It was already early afternoon and we had roughly 30 more kilometers until we reached the border of Guinea. It had been more than 20 years since I had traveled this last piece of road and I remembered well the harrowing potholes deep enough to swallow my little Suzuki. Fortunately for us the flat, glimmering tarmac highway that stretched ahead was brand new and bore no resemblance at all to the one I knew. There were four of us in the car: MJ the driver, Dondo Kante, manager of the University of Iowa Fongoli Research Project, me and Toto.
Toto is a four-year-old chimpanzee with a strong-headed personality who weighs in just over 66 lbs. Much to his dismay he was traveling caged instead of seated next to us as was usually the case.
Toto rode in the car several days a week traveling from my house to a forest nearby where he spent the day climbing trees in training to be a chimpanzee. If not watched closely he would jump into the car before the driver did and plop himself behind the steering wheel. With his two hands tightly gripping the wheel he would rapidly jerk it back and forth.
But today was not a short jaunt to the forest. It was the beginning of an arduous three-day trip from Senegal to Guinea. For the safety of everyone, including himself, we made the decision to confine him to a cage. With detailed planning and several rehearsals we successfully trapped Toto the night before. Having never been in a cage before, he was in surprisingly good spirits in the morning and typically ready for fun and games. It was only after about an hour of driving that he seemed to figure out that we were not going on a routine trip to the forest, and he got a bit worried.
Arriving just three hours before the border closed, we found at least a dozen colorful bush taxis each jammed full with 20 people already waiting to cross the border. Hundreds of people swarmed the road changing their money from one country currency to the other, buying plastic packets of water and finding street food to eat. These would be the last people to cross the border that day because it would close at 6:00 sharp, with no exceptions. I was intimately aware of this restriction, having once arrived at 6:15. When refused entry I had no option but to sleep on the side of the road as there were no hotels to be found.
I grew anxious as time passed without any movement ahead of us. Parked way at the back we were unable to catch the attention of the policeman controlling the passage of vehicles. Dondo maneuvered his way through the crowd to the front where he explained we were on official business with proper documents. Within moments he motioned to me to come and I quickly joined him on foot with my pile of papers. I was ushered into the customs office right away where the policeman in charge, Officer Bah, kindly offered me a chair. We went through Toto’s papers, which had taken me almost a year to obtain; the CITES export document from the Senegal government; a letter from the Guinean Minister of Environment allowing Toto’s transfer into Guinea; a health certificate; an acceptance letter from the Centre de Conservation pour Chimpanzees (CCC) sanctuary in Guinea; my passport and visa; and the international insurance papers for the vehicle.
After reading every document word for word the officer looked at me and asked what I wanted to do in Guinea. Taking a deep breath I removed my glasses for a moment while pondering the possibility that we were not going to make it across the border tonight. It was clear that I needed more than just documents to convince this official. And so as any good African story teller would do, I began to recount Toto’s short life story.
In August 2011, a student of Dr. Jill Pruetz, now Dr. Stacy Lindshield, and her research assistant Michel Sadiakho, found two-month old Toto lying on the ground near the body of his chimpanzee mother Tia who was dead. An investigation into her death determined that she had been bitten by a snake prior to falling to the ground.
Jill, a professor of anthropology at Iowa State University, had been studying the behavior of this population of chimpanzees, the Fongoli group, living in Senegal, for the past 10 years. Jill happened to be in the United States at the time dealing with the imminent death of her own mother who was in hospital intensive care. She asked if I could help with Toto and without hesitation I said yes. In retrospect I should have thought through my response a bit more carefully.
Our decision, which was authorized and supported by the Senegal government, was to intervene in the affairs of the Fongoli chimpanzee population to save Toto from dying of exposure or being eaten by a wild animal. Our initial hope was to care for and nurture him until he was sufficiently independent to be released back to his wild natal group. Although we were acutely aware that the odds of Toto successfully rejoining his family were slim we felt it was worth the risk considering the impracticality and lack of appeal of the other options, which included leaving him on the ground, placement in Senegal’s national zoo in Dakar or establishing a new chimpanzee sanctuary in Senegal. Although the later alternative was a great idea, and would help more chimpanzees than just Toto, it required extensive amounts of time to organize and secure adequate financing. Neither Jill nor I had that kind of time.
I had been working with chimpanzee rehabilitation and the conservation of wild populations for 35 years when Toto came into my life. It had been almost 10 years since I had actually raised a baby chimpanzee and more like 20 since I had one as young as Toto. When Jill contacted me it felt kind of surreal that I would have another baby chimp, as I was certain those days were over for me. I brought Toto to my house in Kedougou, a small town located in the southeastern corner of Senegal and not too far from where Toto was found. Though my compound was large, space would not be an issue until Toto was mobile and that wouldn’t be for quite some time.
At three to four months of age, all he could really do was wiggle, flail and vocalize. And Toto was by far the most vocal baby I had ever known. I picked up a couple of baby carriers in the second hand market and slipped Toto’s little body inside. This allowed me a bit of freedom for other activities while still providing him with constant physical contact. Toto’s feeding schedule was initially every two hours, which gradually spread to three and then four. I have always been nocturnal so the night shift was not so difficult for me, but continuing into the morning hours was rough. Fearful that he might hurt himself when I was asleep I put him in a small box in my bed next to me. When he awakened, I could hear him hitting the sides of the box and I knew it was time to get up.
As it was impossible for me to stay in Senegal on a full-time basis, I brought someone from Guinea to help care for Toto. After a few months I brought in a second person. Jill and I shared the costs. With two full-time people Toto had 24-hour attention and constant physical contact, which simulated as close as possible what he would have with his mother. This also allowed me to come and go from my home in The Gambia.
The only contact Toto had was with those of us who cared for him. We restricted his contact with anyone else in order to prevent disease transmission but also to reduce to an absolute minimum his exposure to humans. He fared well for the first couple of months but soon succumbed to a series of very serious respiratory infections, which he survived. By 12 months of age Toto’s health stabilized and he seemed to get bigger by the day. He was in and out of diaper sizes in a flash. He was at least two times larger than any chimp of a similar age in The Gambia sanctuary and Jill confirmed the same was true for those in her wild study group.
After what seemed like a lifetime on the bottle I introduced solid foods to Toto. We began with small pieces of soft papaya. Toto was domineering from the start and insisted that he hold the food himself and put it in his mouth. I was fine with this but as he had no coordination at all there was more on his face and in his tight pudgy fists then in his stomach. It was the same with the liquid antibiotic. He insisted on holding the spoon and I struggled against his tight grip to ensure that some of the sticky substance ended up in his mouth. Trying to change his diaper required a near professional; when one side was secure I would start with the opposite side but before I was finished he had already wiggled free from the other side.
Once Toto became mobile, the world was his and so was my compound. Watching him every second was an absolute necessity that made naptime a paradise for all of us. We watched excitedly as his development and loco-motor skills advanced, including the first day he built up the momentum to scoot and, of course, his first tottering step. The day Toto learned to jump off the front step of my house was the biggest day of his life. He struggled to climb up the six-inch step, grunting as he tried to raise his chubby short legs high enough. Once he finally made it up the step he turned to me and threw himself in the air for me to catch him. He wriggled to the ground immediately and breathing hard climbed up again. He repeated this at least 25 times before tiring.
As soon as Toto could walk with a degree of balance we started taking him out to a forested area where there were no people. We referred to these outings as “going on safari.” He was so curious and full of life it was a delight to watch him discover the world. If we even covered five square meters of space this was considered a big day. I photographed him constantly, even at night when he slept. Jill and I laughed hysterically at his antics. It was hard for him not to be central to our existence.
Toto was the happiest chimp I had ever known. He carried none of the emotional baggage I was used to with other chimps I had raised. The only characteristic that Toto had in common with them was that he was an orphan. Perhaps because he lost his mother at such an early age he didn’t manifest the loss in the way older chimps did. Fortunately for him he had never experienced the horrors of capture, mistreatment or malnutrition. Toto had never skipped a meal and no one had ever been unkind to him. Nevertheless we were all aware that what we provided was all only a poor substitute for life in the wild.
Change of plans
Once Toto reached the age of two we began to assess more seriously our original aim of returning him to the wild. Though we had rigidly restricted Toto’s exposure to people during his first two years, his behavior towards humans changed from one of fear to both curiosity and dominance. He took every opportunity to sneak away from supervision and climb over the fence to harass my neighbors. Although one could think of these actions as somewhat humorous at the time, they would have no survival value if exhibited by him in the wild.
In addition, during these early years of Toto’s development, conditions for his wild natal family changed dramatically in ways that did not favor his release. The destruction of their natural habitat had expanded and intensified with the growing human population involved in the practice of artisanal gold mining. Toto’s experience with humans, and his lack of fear, would increase his chances of being caught or being involved in an altercation with humans if he was found stealing food or in close proximity to human habitation. An altercation such as this could have a negative effect not only on Toto and the human involved, but also on the attitude of local communities toward chimpanzees in general. These factors and the disappearance of his only known relative, his older sister Aimee, convinced us that release to his natal group was no longer a viable option.
We were now confronted with the same obstacles and frustrations of any private owner of a young chimp —what do we do with Toto? As my career had focused on rehabilitation one would have thought I was well placed to easily resolve this dilemma—but this proved not to be the case at all.
In early 2015, I reported my assessment of Toto’s situation to the Senegal Forestry authorities in Kedougou, providing them with a list of options for Toto and my evaluation of each one. My position was that as he could not be released into the wild without great risk to his life the next best option was to transfer him to a chimpanzee sanctuary. In a sanctuary he could live in a protected environment with some degree of freedom but more importantly he could share his life with other chimpanzees his own age. I emphasized that the longer we waited, the more difficult would be his socialization process as Toto’s experience with chimpanzees was limited to only his first two months of life. The major drawback with this option was that Senegal did not currently have a chimpanzee sanctuary, meaning Toto would need to be transferred to another country.
Although sympathetic to my request, the local forestry authorities said that if Toto could not be released, he should be placed in the Dakar Zoo. They emphasized, that as an endangered species he should not be transported across international borders, as per the terms of the CITES convention. Although I understood the purpose behind the regulations and policies, I wanted more for Toto.
In early 2016 I flew to Dakar to meet with the national director of forestry and asked that Toto’s case be treated as an exception. I specifically asked for permission to look outside Senegal for an appropriate placement for him in a chimpanzee sanctuary. The director’s response was positive. As great as this news was, it did not automatically translate into finding a home for Toto. There were only three chimpanzee sanctuaries in our sub-region of West Africa. As was the case for all primate sanctuaries in Africa, they were all bursting at the seams in terms of space and functioning on less than a skeleton budget.
Releasing Toto on the islands of the sanctuary in The Gambia, which I currently direct, was as risky as releasing him to the wild. Our four social groups were free roaming and closed to new membership. We could no longer intervene or protect a newly introduced individual. Sierra Leone had a policy of only accepting individuals from their own country and at the time I asked they were not accepting any chimpanzees due to the risks of Ebola transmission. The sanctuary in Guinea, Centre de Conservation pour Chimpanzes, was at capacity with 52 chimps and without funds or space. However, it agreed to accept Toto if we provided sufficient funds for a new habitat.
With the sanctuary acceptance letter, the national director of forestry gave me permission to proceed. This next step took months and required extensive contact with the bureaucracies of both Senegal and Guinea. Souleye N’diaye, a friend, colleague but more importantly the director of National Parks in Senegal, helped me navigate through the tedious obstacle course. Once I obtained the required Senegal documents I sent them to Guinea. But by the time I acquired permission from Guinea the documents from Senegal had expired and I had to start all over again.
Finally, in September 2016 I had a short window of time in which all documents were valid and I began to work on the complicated logistics of Toto’s trip to the sanctuary in Guinea. I scheduled his transfer for the end of October when the rains would be over and travel on the mountainous roads of northern Guinea easier. Aware that the voyage would take at least two weeks, which I didn’t have at that time, I organized to rent a vehicle from Conakry to meet me at the border and take Toto to the sanctuary in southeastern Guinea. The sanctuary agreed to send one of their ex-employees to ensure that the trip went smoothly and to help with Toto if necessary. Dondo agreed to accompany Toto and stay with him the first two weeks to provide him with moral support. My job at this point would end with the handover of Toto.
‘King Kong’s’ next chapter
Throughout my story, Officer Bah listened intently and without interruption as he barked at and waved away anyone attempting to enter his office. I had the luxury of his complete attention. At the end he gave his summation of my prolonged story: “So Toto is Senegalese? And you are from Gambia? And Toto is alone in Senegal? And you want him to go to Faranah to be with people of his own kind?” Relieved, I said yes, yes and YES! With that he sprung up from his chair and with the full authority of his position I watched as he moved the world.
Out in the middle of the busy road, he swung his arms in the air motioning to our vehicle to come forward to the rope that divided the two countries. He then called various customs officials to my car, pointed to Toto and to my amazement recounted an accurate but shortened version of his life story. From there he moved in a zigzag fashion across the road from one office to the next: customs, immigration, forestry and other local government offices. Wherever he walked, the crowds gave way and I quickly followed in the fleeting open space so as not to be swallowed up by them. Office by office, he explained Toto’s story; some explanations were in French, some in Malinke and some in Fulani. The common denominator of all was the word “Toto” accompanied by the gesture of his extended arm and index finger pointing to the car.
In no time at all, he had cleared our administrative path acquiring all the necessary official stamps on our documents, a feat which would have easily taken me several hours. His repeated reference to Toto attracted uncontrollable crowds to gather around the car. This disturbed me immensely because I have seen caged chimps recently confiscated or mistreated by people suffer in similar situations.
Fearful of humans they typically cry and quiver while trying to withdraw and hide in the corner of their cage.
But this was not the case with Toto, who seemed to adore and revel in the attention. With his hair bristled to make him look larger than he really was he stamped his feet up and down on the floor of his cage daring anyone to think for a moment that he was none other than King Kong.
We had one last customs post to clear and it was about 30 kilometers ahead of us in Guinea territory. With a handwritten letter from the authorities to facilitate our passage, we left just before six. As he dropped the rope for us to pass, Officer Bah assured me that if we returned that night he would make an exception and allow us to cross back into Senegal. On arrival at the final post I found the rented vehicle waiting for us. While I met with the final authorities, Dondo and the others transferred Toto’s cage from my vehicle to the rented vehicle. With the final document stamped I left the office to find the sun had already set taking with it the bright colors of day. And Toto was no longer in my car.
Cutting the Apron Strings
Feeling a sudden rush of emotion, I realized the time had come to say goodbye. Throughout the frustrations and deliberations of the last days I had momentarily forgotten that achieving my goal meant that I was not going to see Toto again. Having planned this day for months, it seemed incongruous to me that there was no time for a proper goodbye; even worse that it had to take place in front of hundreds of strangers. As I moved through the crowd, Toto’s eyes followed me. He stopped displaying for the audience and grew quiet. As I got close he arched his back pressing his fat stomach against the cage wire for me to touch. Curling his lips back and exposing his toothless grin he whimpered like a baby as he often did to get what he wanted. I scratched his stomach and pressed my face against his and softly said goodbye.
Backing away, I called to Dondo who was ready to join the vehicle. I heard my voice crack and realized I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye without bursting into tears. But when my eyes met Dondo’s, I realized that he understood and speech wasn’t necessary after all. Dondo had been Jill’s research assistant for 12 years, during which time we had occasionally worked together on education programs that benefitted both Jill’s and my work with wild chimp populations. I ventured a guess that his knowledge and understanding of chimpanzee behavior had been enhanced immeasurably by his recent time caring for Toto. I was certain that Toto’s name would live forever in stories told by Dondo to his family and friends and from theirs on to the next generation. And through these stories, Toto would become the King Kong he thought he was.
Standing alone in the dark, I watched the rented car pull out onto the dirt road, turn right and head south. It would take them at least two long days of driving to get to the sanctuary. I had given up trying to hold back my tears and was in full crying mode by now, which seemed to embarrass MJ the driver. Despite the fact that I had often complained that Toto ruled my life, I already missed him. But I knew Toto would be fine. I had no doubts of that. He was a robust little fellow and in perfect health. More importantly I had finally found him a home and he would soon have friends. My only regret was that I would miss his first meeting with another chimpanzee. As the dust obscured my view of the departing vehicle I climbed into my car and, turning left, we headed north.
Author’s note: A big thanks to Friends of Animals for contributing to Toto's life.
Toto's arrival in my life was sudden and unexpected, not to mention expensive. FoA responded quickly to my request for funds and its assistance was indispensable including a large donation to the Centre de Conservation pour Chimpanzees for a new enclosure to organize Toto's integration with his new colleagues