By Kristine Aghalaryan and Hrant Galstyan
A charter airplane that was supposed to transport more than 400 monkeys and other animals to Armenia has been seized in Tanzania, according to The Citizen, a Tanzanian newspaper.Tanzanian law enforcement seized the AN-26 airplane due to questions as to whether the cargo was legal or not.On Wednesday, brothers Artyom and Edward Vartanyan were arrested at Kilimanjaro International Airport when they tried to transport 61 monkeys out of the country. The brothers are citizens of the Netherlands, the newspaper said.
The brothers presented export permits for the cargo, but the permits were issued contrary to an export ban imposed last week (March 20) by the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Jumanne Maghembe.
“We are holding them because although the permits were issued by the ministry, they are invalid on the strength of the export ban,” Kilimanjaro Regional Police Commander Wilbroad Mutafungwa told the newspaper, adding that there was no release order from the Tanzania Revenue Authority as required by law.
Minister Maghembe told The Daily News, another local paper, that the plane had been leased in South Africa. The pilot is also in police custody. The minister said that 450 animals were supposed to have been smuggled out of Tanzania in the plane.
Some online publications reported the animals were headed to Albania, but sources in Tanzania told hetq.am that the destination was Armenia.
Officials in the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, who facilitated issuing the permits, have been fired.
The Citizen reports that the caged monkeys were purchased from residents of the Arusha administrative region, who have permits to catch them.
Artyom Vardanyan, who owns the Jambo Exotic Park in Armenia (Tzoraghbyur) arrived in Tanzania one month ago, according to Tanzanian sources and postings on his Facebook page.
A criminal case was launched against Vardanyan in 2014 after OCCRP partner Hetq reported on an endangered bonobo primate at Jambo Exotic Park. A subsequent OCCRP story traced the routes endangered animals take through Armenia to sites abroad, including in the Russian Federation.
The bonobo had been brought to Armenia illegally since the importation of the animal wasn’t registered with tax authorities.
Based on the Hetq report, a criminal case of illegal animal smuggling was launched against Vardanyan. The case has dragged on for the past two years.
Vardanyan has always claimed that he leased the bonobo from Zoo Fauna Art company owner Artur Khachatryan, who is now wanted by Interpol.