After being rescued from Liberia’s illegal pet trade and taken to a sanctuary, young chimpanzees still have a lot to learn about fending for themselves.
The couple taking care of orphaned primates in Liberia
American couple Jimmy and Jenny Desmond never planned on becoming surrogate parents to 21 baby chimpanzees. Jimmy is a wildlife vet, and when he and his wife Jenny first arrived in Liberia in 2015 for a completely different project, someone handed them two orphaned baby chimps. They didn’t have the heart to turn them away. Word soon spread, more babies arrived and now their home is bursting at the seams with chimpanzees.
The orphans are now the stars of Baby Chimp Rescue, a three-part series on BBC Two. All of them have distinct individual personalities, but share one thing in common: they’ve all been rescued from Liberia’s illegal pet trade. Their mothers were killed by hunters for the commercial bushmeat trade, and the babies were sold as pets. The lucky ones are rescued, and end up with Jimmy and Jenny. Many come in with shrapnel wounds from the bullets that killed their mothers. For Jimmy, each new arrival is a painful reminder of the crisis unfolding before their eyes.
“Every guy you see here is a tragedy,” Jimmy says. “They have all been through a really traumatic experience and they shouldn’t be here. They should be in the forest with their family – we’re just trying to give them the best life we can, considering the circumstances.”
Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. They’re highly intelligent, have complex emotions and even laugh when tickled. Like us, they can also suffer from trauma, and the chimps that come into the Desmonds’ home are all in desperate need of healing, both physical and emotional. This is the main goal of the work of Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection (LCRP): to help the orphans overcome the experience of losing their families, and to become well-adjusted young chimps.
Jimmy and Jenny have hired a brilliant team of 15 local care-givers who replace the chimps’ parents and look after them around the clock. Annie Knight from the local village of Charlestown looks after the youngest orphans when they first come in.
“We love them like our own babies,” Annie says. “Their mothers are dead, they don’t have anyone to take care of them. We replace their mother. Even when I go home on my day off, I miss them.”
Jimmy and Jenny are determined to replicate the same care the babies would have had in the wild – they even bring them into their bed at night. Wild chimps sleep attached to their mothers for their first year, and the orphans here do the same. Though it may seem unusual, it’s important to understand the reasons behind it: the Desmonds believe this kind of physical contact is essential to the baby chimps’ well-being.
“They really need this touch,” explains Jenny. “I mean, the other option would be that they slept on their own, but we don’t feel like that’s okay, because that’s not natural for them. We want them to always feel safe and secure, 24 hours a day.”
It’s hard to overstate the level of commitment required to take on a family of orphaned chimpanzees. In captivity, they can live almost as long as humans, up to 60 or 70 years. Jimmy and Jenny are in it for life. Jimmy knows better than anyone that the chimps are going to keep getting bigger, and they’re going to keep getting more of them. “Sometimes we feel like we’re in over our heads,” Jimmy admits. “But if we walked away right now, I don’t know what would happen.” Apart from helping the chimps recover, the major long-term goal is to build them all a new semi-wild
It’s hard to overstate the level of commitment required to take on orphaned chimps.
sanctuary in the forest, so they can lead as natural a life as possible. It’s very unlikely the chimps can ever be properly released back into the wild, as they’re now habituated to people, but the new sanctuary will allow them to live in trees and form their own group, whilst still giving them plenty of food and veterinary care.
It’s a huge ambition, fraught with challenges – Jimmy and Jenny need to find the land, build the infrastructure and, in the meantime, get the chimps ready for their new life in the forest. For this task, they’ve called in some help from an old friend. Professor Ben Garrod, a specialist in wild chimpanzee behaviour and the presenter of Baby Chimp Rescue, first met the Desmonds 10 years ago on another chimp project in Uganda. His role is to help prepare the orphans for their new home.
“Some of these little chimps are coming in and they can’t even climb,” Ben says. “They’re absolute babies but we have to teach them, the same way their mums would. So whether it’s termite fishing or nut cracking or building a nest, identifying venomous animals, we have to put them through their paces.”
As lessons get under way, the first major step of the master-plan falls into place with relative ease – just 10km away from their home near Liberia’s coast, the Desmonds find a perfect patch of land. It’s 40ha of
The chimps are getting bigger, and fights break out more frequently.
woodland, surrounded by a river and mangroves, which provide natural barriers for chimps. It’s a step forward, but they still need to raise the money to build a new sanctuary from the ground up, and working in Liberia brings its own challenges.
Jimmy and Jenny are currently funding the whole project themselves, with some small donations. Jimmy has a day job working on a US government Ebola research project, and his salary pays for their growing monthly food and staff bills. As Jenny points out, they’re not wealthy people and it’s not sustainable. On top of the running costs of looking after the chimps, they now need to find $1.5 million to build the new sanctuary.
As if things aren’t challenging enough, the Desmonds are not content just to provide a home for orphaned chimps, they’re also actively going out to rescue them. They’ve teamed up with the Liberian Forestry Development Authority and some like-minded NGOs, to form a law enforcement task force. The first official confiscation case is three-year-old Mira, short for Miracle. Found living on the end of a heavy chain in a nearby town, she’s taken home and eventually introduced to the rest of the family.
Rescuing chimps is unpredictable and, at times, dangerous. When Ben and Jenny go to the capital Monrovia to help confiscate a baby chimp from a trader, they come home with more than they bargained for. As well as a two-year-old female called Star, they also discover ten-year-old male Jonny. He’s highly stressed and potentially deadly, surrounded by discarded bottles of gin, which his owners had been giving to him to keep him calm. In a volatile atmosphere, the team manage to get Jonny back home, then face the next challenge of caring for an adult male chimp for the rest of his life.
With so many orphaned chimps now in one place, more problems keep arising. The chimps are getting bigger and stronger, and fights break out more frequently. Disease is also a major threat – when the rainy season arrives, a cold virus
is brought in by
More than 40 rescued orphaned chimps are currently in the care of Jimmy and Jenny Desmond, and their team, who supply around-the-clock care for the recovering youngsters.
Above: chimps live in tight-knit communities, where navigating social dynamics is part of daily life, so learning to play and interact from a young age is extremely important. Right: the Desmonds have teamed up with the Liberian Forestry Development Authority to rescue chimps that have been illegally taken from the wild.
A jungle gym is ideal for developing strength and climbing skills. Below: Jimmy bonds with Ella.
Left: When baby chimp Chance was rescued with severe head trauma, the Desmonds worried she might not survive. But now she is on her way to becoming an inquisitive and playful youngster. Below, left to right: climbing doesn't come naturally; learning to fish for termites with Ben; using tools to crack nuts is a skill that takes time to master, even for Ben and Jimmy; chimps learn complex skills by observing and copying others.