Our Closest Cousins
Issue 35
They recognise themselves in mirrors. They remember when others betray them. Their DNA matches ours to within 1.3%. And their future survival is hanging in the balance. Could carefully-run, tourist-friendly primate sanctuaries provide the lifeline that Africa's chimpanzees and bonobos so desperately need? To find out, Emma Gregg visits a chimpanzee rehabilitation project in The Gambia and Vanessa Wood sets off in search of bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

ImageGrasping a way Forward
The long-term protection of chimpanzees and bonobos is one of Africa’s greatest conservation challenges. Vanessa Woods reports.

Last year an international declaration was signed under the United Nations Environment Programme to protect great apes, including chimpanzees and bonobos. So what’s in store for our closest living relatives, and have all our good intentions come too late?

There are only 150,000 chimpanzees left in the wild, and as few as 10,000 bonobos. Bonobos are often mistaken for chimpanzees but they are a separate species of great ape. In some ways bonobos are even more human than chimpanzees but their numbers are dwindling so fast we may never find out just how human they are.

Population decline of both species is caused by the usual suspects: deforestation, hunting the adults for meat, and kidnapping the infants for pets. However there is a new threat – disease. Our deadliest infections are plaguing chimpanzees and bonobos throughout Africa. Ebola, Marburg and anthrax have already wiped out whole communities.

There are dozens of conservation organisations in Africa trying to implement education and law enforcement to slow deforestation, minimise contact between locals and apes, and stop the bush meat trade. But before last year there was little scientific or governmental support for these organisations, and no real unified effort that took into account great ape populations 10, 50, and 200 years into the future.

In September 2005, the Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP), run by the United Nations Environment Project, brought together governments from great ape range states, scientists, conservationists, and donor countries to sign the Declaration on Great Apes. This was the first international mechanism to coordinate a systematic approach to the long term survival of all great apes.

Island Life
Once completely off-limits to visitors, The Gambia’s Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project has decided, for the first very time, to offer chimp-watching trips to small groups of interested tourists. It’s a thrilling opportunity to view habituated chimps in a pristine natural environment, says Emma Gregg.

Tawny-green water lapping softly against the hull of the boat. The rapid flap of feathers as a little egret, disturbed from its riverside perch, skims away. The crash of foliage as western red colobus monkeys hurl themselves through the raffia palms. The distant, distinctive honking of hippos and the gruff “ra-hu!” of garrulous baboons. All these sounds are familiar to anyone who has travelled up-river in The Gambia and paused on the way to soak in the sheer wildness and remoteness of it all. But as we gently motor along through the island-studded waters of the River Gambia National Park, a new sound rings out.

It starts with a bass note, grows louder, higher and faster and crescendoes into a frenzied hooting, barking and shrieking. Chimpanzees. The chimps we’re hearing are not native to The Gambia (the last truly wild apes were hunted out of this corner of West Africa generations ago) but neither, strictly speaking, are they captive. They were brought here from elsewhere in Africa by The Gambia’s well-established Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, without whose intervention they might well have perished. Some arrived as needy orphans, their families killed by poachers; others had been severely maltreated by their human owners. After a period of careful assessment and care, including intensive training in feeding, socialising and nest-building, the project staff released them onto Baboon Islands, mid-river in the River Gambia National Park. Thickly vegetated and uninhabited by humans, these islands provide the perfect refuge for a group of problem primates – here, they can roam freely and there’s no need to fence them in. Chimps are not, after all, the best swimmers.

The driving force behind the project is Stella Marsden, daughter of the late Eddie Brewer, The Gambia’s most celebrated conservationist. She has worked with chimps since the late 1960s, and was awarded the OBE earlier this year. Her original plan was to release the chimps with the best survival skills into the wild in Senegal, but the logistical obstacles proved too great. Instead, she hit on a more practical solution: to make Baboon Islands the chimps’ permanent home. To Stella, the benefits to the locality and to The Gambia as a whole seemed obvious. “But the only way this was going to work and be sustainable,” she says, “was for me to prove to the local community, and to the people who pull the strings, that the chimps would draw much-needed money into this area.”

Stella is a fiercely determined woman, and thanks to her efforts the project has now entered a new, forward-looking phase. After a lengthy battle with the Gambian authorities, Stella has won the right to allow small groups of visitors to stay on the edge of the national park as paying guests, with the proceeds supporting the project. She has the backing of the Gambian president, who recently paid her a personal visit. “He had never seen this part of the River Gambia before,” says Stella, “and he could scarcely believe that such a wonderful place exists in his own country.” The nearby community of Sambel Kunda stands to benefit directly – thanks largely to Stella’s commitment, the village already has a new clinic and a new school block.

Stella greets us from her rustic timber jetty as we approach. She’s lived in The Gambia for most of her life but is unmistakably English, with the kind of tea-and-scones wholesomeness you perhaps wouldn’t expect to find in the director of a primate rehab centre located deep in the West African wilderness. We plan the afternoon’s activity, a visit to the chimp feeding stations, as easily as we might discuss a brisk walk along a Suffolk beach with the family labradors.

But first, I’m shown to my tent.

The project’s newly opened Visitor Camp can accommodate a total of eight individuals in four safari tents, perched on timber platforms high up on the escarpment that overlooks the riverbank and the islands beyond. Every effort has been made to keep the structures low-profile and low-impact, but there’s nothing modest about their view of the broad, lazy river. The tents themselves are simple but attractive, with mudcloth-draped beds and, the most romantic touch of all, open-air private showers with that same magnificent vista.

I head back to the jetty and join the small boat that will follow the chimp feeding party. Every day, project staff moor at various points within fruit-throwing range of the islands, their boat loaded with goodies. Excited by the ripe fruit and fresh tapalapa bread on offer, the chimps (from dominant males to tiny tufty-reared infants) come down to the water’s edge.

My first close-up sighting of the chimps is a moment of pure magic. Stella greets each individual like a family member and they, in turn, look overjoyed to see her. Part of their enthusiasm could, of course, be cupboard love: hanging onto low-hanging branches as fruit is lobbed in their direction, they catch each prize with the confidence of a champion cricket team. Baobab fruit are bashed on branches until they crack open, and mangoes and chunks of pumpkin are gnawed with great relish. Peanuts seem to be a particular favourite. The staff have wrapped these in paper cones which are easy to throw (and to catch) and the chimps settle down to eat the contents and watch the antics of their human visitors like film fans eating popcorn at the cinema.

These sessions have a dual purpose – by monitoring the chimps’ eating patterns, the staff can gauge how much natural food is currently available on the islands, and by observing their appearance, they can assess whether any individuals need medical attention. Chimps have been known to seek out and ingest medicinal plants when they’re under the weather but in this colony, remarkably, a sick animal may ask its human guardians for help. “One of our chimps had been missing for a few days when at last we saw her just here, obviously unwell, looking like this”, says Stella, holding up one arm like a sick, beseeching chimp. “We threw her antibiotics concealed in some food, and gradually she recovered.” Only in extreme circumstances do project staff set foot on the islands.

We move on round the perimeter of the largest island, some three kilometres long. “Look!” says Stella, pointing to a scruffy jumble of branches and leaves woven into the crown of a rhun palm tree. “Chimp nest!” The fruit boat stops at another feeding station, this one presided over by a venerable old male called Pooh who has been in Stella’s care for many years. “We have 77 chimps altogether, living independently in four family groups. Sometimes there are power struggles between the males, just as there would be in the wild”, says Stella, who can pinpoint the position of every single chimp in the colony’s complex family tree, and has made detailed scientific observations of their behaviour. “The groups are well established; it’s very rare for individuals to move from one to another. Many of them were born here, and have gone on to produce young of their own.” We are, indeed, treated to the sight of a brand new, bleary-eyed member of the group, his tiny hands clamped on to his mother’s fur. He’s less than a fortnight old.

Feeding time over, we extend the trip by puttering along the water’s edge, spotting herons, pelicans, jewel-like kingfishers and intriguing flora such as panganos, trees which, according to our guide, have a tendency to spontaneously combust. We also catch little glimpses of reptiles and mammals – a flash of a monkey’s tail, a hint of a crocodile’s nose and, thrillingly, the ears and nostrils of a relaxed-looking pair of hippos. I’ve visited the national park before, but never quite like this. The larger tourist boats which ply the river are required to stick to a single channel as they pass through the park, staying well away from the banks to avoid disturbing the wildlife, but we, as Chimp Rehab guests, can go wherever we wish.

The peace is quite remarkable. In a country as tiny as The Gambia, you’re never far from the nearest signs of human habitation – dusty tracks, grass-thatched huts or goat-bitten fields of cassava stalks – but here, the wilderness is intact. As we listen to the primeval calls of the chimps ringing out across the river, we could almost be the only people on the planet.

  With thanks to The Gambia Experience and the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust.

 

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