Part of the PEGAS mission is to rescue captive great apes held in deplorable conditions and relocate them to a sanctuary. So earlier this year when PEGAS received an email from an expatriate working in Liberia asking if we could help save infant orphan chimpanzees in Monrovia, we arranged to go take a look to assess what the situation was. The expat sent photographs of a hapless 2-year female named Jackson that was tied up to a rusting VW bus wreck. She was being looked after by some policemen, but her situation was quite grim.
Phoebe McKinney, the American woman who contacted PEGAS, was working in Liberia to rebuild the primary education system there that was destroyed by the civil war. And now they had to deal with the Ebola outbreak, which closed the schools for a time. But by the time I arrived, Ebola was on the wane and there had not been a new case in weeks. This gave me the hope that Liberia would soon be declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization, which should allow the chimpanzees to be relocated to Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Ol Pejeta Conservancy. There is no sanctuary in Liberia. Phoebe had already contacted nearby sanctuaries, Tacugama in Sierra Leone and the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Guinea, but they had no space. Sweetwaters was the last hope.
Phoebe, an energetic, enthusiastic woman with a soft spot for primates (she has a pet potto, Frankie) had constructed with her own resources a fledgling sanctuary for monkeys next to the Libassa Ecolodge, about 40 km southeast of Monrovia, the capital. Being also an optimist, she had constructed a large wire mesh enclosure to hold young chimpanzees temporarily, with the expectation that they would be transferred to a more permanent home. She said that there were several captive chimpanzees scattered around Monrovia being held in appalling conditions.
A few days before my arrival, Phoebe rescued Jackson from the VW wreck and transported her to Libassa, where she happily played around inside the enclosure, free for the first time in a year of the metal neck collar. The collar had left a nasty friction wound on the back of her neck.
One of the first things I did while there was to visit Libassa and see Jackson, now renamed ‘Guey’, meaning chimpanzee in Kru, the local language. Guey was full of fun and I entered the enclosure and played with her for a while. She ran around tumbling and jumping and enjoyed herself as I flipped her in somersaults.
Phoebe and I next went to visit another 2-year old female named Jacksy who was being held behind bars in a squalid chamber that faced onto a littered alley. Jacksy looked stunted and I learned that she was fed mainly with biscuits and left-overs from the food hawkers on the street next to the cage. The Chinese woman who ‘owned’ her ran a beauty salon nearby. We met with Alfa, the caretaker hired by the Chinese woman to look after Jacksy. He seemed agreeable that we come back the next day to pick up Jacksy and take her to Libassa. This seemed too easy.
We returned the next day, hoping to take Jacksy with us to Libassa, but now Alfa said that the Chinese owner had told him that she wanted USD 500 as compensation for costs involved in acquiring Jacksy and for upkeep. I told Phoebe that this was completely unacceptable, PEGAS could not be party to what effectively was ape trafficking. If we paid for Jacksy, the woman would be motivated to go out and get another infant chimpanzee. A long negotiating session ensued. While Phoebe went into the beauty salon to talk with the ‘owner’, I sat down to chat with Alfa to try and find out more about why the woman kept the chimpanzee. It did not seem to be a pet.
Alfa said that the woman had brought Jacksy from the forest herself in her car, he did not know from where. She had returned recently from a trip to China where she had attempted to sell the chimpanzee, but was unsuccessful. I imagine the Ebola outbreak had made selling animals from the affected countries quite difficult. So now she was willing to sell Jacksy at a discount because of Ebola. There were stories of villagers killing chimpanzees after they learned that they were Ebola carriers, another incentive to get rid of it.
Phoebe had no success. The woman stuck at USD 300 and refused to budge. Phoebe was willing to pay it, but I said that if she did I would be unable to relocate the chimpanzee to Sweetwaters.
I made arrangements to meet with the head of the Liberia CITES Management Authority and went out of town to the Forestry Development Authority (FDA) offices where Theo Freeman, the head, was located. He seemed very willing to cooperate and introduced me to some Wildlife Officers, who offered to accompany me the following day to confiscate the chimpanzee. Phoebe had already been in contact with the FDA and they had approved her keeping primates at Libassa. They were in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary involving the FDA, Phoebe’s NGO called ISPARE, and Rudolph Antoune, owner of Libassa Ecolodge, who was generously donating the land.
The following morning the Wildlife Officers informed me by telephone that they unfortunately were unable to come into town to conduct the confiscation and said that Phoebe and I should do it. During Phoebe’s lunch break we returned to the Oriental Beauty Salon to resume our efforts to rescue Jacksy. Finally Phoebe pulled her trump card and told the Chinese woman that she was holding the chimpanzee illegally and that if she did not release it we would return with the authorities to arrest her and seize the chimpanzee.
The woman spoke poor English, so she rang her daughter, who lived in Monrovia and who spoke better English. Phoebe repeated what she had said about the illegality of holding the chimpanzee to the daughter. The daughter translated to her mother in Chinese, which miraculously transformed her attitude. Now she was more than willing to release Jacksy. We told her that she could come any time that she wanted to visit Jacksy at Libassa.
As Alfa was removing Jacksy from the chamber of horrors, she escaped and scampered around in the street. I bought an apple and put it under the beauty salon sign, which attracted Jacksy.
Alfa grabbed Jacksy and placed her in the transport cage that we had brought with us. Some nice sweet bananas were in the cage, so she was quite content to gorge herself. Phoebe had to return to work so I accompanied Jacksy to Libassa in the car with a driver I hired.
The Libassa Ecolodge has a wonderful Ivoirian pastry chef named Mbama who looks after the primates at the sanctuary. He has a knack with handling them. Mbama helped me carry the cage to the enclosure, where we sat it down outside so that the two chimpanzee girls could get acquainted. Mbama and I hit it off right away, as I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Côte d’Ivoire for three years and I could joke with him using Ivoirian French expressions.
My original intention was to leave Jacksy in the outer entrance enclosure for a few hours so that the chimpanzees could get used to each other, but Mbama said that this was unnecessary and just took Jacksy out of her transport cage and pushed her into the enclosure. Immediately Guey rushed over and began chasing Jacksy around.
Phoebe and I later went to find another chimpanzee that she had heard about. We found the house, but the owner was not at home. We could see the adult female chimpanzee through an opening in the wall locked up in a cramped cage in the front courtyard of the house. She saw us and reached out an arm imploringly. We banged on the gate and a house servant came out to speak to us. The chimpanzee had lived in the cage for the six years that the house servant had worked there, but she did not know when the chimpanzee had arrived or how old it was. A male was living with it when the servant had first started working there, but it had died a couple of years earlier.
Phoebe subsequently established that the chimpanzee belonged to a senator in the national legislature, a well-known businessman. The senator would have to agree voluntarily to free his pet. The adult was too big to keep in the Libassa enclosure – adults are extremely strong – so I decided that I had better limit our first attempted relocation to the two young orphans. If that succeeded and the procedure was established, a larger group of chimpanzees could be rescued and relocated to Sweetwaters in future.
Part II to come