A Unique Refuge for Chimpanzees in Africa
In the heart of a small West African nation, The Gambia, the River Gambia National Park is home to some 80 chimpanzees. Riparian gallery forest fringes the edges of their islands, enclosing a mosaic of woodland and swamp savannah vegetation. The national park supports a wide range of biodiversity. The communities within it include manatees, hippos, and highly endangered red colobus monkeys.
But as natural as this setting seems, these chimpanzees were rescued from the most unnatural of circumstances. Some of them were confiscated as orphans of parents killed by hunters, either for bushmeat or collections of young chimpanzees intended for zoos, the entertainment industry, and other forms of exploitation. Some were voluntarily relinquished from people who had unwisely tried to make them into pets. The chimpanzees find sanctuary here on three of the five islands of the national park, living freely without bars or cages on 1,500 acres.
These are -- relatively speaking -- the lucky ones, rescued by the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project (CRP), the longest-running project of its kind. Chimpanzees were first released in the island park three decades ago by Stella Brewer and primatologist Janis Carter. In the early days, the project served as a receiving station not only for chimpanzees confiscated in The Gambia but also for those captured in Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and as far away as Zaire.
Capturing young chimpanzees requires the killing of the mother and often other family members. Killing female chimpanzees with nursing infants reaps double gains for the hunter. The body of the mother is dried and sold by the kilo for meat; the bewildered orphans will be put on the commercial market. If they survive. Only about one in ten will.
At the request of the Gambian government, Friends of Animals will now support CRP's efforts to develop a sustainable, long-term program for the care and protection of the chimpanzees, who live in relative freedom on islands. Carter, whose deep commitment to the River Gambia chimpanzees began in 1977, will direct this novel project, which focuses primarily on maintaining this unique, open-air sanctuary, yet also incorporates habitat protection, environmental education for people of all ages, and community development.
Friends of Animals' support is crucial. Though the chimpanzees forage freely on fruit, leaves, flowers, stems, tree bark, and even latex, they compete for resources with other primates on the islands. Friends of Animals will ensure the chimpanzees receive supplemental food to comprise a complete diet and to make sure the island isn't stripped of vegetation by the chimpanzees. Health monitoring is vital to the survival of these great apes, and the islands require patrolling to keep the chimpanzees safe from intruders as well as to restrict access by tourists.
The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project established an environmental education program in the late 1980s to promote the survival of the chimpanzees and their habitat amongst local residents and Gambians generally, and that initiative will continue under Friends of Animals' partnership. The educational initiative has received financial support from the Netherlands Ecosystem Grant Program of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which will continue to provide the major portion of the funding for the next 2.5 years.
Local schoolchildren take part in environmental education classes conducted by the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project's team of local instructors. A weekend camping trip reinforces classroom teachings by bringing teens into the forest to learn first-hand about the indigenous flora and fauna. Adult outreach is carried on through meetings that concentrate on local environmental issues. An education center, constructed in the form of a large traditional hut with exhibits by African artists, will open in December, a couple kilometers from the islands.
The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project's extensive work will protect the chimpanzees of the River Gambia National Park as it helps communities use sustainable practices. Efforts are under way to establish funding that would both support the chimpanzee refuge and augment employment for the surrounding communities. Tourism will be kept unobtrusive; while visitors in a boat might chance to view a curious chimpanzee at the edge of the islands, the emphasis is on respect for animals' own ways of being, with activities such as birdwatching, hiking and cultural tours. A percentage of funds raised through tourism will be allocated to development and infrastructural projects for local villages in the vicinity of River Gambia National Park.
For three decades the sanctuary project has protected chimpanzees and their tranquil island homes. Recognized as the longest running rehabilitation project for chimpanzees, the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project serves as a model and inspiration to other sanctuaries, which now total nearly 20 throughout Africa. The future of the villagers is connected with the future of the chimpanzees, and the health of the land and waters. We're committed to a secure future for all.
To assist FoA's work to support the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, Africa's unique island sanctuary, please send checks made out to Friends of Animals with CRP in the message line. Contributions may be sent to Friends of Animals, 777 Post Road, Suite 205, Darien, CT 06820 - United States.