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Chimp sanctuary in CongoAndrew Westoll for The Globea nd Mail

In June of 2009, wildlife officials in this small central African country confiscated a baby chimpanzee from his human keeper. The one-year old ape was emaciated and extremely malnourished, unable to drink water without vomiting, infested with lice and suffering from a candida infection so severe that his digestive system was on the verge of shutting down.

After a short respite at the Brazzaville Zoo, the sickly infant was sent about 40 kilometres northwest of Congo's second-largest city, Pointe-Noire, to the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre, built on a hilltop surrounded by an oasis of tropical savannahs, wetlands and emerging forest. It is the largest chimp sanctuary in Africa and one of the Jane Goodall Institute's flagship operations.

"We had four people working on him 24 hours a day for three weeks," says Debby Cox, the interim director of Tchimpounga and one of the world's leading experts on chimpanzee rehabilitation. "That's the only reason he survived."

The staff at Tchimpounga, who were accustomed to infant apes showing up in terrible circumstances, gave the new arrival a name to reflect his precarious condition. They called him Mambou, which in the local language means "problem."

Now a healthy, rambunctious three-year old, the only problems with Mambou are his predilection for biting kneecaps, untying shoelaces, and rough-housing a little too aggressively with Lemba, a fellow orphan who is slowly regaining the use of her arms and legs after a devastating bout with polio. A few years from now, he will return to a version of the Congolese forest from which he was snatched.

Among the legion of challenges facing conservationists in Africa, few have greater existential consequences than the one faced by those working to save our closest evolutionary relatives – chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas – from extinction.

For chimpanzees, the prognosis is dire. Over the past century, wild numbers have declined by an astonishing 90 per cent. Today there may be as few as 172,000 individuals remaining, and fully 80 per cent of these are found in just a handful of African countries: Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, here in fragile Republic of Congo and in the failed state of the Democratic Republic of Congo next door. Chimpanzees are critically endangered, and experts believe that unless drastic measures are taken, they could go extinct in the next 10 to 20 years.

What makes this crisis even more disturbing is the cause: across much of central Africa, chimps are being hunted for food.

"Most experts now acknowledge that the bush-meat trade has eclipsed habitat loss as the biggest threat to great ape populations in Africa," says Jane Lawton, executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada.

As logging and mining operations in central Africa have intensified, areas of forest previously inaccessible to hunters have been opened up. It is the females who are usually shot, driven into the trees by hunting dogs and then picked off one by one. Any infants who survive the ordeal are quickly bagged.

Ms. Cox estimates an adult chimpanzee is worth perhaps $100 (U.S.) as fresh meat. But a live infant can fetch anywhere from $2,000 to several times that amount, either as a local pet or after being sold through the exotics black-market to places like the Middle East, where a baby ape can bring upwards of $20,000.

Aside from the moral implications of eating chimpanzees to extinction, the ecological consequences of their disappearance from the forest are inescapable. Chimps are a "keystone" species, meaning their continued survival is crucial to the survival of the forest itself.

"The Congo basin," says Ms. Lawton, "is home to huge rain forests that along with the Amazon serve as the lungs of our planet. In terms of climate change and the health of the global environment, we need to make sure these forests continue to exist."

While it is illegal to sell great ape meat throughout central Africa, law enforcement here is chronically underfunded and wholly outgunned. Boatmen ply the Congo River with impunity, day and night, with industrial freezers on deck, buying up bush meat from villages in the north and selling it in the markets of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. One recent estimate by the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force suggests approximately five million tonnes of bush meat are traded in the Congo basin every year.

Founded in 1992, Tchimpounga is home to 145 orphan chimps, divided into four social groups, each with its own enclosure and sleeping dormitory. Groups 1 and 2 are mostly adults, Group 3, the teenagers, are a chaotic assemblage of brash young males who, as instinctual problem-solvers with few good challenges at their disposal, are almost always devising a way to short-circuit the electric fence so they can escape.

Back at base camp is Group 4, a jury-rigged family of unrelated juveniles to which Mambou and Lemba may soon be introduced.

Each group is watched over by a team of veteran Congolese keepers, men and women who know each chimp as if they were their children, who often raised them as infants, and who spend every waking moment on the lookout for the ill, the injured or the mischievous.

Tchimpounga receives an average of seven new infants a year. But when armed conflict visits the region – which happens regularly – the sanctuary can receive up to 20 orphans annually. Each infant spends its first three months in quarantine to ensure no diseases are spread to the other residents, and to give the youngster's health time to stabilize.

Quarantine is the first step in an orphan's physical recovery. But since chimps are profoundly sensitive and emotional animals, Tchimpounga must provide for their psychological well-being, too. In the wild, a baby chimpanzee is in constant physical contact with its mother until the age of 6. This, says Ms. Cox, is the experience she and her staff must recreate at Tchimpounga.

"If it hasn't been too long since he was with his mother in the wild, I usually just take the chimp in my arms and hold him really tight to my chest," she said. "He will fight me at first because he's afraid, and he may even try to bite me. But within a minute or so I can feel him relaxing in my arms. He learns pretty quickly that we're not going to hurt him, that we're actually going to give him what he needs. Usually, after that hug, they cling to me wherever I go."

From then on, the infant sleeps next to a human, eats with a human, visits the bathroom with a human and spends all day slung piggyback on a human. Then, once they've received a clean bill of health and have begun to develop a sense of self-confidence, they are transferred to one of the Congolese caregivers on staff, local women whose sole job is to provide nurturing, guidance and moral support to small groups of ape toddlers.

One of Mambou's surrogates, Christel, has worked at Tchimpounga for 12 years and has probably had a hand in rehabilitating more than 70 chimpanzees. "I have the best job in Congo," she says, as Mambou sleeps on her back in his sling.

But the real raison d'être of Tchimpounga lies in its captive-release program. With help from colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society and the French NGO Help Congo, Ms. Cox has identified a section of nearby Conkouati-Douli National Park that is perfectly suited for a well integrated group of chimpanzee orphans to call home. The chimps in Group 1 are the wrong subspecies to be released in southern Congo-Brazzaville, but those in Group 2 are just right and are currently being groomed for release, which might occur within the next two years.

"Reintroduction is critical," Ms. Lawton says. "We don't just want the sanctuary to be seen as a Band-Aid solution. We want it to make a concrete contribution to conservation and the survival of the species in the wild. The more chimps we can get back into the forest and reproducing, the better."

And all is not lost for those chimps who miss out on reintroduction. The Jane Goodall Institute has ambitious plans to move Tchimpounga and all of its residents to a series of forested islands in the Kouilou River, on the northwest border of the nature reserve, where each group would be able to lose itself inside huge tracts of intact rain forest. Should fundraising go well, the move north could begin this fall.

"We always say chimpanzees are a flagship species, a keystone species, an iconic species," says Ms. Cox. "But to me, chimps represent something even greater. They are our biological heritage. If we can't make the effort to save our closest living relatives, our family members, what hope have we got of saving the rest? To me, if we lose them, we've lost everything."

Special to The Globe and Mail