by Lee Ann Rottman, Naples Zoo’s Director of Animal Programs
I recently got the opportunity to travel to West Africa to assist the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone. The sanctuary is home to 105 chimpanzees that were confiscated from poachers or people who held them illegally as pets. Most come in as tiny babies and have suffered the trauma of losing their mothers and their chimpanzee families. They take time to rehabilitate, but getting them back with other chimpanzees is key to their recovery.
The sanctuary is located outside of the capital of Freetown in a beautiful forest setting. The habitats for the chimpanzees are very large and lush, which give the chimps a very natural and enriching environment to live in.
Chimpanzees, as a species, are socially complex. As chimpanzees get older, teen-aged males go through a challenging stage where they discover females and often vie to be the alpha or dominant male. This is a normal behavior, but if multiple males are vying for the top spot there can be a lot of aggression and often wounding.
I have worked with chimpanzees for 30 years, both in the United States and in Africa, so I was asked to come for a few weeks to assist staff to problem solve some of these issues and provide capacity building in managing chimpanzee social groups though changing social dynamics.
In the nursery and quarantine area of the sanctuary there were 32 babies between 6 months and 5 years old. That is a lot of babies that have lost their moms. When they are rescued, often the babies are very traumatized and each one takes time to adjust.
I was working with one little baby named Lungi. He was confiscated at the airport from someone trying to illegally export him out of the country. He had a fracture in his left arm and was very leery of people. This most likely means that his journey before arriving to Tacugama was not a good one.
We did his health check while I was there, and I held him while he was waking up. He let himself be comforted and did not immediately move away when he woke up, which was a good sign. When I was holding him, it made me think that he most likely had not been held or heard a comforting heart beat since losing his chimpanzee mom.
It’s heartbreaking to think about what this little boy has been through, but I’m also so thankful he was rescued and is now at Tacugama where he will get the love and support that he needs to recover.
Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is a wonderful organization that is not only providing a home for rescued chimpanzees, but also working with the national parks in Sierra Leone to protect the remaining wild chimpanzees.
Through community outreach, training on sustainable living, and ecotourism, there is hope in protecting the estimated 6,000 wild chimpanzees living in forests throughout Sierra Leone.
My time in Tacugama was very special and it was hard to leave both the staff and chimpanzees. I am so grateful to the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance for recommending me and supporting this trip, to Tacugama for hosting me and to Naples Zoo for allowing me the time to assist in the field. I am a firm believer that traveling and challenging yourself with experiences outside your comfort zone are good for the soul and make you appreciate the simple things that life has to offer.
Chimpanzees will always hold a special place in my heart. They are intelligent, strong, funny, emotional beings that are so much like us. One of the most important lessons that I teach staff working with chimpanzees is to speak their language. Chimpanzees have many vocalizations and facial expressions. They laugh, cry, smile, greet and hug their friends and so much more.
When you take the time to communicate with a chimpanzee in their language, the ability to bond and build a relationship is amazing.