New Lease on Life: U.S. Embassy Bangui Rescues Abandoned Chimp

Rebecca Owen serves as Regional Policy Coordinator in the Bureau of  Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

For nearly 15 months, Ambassador Frederick B. Cook, Mrs. Denise Cook, officers, and staff from U.S. Embassy Bangui and the French Embassy fed and cared for Claude. Claude, an eight-year old chimpanzee, was abandoned at a defunct zoo, where he became fully grown and languished in a cage so small he was unable to stand upright. Originally a “pet,” his plight is not unique. The illegal “exotic pet” trade leaves thousands of animals stranded or abandoned once they reach adulthood and become too large or too difficult for their owners to manage. Luckily for Claude, he was discovered by Mrs. Cook and a group of embassy spouses.

Claude soon found himself the focus of an interagency coalition to find him a new and appropriate home. Ambassador Cook enlisted the assistance of Richard G. Ruggiero, Chief of the Near East, South Asia and Africa Branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who reached out to Doug Cress, Executive Director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), to find a suitable sanctuary for Claude and two other abandoned pet chimpanzees. After months of effort, space was found at the Chimpanzee Eden in South Africa through the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). Despite concerted efforts, only Claude was allowed to leave Bangui. The first effort to move him failed when his traveling crate proved to be too large to fit on the aircraft. Embassy Bangui, however, refused to give up.

The second attempt expanded the coalition of rescuers to include not only the JGI-South Africa, but also Kinsgley Holgate’s “All Afrika Expedition,” Aquavision, United Against Malaria, the South African Defense Force and the Johannesburg Zoo, in association with the Born Free Foundation. This new group of partners again made plans for his relocation via a South African Defense Force C-130 cargo plane, and this move was successful. Today Claude is living and socializing among his peers in the Jane Goodall Institute — Chimpanzee Eden in South Africa, a spacious, protected natural environment.

Claude is very fortunate, but he is only one of thousands of animals that fall victim each year to illegal trafficking, as “wild pets” or poached for use in traditional medicine, bushmeat, and exotic trinkets. The State Department has worked with the USDA, the Forest Service, and the Wildlife Conservation Society to raise awareness in Central Africa about the detrimental effects of these activities through ministerial-level meetings and public information outreach. Our involvement doesn’t end with awareness, however.  The Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), in conjunction with the U.S. Agency for International Development and other U.S. government agencies, supports several programs to reduce illegal wildlife trade. State provided start-up funding for the Association of South East Asian Nations-Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), now the world’s largest enforcement network for wildlife trafficking-related seizures and prosecutions, and plans to replicate this effective regional model through the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) and beyond. In 2020, INTERPOL refocused international attention on the need to address illegal wildlife trafficking by adopting a resolution unanimously pledging support to back the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and to fight environmental crime.

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