Meera Dattani

Civil war, conflict diamonds then Ebola ravaged Sierra Leone for the best part of 30 years, but today, this West African nation is on the rise. And it’s the chimpanzee, and the sanctuary saving them, that could be the country’s new savior when it comes to tourism.

Baby Caesar is the most adorable baby I’ve ever laid eyes on. (Apart from all my friends’ and family’s babies, naturally). Wearing a nappy and swaddled by his human surrogate mother, Mama P, this seven-month-old orphaned chimpanzee has found a new home at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Sierra Leone has had it rough, to say the least, with a civil war that lasted over a decade from 1991-2002 civil war, the blood diamonds that sponsored it, and Ebola in 2013. The after-effects remain, but the worst is over. And this chimpanzee sanctuary, south of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, is one example of how the country is looking ahead.

Founded in 1995 by Bala Amarasekaran after the government of Sierra Leone allotted 40 hectares of land inside the Western Area Peninsula National Park (WAPNP), it was in 2019, during primatologist Jane Goodall’s visit to Tacugama, that they government announced the chimpanzee as Sierra Leone’s national animal and new face of tourism—moving away from diamonds.

That was huge news, both for the sanctuary which now has 92 chimps, and for the face of Sierra Leone’s tourism. And now Sierra Leone’s only chimp sanctuary has a revolutionary new development manager, it feels like change is afoot.

“The chimp becoming the national symbol is great for us,” says manager Aram Kazandjian. “We have a moral obligation to protect chimps—they share 98.6% of our DNA and display similar emotional traits.”

No other nation in the world has the chimp as the figurehead. For the likes of Aram, that’s significant because it puts conservation top of the agenda. There are around 5,500 wild Western Chimpanzees in Sierra Leone with their status set as ‘critically endangered’ due to deforestation, logging, encroachment and poaching for bushmeat or pet trade.

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“When we rescue them, they’ve been deprived of their birth mum and it’s hard to replicate that,” Aram tells me. “It’s hard to fill in the gaps as they need constant nurturing up to the age of 4. We have a surrogate mum [Mama P] who spends time with babies—even then, it’s hard to replicate nature’s model.”

Aram is clearly fascinated by, in awe of, and respectful of the animal he’s dedicated to. And it’s hardly surprising—chimps are, as a species, so close to human. Aram tells me their lives are based on interaction, that they have the capacity to recognize themselves in mirrors, and that they can recognize people by face and voice the more time you spend with them. “The spatial recognition of chimp babies is considerably higher than human babies,” he adds.

As we walk around the sanctuary, we see this in action. Chimps grooming themselves and each other, playing together, recognizing the voices of staff as they approach. It’s most obvious with Caesar and Mama P, the way he touches her nose and gazes adoringly into her eyes. For anyone who doubts evolution, a quick walk here would make them rethink.

The figures are worth processing. Each time a baby chimp is rescued or brought to Tacugama, upwards of 10 wild chimpanzees would have been killed. While hunters are no longer trying to capture baby chimps to sell, baby chimps still become orphans as a consequence of bushmeat hunting.

Any pet trade that exists is a by-product of bushmeat hunting—there’s very little meat on a baby chimps so hunters try to sell them to fetch a higher value. Bushmeat hunting however remains an issue. “Some hunters are trying to feed their family,” explains Aram. “If they see a group of chimps, they’ll try to get the most meat possible so again, upwards of 10 may be killed. It’s a crisis.”

That means of the 10 baby chimps that arrived at Tacugama in 2019, at least 100 were killed. And with just 5,5000 remaining in the wild, the math is not hard to do.

That the Western Chimpanzee could be extinct in 10 years is a genuine fear. While Tacugama is receiving praise for its conservation work—reforesting corridors in the provinces, working with rural communities, creating education programmes, showing people how protecting the chimps can give them a livelihood—the reality is that 10 baby orphans a year still arrive there.

“And that’s with all our efforts. Can you imagine if we did nothing? That’s our fear” says Aram. “The conservation world is such that if something is going well and we take our foot off the accelerator, we’re playing with fire.”

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It shows the fragility of the ecosystem; it needs constant pumping of resources, funds and time. “And we’re dealing with a flagship species,” adds Aram. “The chimps are flagship in the sense that if we don’t protect them, many other species in the forest could also go extinct.”

For Tacugama, the chimps are integral. “When we talk about landslides, natural disasters and hazards, the chimps are part of this—it’s a shared natural habitat,” explains Aram. With deforestation, logging and encroachment still happening around the peninsula here, both wildlife and human life are jeopardized.”

As Sierra Leone emerges from its past traumas, there are still battles to be fought. But some are already being won, slowly but surely, thanks to ambitious and bright minds. It may not be a prime tourist destination just yet, but the road is being built, and this time, it’s not paved with diamonds.

“We’re starting from scratch,” adds Aram. “Whatever progress was made in the past, it was ended either by civil war or Ebola. If potential isn’t tapped in to, even potential has an expiry date. For how many years are we going to talk about Sierra Leone’s potential?”

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