By the end of our trip, our kids will have spent 13 weeks doing wildlife research and conservation volunteering in Africa. If you include the community volunteering, it rises to 18 weeks. This struck me when we were working with a college intern doing a 12-week assignment cataloging wild dog pack dynamics in northern Namibia. Our kids will have spent more time in the field than a college semester requires for a full-time internship. Not a bad way for a 7th and 9th grade student to learn about biology, ecology, botany, zoology and a myriad of other topics.
The experiences we have had, the people we have met and the information we have learned will stay with us for a lifetime. Perhaps one of the most important things we have learned, however, is that everything in life has its ups and downs.
We spent two weeks working with Chimfunshi, a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Copper Belt region of northern Zambia. Originally established by Sheila and David Siddel in the 1980s, what started as their retirement farm has now grown to large sanctuary which provides a forever-home for more than 125 chimpanzees. The very first chimp, Pal, was brought to Sheila by a local wildlife ranger who knew that she was a nurse. Pal’s mother had been shot so that he could be taken and sold as a pet. His mouth was badly injured in the struggle, and by the time the rangers found him, it had become so infected that it was threatening his life.
Because humans and chimps share 97% of the same DNA, Sheila was able to apply her nursing knowledge to help Pal recover. Once he was better, Pal needed a new home as he had become human habituated so could not be released back in to the wild. David, Sheila’s husband, built an enclosure so that the chimp would have room to play and explore. As word spread of Pal’s recovery and the care David and Sheila provided, more people would bring chimps and other wildlife in need to the couple. They always welcomed new animals in and released them back to the wild when possible but also provide a long-term home for those which cannot be released.
Our goal for our time at Chimfunshi was to learn more about chimps but we ended up learning a great deal more. While we were there, the sanctuary had the first transfer of rescue chimps in 13 years. The entire process took more than six months of negotiations and required coordination between three different countries, but the diligence and patience saved the lives of six young chimps and dramatically improved their situation.
Each of the chimps had a horrendous story about how they came to be part of the rescue network; one had been a pet for a family in South Sudan but had become so unruly (as chimps do when they enter their teen years) that the family simply abandoned it on a street, another had been tied to a platform outside of a restaurant in the Central African Republic as an living advertisement, yet another had been hidden by villagers as they fled from rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo knowing that she would be killed and eaten as bush-meat if found. Each story is a little more heartbreaking than the previous. But through a network of concerned individuals, these six chimps had been kept safe until they were approved to come to the sanctuary.
As volunteers, we spent several days prepping for the new arrivals; cleaning out old quarantine enclosures which had been reclaimed by the vegetation because they sat unused for more than a decade, chopping and hauling trees and vines to put inside the enclosures for the chimps to play and climb on, harvesting bedding so they would have a warm and comfortable place to sleep, making a tire swing, etc. On the night of the arrival, we were allowed to observe the process. Thalita Calvi, the sanctuary vet, had briefed us ahead of time that the chimps had spent more than three days in transit crates because of a bureaucratic delay. They would likely be tired, hungry and extremely frightened. Even happy chimps are amazingly strong for their size but when they are frightened, their power is even more impressive which meant that we should stay far back from the scene and simply watch the work being done.
However, like Eisenhower once said, “while planning is indispensable, plans are useless”. Flight delays meant that the chimps didn’t arrive at the sanctuary until after dark. As the trucks pulled in, there were no outside lights to illuminate the unloading area or path to the enclosures but we had headlamps and flashlights with us so moved closer to light up the area as best we could. The chimps were transferred in dog crates so were easy to move but needed more hands to make sure that no chimps were left behind alone in the dark.
It was a busy and emotional time for all; one chimp reached his hand out between the bars simply wanting someone, anyone, to comfort him. I held his hand for a few minutes while he settled. Another chimp tried to escape but quickly clambered up on one of the handlers when the handler made a chimp comforting sound. A third chimp clung to the vet as she moved between enclosures making sure that all of the chimps were settled with the right partners. When it was all done, someone said, “You’re safe now, you’re home now, you’ll never be in danger again.” It is true, they have found their forever home and once cleared from quarantine, will get to become part of a larger family group. It felt good to be able to help.
Our last day at the sanctuary was equally eventful, but without the happy ending. Early in the morning there had been a ‘mayday’ call from one of the enclosures because six males had had a gang fight just before sunrise. One of the chimps, the eldest male and former alpha of the group, had been badly wounded by some of the other males. The details would be too graphic for print but he had lost a great deal of blood and was in critical condition.
Without the ability to do x-rays or lab work in the field, it was impossible to determine the extent of his internal injuries. There were several obvious wounds visible externally which would account for some but not all of the blood loss. The vet needed to anesthetize the chimp to examine him and stitch up what she could of the injuries, but without a formal surgery and recovery to use, all of it must be done in one of the feeding enclosures as it is the only space where the chimps can be safely separated from each other. All of the volunteers assisted in different ways; monitoring vital signs, opening and cleaning supplies, running errands for things like hot water bottles or more medication, etc. The vet had an infected wound on her hand and wasn’t sure how much she would be able to use it so I gloved up to help where I could. After three and a half hours, as much as could be done to patch him back together had been done. He was slow to come out of the anesthesia and never fully recovered, dying from his injuries the next day.
While very disturbing to see and sad to experience, we learned that wildlife conservation does not always have a happy ending. As their natural habitat is swallowed up by human development and war zones or they are hunted for bush meat and the pet trade, chimpanzees are threatened by many forces. The chimps at Chimfunshi have found safety but still must live in groups much larger than they would naturally and do not have the same autonomy as their free-roaming counterparts. They are well cared for, but still must live a captive life. This is heartbreaking to consider as we are only separated from them by a few genetic differences.