for National Geographic News
When Sheri Speede met three angry chimpanzees caged as an attraction at a hotel in Cameroon, her planning began.
The U.S. veterinarian and animal-welfare activist decided she would open a modest nonprofit sanctuary for these and a few other primates in the central African country and otherwise work toward conservation of the great apes.
Her main adversaries would be the poachers who kill chimps for the illegal wild meat, or "bush meat," trade. The hunters are primarily interested in adult apes; the babies sometimes end up as roadside attractions.
Eight years later Speede's sanctuary is modest no more. The Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon is home to 58 adult and baby chimps on some 220 acres (90 hectares). It's even a setting for Going Ape, a "reality soap" currently running on the Animal Planet TV network in the United Kingdom.
Speede and her staff have also embarked on the first nationwide radio campaign publicizing the illegality and danger of poaching.
"Through her work and the public education she provides, Cameroonians are starting to understand and appreciate the value of the rare fauna they have in their country," said Niels Marquardt, U.S. ambassador to Cameroon.
Surgery by Flashlight
Sanaga-Yong is one of three great ape sanctuaries in Cameroon. One of the others, Limbe Wildlife Centre, used to be a zoo. And the third, Mefou National Park, is associated with the Mvog-Betsi Zoo, which is administered by the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund.
Speede's operation started as nothing.
She drew a salary from the U.S. animal rights group In Defense of Animals—but no project funding. She couldn't speak French (Cameroon's lingua franca) or any of the country's native languages.
But she was known for providing veterinary and surgical care at the other sanctuaries. She convinced the Cameroonian government to provide a remote parcel some seven hours away by train (assuming the trains are running on time) from the closest major city, the capital of Yaoundé.
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