment minister, says he did not agree the export of animals. Photograph: Courtesy of Environews-rdc

“I received the application from the Chinese requesting some animals such as okapi, gorillas and so on,” he said. “I did not agree the animals would be exported. What I have done is written to ICCN to see if it is possible to make an exchange with China.

“As the minister, I could not say yes or no, which is why I passed on the letter. With the exception of the okapi, these animals are not permitted for export.

“If we needed some specimens from China in our country, that could be a reason for ICCN to permit an exchange. If we didn’t have any need, the ICCN could refuse.”

He said the animals would not be exchanged for money under any circumstances.Born Free claims a company by the same name as that which appears on correspondence from the DCR’s environment minister was previously implicated in the export of eight live chimpanzees from Guinea to China seven years ago. The move led to the West African country being subjected to trade sanctions.

Tianjing Junheng International Trade Corporation Ltd could not be reached for a response.