The chimpanzee experience — living with primates in Uganda

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by Lillie Echevarria, Livermore, CA

Africa is a mysterious continent providing diversity of culture, landscape and wildlife. May ’04 marked the start of my fifth trip back. This time the focus would be on great apes and their conservation.

With a frequent-flyer ticket from San Francisco to Entebbe (via London), two rolling duffel bags, three cameras, 50 rolls of film (800ASA) and plenty of mosquito repellent, I was ready for my adventure to begin. Welcomed by muggy weather and a curtain of lake flies, I queued at the airport to receive my 30-day visa for $30.

I was greeted outside by Stephanie Townsend of the Entebbe Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). My first week in Uganda would be spent volunteering at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary (www. ngambaisland.org).

Preparing for the week

At the “chimp house,” where the Ngamba Sanctuary shares office and living space with the JGI staff, a thick operational manual of dos and don’ts in the sanctuary appeared in front of me for my review upon my arrival. After paying $1,000 for my one-week stay, paid mainly in 100-dollar bills for a better rate of exchange (bills under $50 traded at UGX1,700 per $1 vs. UGX1,820 for larger bills), I was driven to the local market to stock up on groceries for my week on the island.

While part of the $1,000 fee included basic accommodations and meals, I felt that the heavily starched local cooking would not have agreed well with my jet-lagged, already strained digestive system. My bill for fruits, vegetables, pasta, a case of bottled water and some bread totaled $12.

Transportation to Ngamba Island was via the slow boat that afternoon, and Lake Victoria was choppy, further slowing our progress. After two hours I spotted Dr. Lawrence Mugisha, the resident veterinarian and sanctuary manager, waiting on shore for our landing.

The residents

Lawrence showed me to my room, located in the staff’s complex, and then I was introduced to the staff. Most of the caregivers have worked at Ngamba for many years, thus creating a strong bond with the chimps.

All chimps at the sanctuary have been rescued from poachers, smugglers or the pet trade. At the time of my visit, there were 39 chimps on the island. Nineteen individuals comprised the adult group, and they formed a family unit. The nursery group consisted of 20 individuals.

The island is expanding to accommodate the growth of the infants. An electrified fence had been built to separate the forest from the staff area. With 98% of the 100-acre island reserved for the chimpanzees, the remaining acreage is dedicated for staff housing and a visitors’ reception area.

Visiting the island

Visitors can spend the day on the island, and a 3-tent camp is available for overnight guests who want to participate in a forest walk with the infants. The camp is run by Wild Frontiers (phone/fax 041 321 479 or visit www.wildfrontiers.co.ug/ngambavisits.html), a company that charges $330 per night for overnight stays plus an additional $130 for boat transportation and a $30 miscellaneous fee. If you decide to walk with the infants, a separate $100 is payable to the sanctuary staff.

Half-day, full-day and overnight visits must be booked in advance through Wild Frontiers. Long Stay Visitor Programs such as the one in which I participated are available directly from the sanctuary. For more information, e-mail the program director at director@ngambaisland.org.

The morning routine

Mornings in Ngamba started around 6:00. Caregivers selected the fruits and vegetables for the adult group’s breakfast, and a warm mix of millet and milk in addition to some fruits were prepared for the nursery group. By the time the caregivers walk out of the kitchen, all chimps are awake and the orchestra of noises reaches a high note!

Hands everywhere extend to grab their treats. Some go back to their sleeping areas to eat, while others linger around the front to grab scraps or ask for more. When all are fed, only chewing and grunts can be heard.

Then it is time for the morning forest walk. If there are no visitors, the entire nursery group (including infants and juveniles) will go out to the forest for about an hour to stretch and play. An electric fence passageway connects their holding area to the forest.

In the forest, they climb on trees, chase each other, groom or just sit and enjoy the morning air. Then they are called back in, which is sometimes a challenge as some decide to linger. This routine is repeated again around 5:30 p.m.

If there are visitors participating on the walk, only the infants are allowed to go to the forest. The juveniles wait for the next walk to come along. (By late summer ’04, a separate, smaller forest area will be fenced in for the nursery group, allowing the entire group to enjoy the forest for the entire day.)

I must confess, the forest walk with the infants was the highlight of my stay in Ngamba. Unfortunately, as the infants grow older, the forest walks will be discontinued.

I was grateful that I was provided with coveralls for this endeavor. Hats, jewelry, glasses — anything that might attract attention — are not allowed. Chimps, especially the little ones, are very curious and they love to grab things and run into the forest with them.

On my first day I walked into the forest area with two caretakers, Stany and Gerald, while Lawrence opened the gates for the infants to come out. A few ignored me and went straight to the shrubs and trees; some followed me and looked around while others quickly spotted me and climbed up for a ride.

Never did I think these small creatures would weigh so much or be so strong. At one point, I had one sitting around my neck, two others around each arm and yet two more grabbing each leg attempting to climb up and find some room! The caretakers quickly came to my rescue, but I never felt threatened nor afraid.

When it was time to walk back, Stany warned everyone of red ants ahead, which had been spotted by one of the chimps. I was amazed at how every chimp was cautious when crossing or running over the ants, although I myself did manage to pick up a few and didn’t notice till I felt the stinging on my legs!

Looking back

Every day I sat for hours watching the juveniles. After a few days I learned their names and could easily identify them. They each had a different personality and a special place in my heart. Just as I was getting into a routine with them, it was time to say good-bye. Now memories and photos take me back to those moments when I was living with primates.

Many thousands of chimpanzees are killed every year in Africa for bushmeat trading. Poachers kill entire families to steal away infants for exploitation in the exotic pet trade business, and yet another portion is lost through deforestation and heavy logging practices. Fortunately, many organizations such as the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary are assisting in creating conservation laws and community awareness.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Lillie Echevarria, Livermore, CA

Africa is a mysterious continent providing diversity of culture, landscape and wildlife. May ’04 marked the start of my fifth trip back. This time the focus would be on great apes and their conservation.

With a frequent-flyer ticket from San Francisco to Entebbe (via London), two rolling duffel bags, three cameras, 50 rolls of film (800ASA) and plenty of mosquito repellent, I was ready for my adventure to begin. Welcomed by muggy weather and a curtain of lake flies, I queued at the airport to receive my 30-day visa for $30.

I was greeted outside by Stephanie Townsend of the Entebbe Jane Goodall Institute (JGI). My first week in Uganda would be spent volunteering at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary (www. ngambaisland.org).

Preparing for the week

At the “chimp house,” where the Ngamba Sanctuary shares office and living space with the JGI staff, a thick operational manual of dos and don’ts in the sanctuary appeared in front of me for my review upon my arrival. After paying $1,000 for my one-week stay, paid mainly in 100-dollar bills for a better rate of exchange (bills under $50 traded at UGX1,700 per $1 vs. UGX1,820 for larger bills), I was driven to the local market to stock up on groceries for my week on the island.

While part of the $1,000 fee included basic accommodations and meals, I felt that the heavily starched local cooking would not have agreed well with my jet-lagged, already strained digestive system. My bill for fruits, vegetables, pasta, a case of bottled water and some bread totaled $12.

Transportation to Ngamba Island was via the slow boat that afternoon, and Lake Victoria was choppy, further slowing our progress. After two hours I spotted Dr. Lawrence Mugisha, the resident veterinarian and sanctuary manager, waiting on shore for our landing.

The residents

Lawrence showed me to my room, located in the staff’s complex, and then I was introduced to the staff. Most of the caregivers have worked at Ngamba for many years, thus creating a strong bond with the chimps.

All chimps at the sanctuary have been rescued from poachers, smugglers or the pet trade. At the time of my visit, there were 39 chimps on the island. Nineteen individuals comprised the adult group, and they formed a family unit. The nursery group consisted of 20 individuals.

The island is expanding to accommodate the growth of the infants. An electrified fence had been built to separate the forest from the staff area. With 98% of the 100-acre island reserved for the chimpanzees, the remaining acreage is dedicated for staff housing and a visitors’ reception area.

Visiting the island

Visitors can spend the day on the island, and a 3-tent camp is available for overnight guests who want to participate in a forest walk with the infants. The camp is run by Wild Frontiers (phone/fax 041 321 479 or visit www.wildfrontiers.co.ug/ngambavisits.html), a company that charges $330 per night for overnight stays plus an additional $130 for boat transportation and a $30 miscellaneous fee. If you decide to walk with the infants, a separate $100 is payable to the sanctuary staff.

Half-day, full-day and overnight visits must be booked in advance through Wild Frontiers. Long Stay Visitor Programs such as the one in which I participated are available directly from the sanctuary. For more information, e-mail the program director at director@ngambaisland.org.

The morning routine

Mornings in Ngamba started around 6:00. Caregivers selected the fruits and vegetables for the adult group’s breakfast, and a warm mix of millet and milk in addition to some fruits were prepared for the nursery group. By the time the caregivers walk out of the kitchen, all chimps are awake and the orchestra of noises reaches a high note!

Hands everywhere extend to grab their treats. Some go back to their sleeping areas to eat, while others linger around the front to grab scraps or ask for more. When all are fed, only chewing and grunts can be heard.

Then it is time for the morning forest walk. If there are no visitors, the entire nursery group (including infants and juveniles) will go out to the forest for about an hour to stretch and play. An electric fence passageway connects their holding area to the forest.

In the forest, they climb on trees, chase each other, groom or just sit and enjoy the morning air. Then they are called back in, which is sometimes a challenge as some decide to linger. This routine is repeated again around 5:30 p.m.

If there are visitors participating on the walk, only the infants are allowed to go to the forest. The juveniles wait for the next walk to come along. (By late summer ’04, a separate, smaller forest area will be fenced in for the nursery group, allowing the entire group to enjoy the forest for the entire day.)

I must confess, the forest walk with the infants was the highlight of my stay in Ngamba. Unfortunately, as the infants grow older, the forest walks will be discontinued.

I was grateful that I was provided with coveralls for this endeavor. Hats, jewelry, glasses — anything that might attract attention — are not allowed. Chimps, especially the little ones, are very curious and they love to grab things and run into the forest with them.

On my first day I walked into the forest area with two caretakers, Stany and Gerald, while Lawrence opened the gates for the infants to come out. A few ignored me and went straight to the shrubs and trees; some followed me and looked around while others quickly spotted me and climbed up for a ride.

Never did I think these small creatures would weigh so much or be so strong. At one point, I had one sitting around my neck, two others around each arm and yet two more grabbing each leg attempting to climb up and find some room! The caretakers quickly came to my rescue, but I never felt threatened nor afraid.

When it was time to walk back, Stany warned everyone of red ants ahead, which had been spotted by one of the chimps. I was amazed at how every chimp was cautious when crossing or running over the ants, although I myself did manage to pick up a few and didn’t notice till I felt the stinging on my legs!

Looking back

Every day I sat for hours watching the juveniles. After a few days I learned their names and could easily identify them. They each had a different personality and a special place in my heart. Just as I was getting into a routine with them, it was time to say good-bye. Now memories and photos take me back to those moments when I was living with primates.

Many thousands of chimpanzees are killed every year in Africa for bushmeat trading. Poachers kill entire families to steal away infants for exploitation in the exotic pet trade business, and yet another portion is lost through deforestation and heavy logging practices. Fortunately, many organizations such as the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary are assisting in creating conservation laws and community awareness.