National Geographic Today
|July 6, 2001|
One hundred years ago, as many as two million chimpanzees flourished in the African forests and bush. Today, fewer than 200,000 of the primates are left in their native habitat and their numbers are diminishing.
The U.S.-based Jane Goodall Institute says that chimpanzees are disappearing in the wild because of massive destruction of their habitat, hunting for their meat, and poaching of infants to be sold as pets for the illegal export trade.
In an effort to save infant chimpanzees many African governments are willing to confiscate them from poachers or market vendors and send them to sanctuaries throughout the continent. Such sanctuaries are designed to provide safe and long-term care for the "liberated" chimpanzees. National Geographic Today visited one sanctuary, situated out in the waters of Africa's great Lake Victoria.
Indi, an 18-month-old chimpanzee was found in the Ugandan forest four months ago. After being held in quarantine at a local zoo, he was sent to his new home at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuaryan orphanage for 30 chimps on the remote island in Lake Victoria. Less than two years old, the sanctuary gives the chimps nearly one hundred acres of tropical rain forest to roam in safety.
Debbie Cox, an Australian primatologist who runs the sanctuary, told National Geographic Today that within the last 12 months, 14 infants had come to Ngamba Island from the Congo. Because of the war there, people are too afraid to stay in one place to farm and they are relying more and more heavily on bush meat for food. Baby chimps like Indi are orphaned when their parents are poached.
Cox told National Geographic Today, "Normally what they (poachers) will do is, the adults are hunted and killed and they will eat them. And the infants, if they survive the death of the mother, they will then try and take them to somewhere where they can sell them as a pet to somebodynormally an affluent African or an expatriate, or a white person will buy them. They can sell them from anywhere from about U.S. $20 up to $200 or $300."
When young chimps like Indi first arrive on the island, they are not immediately mixed in with the adults. Newcomers need to be protected from the adults because chimpanzees will not instantly accept a stranger into their group. New arrivals are kept in a large cage and every day a few of the resident adult chimps are brought in to become acquainted with them.
Indi's first encounter with another chimpanzee was with Pasha, a young female who was brought to the island a few weeks earlier. The two will be roommates in their cage for the next several months, before they are allowed to socialize with the older chimpanzees.
Human Surrogate Father
Indi was escorted to the sanctuary by a human surrogate fatherMarkus Starink, a volunteer from the Netherlands, who will stay with the chimp for the next five months while he slowly learns to fit in with the other chimps on the island.
Starink told National Geographic Today, "I have never been the father of a child, but I think it's almost the same, except for a chimp is, well more work to do. He is playing around all the time, never sleeps, and well, you have to stay with him 24 hours. It's quite hard work, but it's worthwhile."
Without passionate volunteers like Starink, it would be very difficult to accommodate the number of chimpanzees that come to the island, as well as other sanctuaries every year. Caring for the chimpanzees costs about U.S. $2,000 per chimp each year.
Brigit Lake from the Jane Goodall Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, says that anyone can volunteer who has worked with primates and has experience living in developing countries. Volunteers can spend up to six months on the island.
As for Indi, he seems to be adjusting well in his new environment. Says Starink, "Except for an adult female, he is really not scared of anyone."
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