Chimp res­cue

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.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Rob Sullivan

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.

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