© James Hopkirk / The Independent 2007
Ape Crusaders Driven from their habitat by loggers and hunted by bushmeat traders, our closest relatives are staring into the abyss. But a Ugandan sanctuary offers hope to chimps orphaned by poachers. James Hopkirk reports
When Rutoto was just one year old, he was snatched from his home in Uganda's Kalinzu Forest and his mother was butchered in front of him with a machete.
For more than a month he was locked in a cramped box, and the only daylight he saw was when his container was opened to feed him bread and bananas, food that his young stomach was unable to digest properly. When he was finally rescued he was in a pitiful state: traumatised, weak from malnutrition and with yellow skin, moulting hair and a belly painfully bloated with unprocessed food.
It took three months in a rehabilitation centre to nurse him back from the brink of death but now, nine months on, his carers believe Rutoto the chimpanzee is making a good recovery.
Not all chimps are so lucky. As vast tracts of Africa's forests are felled to make way for agriculture, their natural habitat is fast disappearing. Thousands of primates are killed every year for the bushmeat trade, which still thrives in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others are captured for circuses or to provide exotic pets for rich Westerners. But chimpanzees are fiercely protective of their young, so abducting a baby usually involves killing most, if not all, of the family.
In Rutoto's case, his mother was killed to provide a witch doctor with her fingers, which he believed possessed special powers. He sold the fingers for the equivalent of $1. The hunters he'd employed then dumped the baby on their elderly grandmother until, after an undercover operation, Ugandan wildlife officers swooped.
Every year around 100 orphaned chimps are rescued in Africa and relocated to sanctuaries across the continent. And for each animal that's recovered, US-based charity the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (Pasa) claims 10 have been killed by poachers.
Rutoto now lives safely tucked away on the small, forested island of Ngamba, 20km adrift of the Ugandan shore of Lake Victoria. The 100-acre refuge is owned by the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT), a Ugandan charity that counts several international conservation organisations among its trustees, including the Jane Goodall Institute, Born Free and Pasa. It was established as a sanctuary in 1998 to take the overflow of rescued chimps from Entebbe's tiny zoo, and numbers have been rising steadily ever since.
Gerald Muyingo, the sanctuary's assistant manager, has been working with primates for 13 years, and has lived on the island since it became an orphanage. "Rutoto is fine now," he tells me on my first afternoon at Ngamba. "He's successfully integrated into the group."
Integrating new orphans with the island's existing clique is a nerve-wracking process for Gerald and his team. Chimps are aggressive creatures and new arrivals may be attacked or even killed by the alpha male and his cohorts. Initially, newcomers are only exposed to older females, in the hope that their maternal instincts will be triggered. Due to the island's limited space the females are all fitted with temporary contraceptive implants, so they can have sex, which is vital for group dynamics, but are unable to have any young of their own. Consequently, those of child-bearing age become surrogate mothers to the orphans.
Shortly after Rutoto's arrival, he latched onto a 13-year-old female called Natasha, and they soon became inseparable. "At first, if any adult male came near him she would hug him to protect him," says Gerald. "And even now he always stays close."
Around 98 per cent of the island is given over to dense forest where by day the animals roam free, but at night they sleep in a secure holding facility, coaxed in with food. They have to be fed, because an area of the island's size can only contain enough food to support three adult chimps. And over the last nine years Ngamba's population has risen to 42.
"The most we can fit here is about 45," Gerald says. "The only solution is to buy another island, but we don't have the money."
Releasing the animals back into the wild is currently not an option. "Chimpanzees are very territorial," he says, "so it's difficult to put these orphans back into forests where there are other groups, because they will fight any newcomers. Also, they are used to people, and unlike wild chimps they know we are weaker than them, so they will raid people's crops and attack them."
Ironically, the only nearby country where there are still enough empty forests is the one where most chimps are rescued from: DRC. But with a culture of eating primates and consequently a lucrative trade in bushmeat, it's simply too risky to release them there.
So for the foreseeable future, the orphans are staying put.
CSWCT helps fund the sanctuary by allowing tourists to visit at feeding times, and with the tropical island setting and towering electric fences separating staff quarters from the forest, there is a hint of Jurassic Park about Ngamba. Meals here are raucous affairs, accompanied by a cacophony of screeches, grunts and farts, as the alpha male and the chimps below him re-establish their place in the pecking order.
All that noise isn't just bluster: these animals can be dangerous. When the sanctuary first opened Gerald and his staff warned people on neighbouring islands to stay away for their own safety. But not long after, some fishermen landed to escape from government tax inspectors. "They were hiding on the other side of the island when the chimps ambushed them," he says. "They broke one of the boys' arms and took all their clothes. We had to rescue them. Now fishermen are very scared to come near here."
And he tells me of one occasion when the chimps broke into the staff area. "We were having drinks by a bonfire one evening," he says, laughing. "Suddenly we saw them all coming towards us, so we ran out into the lake and stood with the water up to our chests. They opened all our sodas and poured them into the ground." Eventually the runaways returned to the holding area and the staff ventured back to camp. But when they counted the animals, one was missing. "We searched everywhere, until finally we found Sally asleep in one of the staff beds, smelling of beer."
The odd binge-drink aside, man and chimp live peacefully together on the island. "In all the sanctuaries we're involved with, there is a very strong bond between the staff and the chimpanzees," says Dr Jane Goodall, who helped establish Ngamba Island as an orphanage. Her pioneering chimp study at Gombe Stream in Tanzania in the 1960s paved the way for modern primate research, and she has been campaigning for chimp conservation ever since.
She believes that sanctuaries like Ngamba can play a vital role in protecting the future of the species. "I think one of the great benefits is the effect these chimps have on visitors," she says. "Our sanctuary in Congo is right in the middle of the bushmeat trade, and nearly all of the babies had their mothers killed for food. But when people come to see them, they almost all go away saying they'll never eat a chimpanzee again."
Gerald agrees that education is the key to their survival. "People wonder why we protect them," he says, "so we work with the communities where chimps live and we allow them to come to the island to see the animals for free."
Schoolchildren are regularly ferried to Ngamba, where they are taught the importance of preserving chimpanzees and their habitat. And so that local people see a benefit from the sanctuary, CSWCT is also building a primary school and teaching women how to make handicrafts, which they can sell to tourists on the island.
"I hope that in the future people will learn the value of our wildlife," Gerald reflects. "If they understand the value of chimps then we will be able to work together to protect them. Otherwise, I don't know what will happen."www.ngambaisland.org
Chimpanzees: the facts
* The exact number of chimpanzees left in the wild is unknown, but experts estimate it to be about 190,000, divided into four sub-species.
* The wild population of chimpanzees has been reduced by approximately 90 per cent in the last century.
* They naturally exist in 21 African countries, from as far east as Tanzania to the coast of Senegal.
* In the wild, they live to between 40 and 45 years, but in captivity they can live to 60 and beyond. The star that played Cheeta in the Tarzan films is still going strong at 74.
* In 1973 scientists claimed that chimps shared 99 per cent DNA with humans, but in December last year new research put that figure at closer to 94 per cent.
* Chimps were the first animals to be seen using tools: stripping leaves off twigs to use them to "fish" for termites and using rocks to crack nuts. More recently, a group in West Africa has been found sharpening branches to be used as spears for hunting bushbabies.(c) James Hopkirk / The Independent 2007
© James Hopkirk / The Independent 2007