[monkeywire] Swinging safari
josh.greenman at gmail.com
josh.greenman at gmail.com
Sat Feb 14 19:14:49 EST 2009
Once neglected and abused, a handful of chimpanzees has found a happy new home in Mpumalanga. Geoff Dalglish hung out with them for a day.
‘Hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo!” The early morning call of a chimpanzee rises to a stirring crescendo, other primates enthusiastically joining in and creating jungle sound effects that would do credit to a wide-screen Hollywood epic.
Perhaps all that is missing is Tarzan, swinging king of the apes, although Nelspruit’s own Eugene Cussons could probably do a convincing impersonation — the 29-year-old animal activist sometimes has to teach orphan city chimps how to hang out in the forest.
While their natural habitat is the increasingly threatened and war-torn Congo Basin, most of the inhabitants of Chimp Eden have only known desperate lives of imprisonment, usually in solitary confinement.
These highly intelligent animals are our closest relatives, but what must they think of us?
Although they share more than 99% of their critical DNA sites with humans, they’ve often experienced only the cruellest of human behaviour, suffering the early trauma of seeing their mothers butchered for the bushmeat trade before being sold into slavery as pets in bars, restaurants, circuses or medical testing facilities around the world.
Now they’re getting a second shot at life, thanks to a dedicated team of permanent staff and volunteers at Chimp Eden, a game farm 16km outside of Nelspruit that is the only Jane Goodall- approved sanctuary in South Africa.
“Some had even forgotten how to be chimps when they arrived here,” Cussons laments. “They have to be taught by example how to walk, climb, to forage for food, to find water and to interact with other animals.
“Often the chimps we rescue have been kept in tiny cages and subjected to years of solitary confinement, some becoming alcohol and nicotine addicts as they are fed a diet of cigarettes and booze by their human tormenters.
“We have to protect the species and the gene pool so that they can again be released into the wild,” Cussons insists. “All rehabilitation is being done with the idea of creating a full circle and eventually releasing them.
“We’re also developing technology that will enable airborne researchers to use infra-red devices that will detect the heat signatures of wild chimpanzee groups in the forests and help determine where they should best be released, probably in remote areas of Gabon and Angola.”
Their fate is in human hands, the optimists believing the species has a viable future; others predicting that they could be extinct in the wild as early as 2015.
Perhaps this is the perfect opportunity for South African and international mining and logging companies operating in their home range to give something back, helping to fund future initiatives at Chimp Eden.
More than anyone else, it is Jane Goodall, a remarkable Englishwoman, United Nations goodwill ambassador and world-renowned primatologist, who has championed their cause, showing them to be highly intelligent animals that exhibit emotional reactions and a need for social interaction not unlike those of a human child.
In fact, chimps are closer to humans than they are to other great apes, such as the gorilla.
In 1960, a young Goodall saw chimps stripping leaves off twigs to fashion tools for fishing termites from a nest, forcing scientists to re-evaluate their belief that humans were the only species to make tools. Also, in her first year as a researcher, she observed chimps hunting bushpigs and other animals, disproving the theory that they were primarily vegetarians and fruit eaters who occasionally supplemented their diet with insects and small rodents.
Decades of living close to mankind’s nearest cousins showed her that individual animals have distinct personalities, minds and emotions, observations that are being reinforced at the Mpumalanga sanctuary.
For the past year the growing population of rescued primates — 29 at the last count — has been featured on Animal Planet’s Escape to Chimp Eden, a 13-part TV series that began airing in South Africa in November.
Now a second season is in the making, with Cussons enjoying celebrity status in the US where he was recently named the top actor/presenter of a nature programme.
“The important thing is to raise awareness around their plight and also to generate much-needed funds,” he says.
“Each chimp rescue takes up to three weeks and can cost as much as R100000, sometimes involving expensive air charters. And those costs pale beside the long-term investment in looking after young animals that could live to between 40 and 60 years.”
So why bother?
You could argue that a wrong has been done and needs to be righted, regardless of the practical difficulties; to show our humanity to ourselves and the animals that have fallen prey to our darker side.
Of course, the rescues are also a demonstration of commitment, compassion and resourcefulness. There is a strong element of risk, with rescue missions often performed in the shadowy underbelly of major African cities and trouble-spots including war-torn Sudan.
“There’s a whole underground network of animal traffickers and they are willing to kill — you or the animals,” Cussons warns.
To date, 30 have been rescued, with 29 surviving at Chimp Eden and going through an intensive process of quarantine, rehabilitation and education. Hundreds more need to be rescued.
The animals roam freely in large forested camps but are often curious about visitors and always show up at feeding times. Guided walks of the sanctuary are offered daily at 10am, noon and 2pm.
But as cute and cuddly as they might seem, they remain potentially dangerous and are viewed from the safe side of sturdy, electrified game fences.
German-born animal behaviourist Jessica Ney insists: “They are wild animals and can be as dangerous as a leopard or hyena. I’m happy to work with them from behind a fence.”
She jokes about her inability to do a proper high five, since she has a digit missing after a normally lovable chimp called Cozy suddenly bit her — but she doesn’t bear a grudge.
“I don’t blame Cozy at all. He is an animal that was abused and suffered terribly.”
Although he is one of the sanctuary’s success stories, displaying a colourful personality and entertaining visitors and fellow chimps with his antics, he does sometimes have aggressive tendencies.
Earlier, he threw a stone at photographer Inga Hendriks, and Jessica tells us it’ s because of her blonde hair. It turns out he was kept in a tiny cage by a stripper for a number of years.
Phillip Cronje, the sanctuary manager who was previously with the Johannesburg Zoo, has been invaluable in helping the staff to interpret chimp language, which is based on vocalisation and behaviour patterns.
One pattern that touches everybody’s hearts is an outstretched open hand, accompanied by a nervous shriek and a grimace, which means: “Please help me!”
Where to find usChimp eden
The sanctuary is funded by admission fees paid by visitors — R100 for adults and R25 for children under 17 — as well as by donations. The Adopt-a-Chimp programme enables benefactors to see “their” chimp daily via permanent camera positions that are used for research.
The sanctuary also boasts a museum, quality restaurant and the 13-roomed Chimp Eden Boutique Hotel. The 90-minute guided tours start at 10am, noon and 2pm daily.
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