One day, at the end of the dry season, Tama Boubane of Epingue village set out to collect bamboo to replace the roof of his hut before the rains started. Returning home late in the afternoon, he crossed the dry riverbed of the Diarha. Balancing a heavy load of bamboo on his head, he descended into the darkness of the ravine. He stopped abruptly when he saw something dark lying close to the water hole where chimpanzees and other animals drink during the long dry season. Tama recognized the form as an adult female chimpanzee lying motionless, flat on her stomach. The body — already lifeless for three or four days — was swollen, but had not yet started to decompose. Tama looked up to the mesh of lianas, still laden with the wild fruit of the Saba senegalensis vine. Peelings from the tough shell of the fruit lay scattered across the floor of the riverbed. Stepping closer to get a better look, he heard whimpering from a tree trunk two meters away. He dropped his load of bamboo and walked over to investigate. Lifting a large, fallen branch from the tree trunk, he uncovered the tiny chimpanzee cowering in its shadow.
A young man, the father of three children and the provider for an extended family, Tama worked hard to make ends meet. In terms of comfort and food sufficiency, Tama and his family lived a marginal existence. Pondering an action that could have enormous repercussions on his already difficult life, Tama fixed a long gaze on the baby. Chimpanzees are protected in Senegal. If he was found with a baby chimpanzee he could be arrested and imprisoned. Then there was the additional responsibility of feeding another being. Accepting the consequences rather than allowing a death of thirst and hunger, Tama took the baby by the hand and started towards home, leaving the stack of bamboo behind.
At home, Tama gave the baby water and wild fruits: baobab, wild mango, and kaba. Then, placing the baby in a covered basket, Tama hastened off to visit the fetisher for a ritual cleansing. For it is a belief of the Bassari that if they find the dead body of either a human or chimpanzee they must be cleansed, lest misfortune fall on them. On my return from Guinea, I received word of the baby chimpanzee. I saw only three options: the zoo in Dakar, a transfer to the rehabilitation center in Gambia, or an attempt to find the original family of the baby, and its subsequent release. The Dakar zoo held little appeal. Transfer to the center in Gambia would require approval of both governments, and a difficult integration into one of the island groups. Release into freedom was admittedly risky, a real long shot. But in this case I felt the gains were worth the risks, particularly if we could locate the original family.
Souleye and I sat across the desk of Commandant Bah, the Chef de Sector of Eaux et Forets for the Department of Kedougou and the person who was now responsible for the life of the baby chimpanzee. Souleye had already filed a report. I explained my reasons for suggesting we try to release the baby, the most important being that we knew where the baby was from and if we could find the family I was certain they would accept the baby back. Professional yet sensitive, Commandant Bah granted us some time to attempt the release, adding that if it didn’t work we should bring the chimpanzee to him in Kedougou and he would arrange a transfer to the zoo in Dakar. Wishing us luck, he said goodbye.
Although I was thankful for the reprieve, our job had just begun. Having rehabilitated chimpanzees for more than 25 years, I knew that returning one to the forest was much more difficult than taking one out. To succeed, we needed to release the baby in the same location where it was found and in the presence of a family of chimpanzees — certainly one the baby knew, and preferably his immediate family. An older sibling would undoubtedly adopt the youngster. If this orphaned baby was the firstborn, there was still a good chance that the mother’s best friend or sister would take responsibility. Thus, finding the family that had just recently lost a mother and baby was our first and largest challenge. With the onset of the rains and the increased accessibility of water, the chimpanzees residing along the Diarha throughout the dry season had dispersed. Locating them would be more difficult now.
We were a team of five: Souleye, Rene Bonang of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in Gambia, who offered to help, Mintareene and Djoulere, both working with Friends of Animals, and myself. Mintareene and Souleye took the Diarha River while Rene, Djoulere and I went in the opposite direction to the mountain of Hubere. Weaving back and forth across the plateau and down into the ravines, we covered close to 18 kilometers. Rene and Djoulere led, pointing out the subtle signs: blades of grass bent to the side, branches cracked and bent — evidence of the elusive chimpanzees' short breaks. Finally, after eight hours of walking through mud, up and down mountains and across hot plateaus, we turned back. As we emerged from the forest I saw Souleye waiting for us. He and Mintareene had located a family, possibly two, along the Diarha.
The next morning Tama climbed into the back of my car with the baby chimpanzee in an old flour sack slung across his shoulder. I had asked him to help with the release as he was the only one with a relationship with the baby. In fact, on my first meeting the baby had surprised me by taking a long hard bite into my arm. Leaving the dirt road we drove four kilometers through Parayamba, a village settled by the pastoral Fulani tribe. Another kilometer by foot brought us to the site where the chimpanzees had been seen and not far from where Tama had first found the baby. The baby likely belonged to one of the two families. Nonetheless, getting close enough to release the baby without frightening them away was easier said than done.
Setting out alone, Tama and I walked quietly through the shadows of the gallery forest, following the chimpanzees' calls. I tried to synchronize my footsteps with Tama’s much longer strides in order to reduce the rustling sounds of our passage. Suddenly, we faced five chimpanzees. Four slipped away without a sound, leaving the fifth in a tree in front of us. I motioned to Tama to open the sack to let the baby out. He nervously struggled with cord of the sack. Disoriented, the baby tumbled out. Simultaneously, the fifth chimpanzee, an adolescent, dropped to the ground and ran to catch up with the group just as the baby stumbled away from us — in the wrong direction. Running ahead, we cut him off, forcing him to return in the direction of the group. Then we retreated into the shadows and waited.
We heard very little to help us understand what was happening. Vocalizations, but nothing out of the ordinary. Rene came to replace Tama. We slipped down a muddy slope, looking for tracks of the baby. Rene spotted the baby’s slim knuckle walk sliding in the mud, first moving away from the group, but then turning, and finally disappearing. Setting up our tents in the rain that night, we spoke in whispers now glad the release had worked, now wondering if the baby was hiding alone.
The next morning, it was Tama and I again, hiding on a soiled flour sack. The distant calls of chimpanzees indicated their movement in our direction along the Diarha River. Roughly three hours later, they arrived, the males hooting and stamping their feet on the damp earth. The first group was not more than 100 meters from us when we heard a second group calling from behind us. Tama and I were silent, worried that we were too close, and that maybe, when the greetings calmed down, one of the groups would see us. But they busied themselves high in the canopy, eating the ripe kaba which dotted the green curtain of foliage. When the two groups moved even closer, I definitely heard a baby whimpering and asking to be carried. A bit later I heard a very small hoot. Still stretched out on the ground with our heads covered to protect us from the sweatbees, Tama and I turned to each other and smiled. A third group joined the first two; they all moved into another ravine.
Near dusk, the three families moved in close to us, nesting less than 100 meters away. To give them space, we moved our tents away from the river's edge. But in the middle of the night we awoke to hooting, drumming and slapping of the ground. This persisted until early morning when all three groups migrated away from the Diarha. Allowing my imagination to run wild, I wondered if they were somehow threatening us because they thought we were responsible for the death of the mother. We didn’t see the chimpanzees again for several days, although we heard their distant calls. Each day we patrolled both sides of the river, but found nothing to indicate the baby had been left behind.
After four days of constant rain the river started to swell. Packing tents and cooking gear, I felt a twinge of sadness at the ending of a special, shared adventure. The small village knew of our efforts to return the baby chimpanzee, and agreed to stay away from the river during these first critical days so as to allow the families some peaceful time alone with the orphan. We would continue to rely on our messenger, Saidou, for information or sightings of the baby in the near future.
Tama would have a day off with his family before returning to the Diarha for the next month to patrol for information on the baby’s whereabouts. Though living a life of poverty in one of the most remote areas of Senegal, Tama had neglected his farming activities for two weeks and worked constantly to help the orphan. It was dusk when Rene, with whom I have worked for 25 years, pointed up to where a chimpanzee warned his family of our presence from the delicate safety of his evening nest. Perhaps it was the father, saying goodbye to Rene, and thanking him for having given up his vacation to help bring their family back together. That evening Rene and I said goodbye in Kedougou as he prepared for the two-day trip back to Gambia. I knew I could never the many people who, each in a special way, returned baby Boubane to the home where he belonged.