— The black market for baby gorillas is growing, officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo said Tuesday, after a fourth incident this year led to the arrest of alleged poachers trying to sell one infant for $40,000.
This year marks "the highest number of baby gorillas confiscated from poachers in a single year on record," the Congolese Wildlife Authority said in a statement.
"We are very concerned about a growing market for baby gorillas that is feeding a dangerous trafficking activity in rebel controlled areas," said Emmanuel de Merode, warden of Congo's Virunga National Park. "We are powerless to control the international trade in baby gorillas, but our rangers are doing everything they can to stamp it out on the ground."
The park, Africa's oldest, is home to mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and buffalo. The park has also seen fighting inside its borders and nearby during an ongoing 12-year civil war.
The four rescues so far this year, which happened between April and last Thursday, follow the one to two a year saved since 2003, when accurate records were first kept, park spokeswoman LuAnne Cadd told msnbc.com.
"If four have been caught since April, the question is how many have been missed?" she asked. "How many more are being captured and sold?"
The latest rescue came when Virunga rangers, acting on a tip, posed as potential buyers of the infant, an eastern lowland gorilla that was hidden inside a small backpack. The three suspects, who wanted $40,000, were arrested once the undercover rangers had possession of the gorilla.
"Like all the infant gorillas we see immediately after confiscation, he was extremely tense and stressed, holding his legs and arms tight up against his body, and turning his head away when he got too frightened," said Jan Ramer, a veterinarian with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinarian Project (MGVP) who treated the gorilla afterwards.
Ranger Christian Shamavu, who headed the undercover operation, said that "it's very likely that the mother and other gorillas were killed because it's very difficult to take a baby gorilla from its family."
De Merode said the selling price for infant gorillas can run from about $15,000 to $40,000.
"No one knows for certain who the buyers are," Cadd said. "The suspicion is possibly for zoos in places like Russia, India; or wealthy people who have personal zoos of exotic animals.
"When poachers have been caught," she added, "it is usually the supplier, or the middleman, but never the buyer."
"The rescues are usually the result of tips," Cadd noted. "Gorillas are in the top category of protected species here in Congo and so it is illegal to kill or take one. The punishment is 1-10 years depending on whether it's a killing, which would result in the highest sentence, or if it's a first, second, etc., offense on taking a gorilla."
Poachers never admit to killing other gorillas to get to infants, Cadd said, "because the punishment for this is so much greater."
Rescued baby gorillas are quarantined for 30 days while MGVP veterinarians run health checks. Eastern lowland gorillas, also known as Grauer's gorillas, usually are then sent to an orphan gorilla sanctuary near the town of Butembo.
"Many of these infants are injured from ropes around their hands/feet or waist, and some are quite ill, which is not surprising, as they are generally in close contact with their human captors, extremely stressed, and with very poor nutrition," said Ramer.
For now, the baby gorilla rescued last week is getting 24-hour care because he "is too young and vulnerable to be left alone," Virunga National Park said in a blogpost.
Two caretakers "will even sleep with him at night on the same bed," the park stated. "If you can imagine a human one-and-a-half year old, this baby is in a similar stage of life, and he needs some consistency in care in order to bond and feel safe."
Cadd said it's unlikely the orphan would be able to return to the wild and would instead spend its life in the sanctuary.
"It's a heated topic among vets and conservationists," she said. "Some think they should be put back and let nature take its course. Others say never when all experience shows that the babies just die. Others think that if you can create a family from the orphans with various ages, then releasing them together will work. And others worry about them carrying human diseases that they have built up immunities to back to the wild population of gorillas and creating a disaster of plague proportions."