Abraham Foundation provides bridging funding

The Abraham Foundation, based in New York City, USA, kindly responded to a PEGAS request for funding to allow the project to continue operating into the new year, when hopefully PEGAS can obtain sufficient funds to continue its important work.

 

 

 

PEGAS has targeted a number of high profile wildlife traffickers that it will try to put out of business, and there are a number of captive great apes that are in dire need of a sanctuary. The work will carry on, thanks to Nancy Abraham and the Foundation. Thank you.

Advertisements

Smuggled, Beaten and Drugged: The Illicit Global Ape Trade

This will be the last post for this year, maybe forever. The PEGAS project has run its course, in fact it has run beyond its initial 3-year time frame. If additional funding is secured the project will continue.

This article on great ape trafficking and the project’s work just appeared in The New York Times .

The New York Times tracked international ape smugglers from Congolese rain forests to the back streets of Bangkok. Here is what unfolded.

By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN NOV. 4, 2017

MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The sting began, as so many things do these days, on social media.

Daniel Stiles, a self-styled ape trafficking detective in Kenya, had been scouring Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp for weeks, looking for pictures of gorillas, chimps or orangutans. He was hoping to chip away at an illicit global trade that has captured or killed tens of thousands of apes and pushed some endangered species to the brink of extinction.

“The way they do business,” he said of ape traffickers, “makes the Mafia look like amateurs.”

After hundreds of searches, Mr. Stiles found an Instagram account offering dozens of rare animals for sale, including baby chimpanzees and orangutans dressed in children’s clothes. He sent an email to an address on the account — “looking for young otans” (the industry standard slang for orangutans) — and several days later received a reply.

“2 babies, 7.5k each. Special introductory price.”

The trafficker identified himself only as Tom and said he was based in Southeast Asia. Mr. Stiles knew what Tom was hoping for: to sell the infant orangutans to a private collector or unscrupulous zoo, where they are often beaten or drugged into submission and used for entertainment like mindlessly banging on drums or boxing one another. Such ape shows are a growing business in Southeast Asia, despite international regulations that prohibit trafficking in endangered apes.

Several weeks later, after a few more rounds of text messages with Tom to firm up the details, Mr. Stiles decided to fly to Bangkok.

“I was way out on a limb,” Mr. Stiles admitted later. But he was eager to bring down Tom, who indicated that he could find orangutans and chimps with only a few days’ notice, the mark of a major dealer.

Employees of the reserve, Lola Ya Bonobo, with young rescued bonobos in its nursery.
Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

‘Endgame Conservation’

Ape trafficking is a little-known corner of the illicit wildlife trade, a global criminal enterprise that hauls in billions of dollars. But unlike the thriving business in elephant ivory, rhino horns, tiger bone wine or pangolin scales, ape smuggling involves live animals — some of the most endangered, intelligent and sensitive animals on Earth.

Mr. Stiles, 72, grew intrigued by apes decades ago as a graduate student in anthropology. Since then, he has plunged deeper and deeper into the ape world, becoming the lead author of “Stolen Apes,” a report published by the United Nations in 2013 that was considered one of the first comprehensive attempts to document the underground ape trade. He and the other researchers estimated that the smuggling had claimed more than 22,000 apes — either trafficked or killed.

Malnourished and terrified apes have been seized across the world, in undercover busts or at border checkpoints, in countries as varied as France, Nepal, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kuwait. Two years ago, at Cairo’s international airport, the Egyptian authorities discovered a baby chimp curled up into a ball and stashed in a piece of hand luggage. Just this summer, the authorities in Cameroon stopped a smuggler at a roadblock who was trying to move 100 pounds of pangolin scales and a tiny chimp, not even a month old, hidden in a plastic sack.

But for every successful bust, wildlife specialists say, five to 10 other animals slip through. And for every smuggled ape, several more may have been killed in the process. Most species of apes are social and live in large groups, and poachers often wipe out entire families to get their hands on a single infant, which is far easier to smuggle.

“Transporting an adult chimp is like transporting a crate of dynamite,” said Doug Cress, who until recently was the head of the Great Apes Survival Partnership, a United Nations program to help great apes. “The adults are extremely aggressive and dangerous. That’s why everyone wants a baby.”

Wildlife researchers say that a secret ape pipeline runs from the lush forests of central Africa and Southeast Asia, through loosely policed ports in the developing world, terminating in wealthy homes and unscrupulous zoos thousands of miles away. The pipeline, documents show, is lubricated by corrupt officials (several have been arrested for falsifying export permits) and run by transnational criminal gangs that have recently drawn the attention of Interpol, the international law enforcement network.

Apes are big business — a gorilla baby can cost as much as $250,000 — but who exactly is buying these animals is often as opaque as the traffickers’ identity. Many times, researchers say, they can only begin to track where the apes have ended up by stumbling across the Facebook posts and YouTube videos of rich pet collectors.

A bushmeat market along the Congo River. Many endangered apes disappear each year into the trade of bushmeat, a source of protein. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Wildlife officials said that a handful of Western businessmen had also been arrested. But the majority of recent busts, they added, have been in Africa or Southeast Asia, usually of low-level traffickers or poorly paid underlings, not the bosses who control underground exports and travel abroad to make deals.

For years wildlife officials suspected that a mysterious American known simply as “Joe” was running a large trafficking ring out of Thailand, one of the world hubs for smuggled apes. According to “Tom,” the trafficker Mr. Stiles discovered, “Joe” had recently retired.

And it’s not as if smuggling is the only threat apes face. The world’s hunger for biofuels and palm oil — a cheap food product used in things like lipstick, instant noodles and Oreos — is leveling tropical rain forests and turning them into farms.

According to the Arcus Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies apes, Indonesia and Malaysia have tripled their palm oil production in the past 15 years, wiping out the habitats of thousands of orangutans. In Africa, it’s the same, with new rubber plantations, new roads and new farms cutting deeply into gorilla areas. One species, the Cross River gorilla, is now so endangered that scientists think there are only 200 or 300 left.

“In living memory, there were millions of apes,” said Ian Redmond, a well-known primatologist. “Now, there’s just a few hundred thousand and falling.”

“What we’re looking at,” he added, “is endgame conservation.”

The Apes’ World

Most apes, which include gorillas, gibbons, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos, live deep in the rain forest. The Basankusu region of Congo, lying along a tributary of the legendary Congo River, is one of the last bonobo refuges and a source of many trafficked apes.

It’s not easy getting here. We flew from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, to Mbandaka, a river town where 50-foot dugout canoes arrive every morning, edging into shore crammed with products of the forest: onions, eggplants, buckets of red-skinned peanuts, dead pangolins, dead turtles, dead monkeys and, occasionally, live apes.

From Mbandaka, we hired a canoe and motored upriver, our long, narrow boat slicing through the tannin-rich water like a pencil. We made it to the bonobo habitat, amazed to see wild bonobos quietly staring down at us from the highest branches of the trees.

“They have consciousness, empathy and understanding,” said Jef Dupain, an ape specialist for the African Wildlife Foundation. “One day we will wonder how did we ever come up with the idea to keep them in cages.”

In central African towns (as elsewhere in the world), many chimpanzees are kept as pets. Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, who lives in a riverside mansion in Kinshasa, the capital, has a large chimp locked up in a cage. At the Hotel Benghazi in Mbandaka, the owner had kept a muscular mascot for years: Antoine, a large male chimp who scraped an empty soda bottle against the iron bars of his garbage-strewn cage, like an inmate. (Antoine escaped in January and, after sowing disorder in Mbandaka, was hunted down by police officers, shot 10 times and left dead on a city street.)

Antoine, a captive chimpanzee at a hotel in Mbandaka, Congo. He escaped in January and was shot by the police.
Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

As one leaves the towns and travels into the thick forests, the use of apes changes. Out here, as in remote parts of Southeast Asia, where many people are poor and desperate for protein, apes are also food.

Jonas Mange, who now works on education projects for the African Wildlife Foundation, used to hunt bonobos in Congo, venturing into the shadowy recesses of the forest and laying snares made from loops of twisted wire. If he discovered an adult bonobo in one of his traps, he would quickly shoot it with a shotgun and sell the meat, usually for a few dollars per carcass, if that.

But a baby was different, he said. There was a specific market for infant apes, so he would sell them alive, for at least $10 each, to local traders who would then smuggle them to Kinshasa and sell them to foreigners for many times that amount.

“Bonobos are clever,” Mr. Mange said. If they get their feet stuck in a trap, they don’t screech wildly in panic, like pigs or other animals, which would reveal their location to the hunters. Instead, he said, bonobos quietly try to untangle the snare without being detected.

In Boende, a small town up another tributary of the Congo River, three hunters were recently caught with bonobo carcasses and sentenced to several years in a stifling colonial-era prison. The men said they were simply trying to feed their families by selling bonobo meat. But poaching an ape is a serious crime in Congo, and nonprofit wildlife groups have been assisting the Congolese authorities in prosecuting offenders.

“There is a culture here to eat meat, meat from the forest,” said the town’s prosecutor, Willy Ndjoko Kesidi. “Me, I like fish.”

Mr. Kesidi expressed some sympathy for the hunters he had just jailed, saying that the prison where they were housed was a horrible place where many prisoners had died.

“If you spend a lot of time in there,” Mr. Kesidi said, “the color of your skin changes.”

Men suspected of poaching bonobos, handcuffed together at a prison in Boende, Congo. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

The Sting

For years, Mr. Stiles has performed undercover research on wildlife trafficking across Africa, but recently his work has taken him off the continent. A big, freckled, gregarious man, he favors wearing baggy shorts and wrinkled safari shirts. He has also invented several false online identities, with webpages that depict him as an active buyer of rare animals.

Many illegal wildlife transactions start online, specifically through Instagram or WhatsApp. Mr. Stiles has made several trips to the United Arab Emirates, which he considers a new hub for the illegal online wildlife business. Dealers in the Middle East have posted many pictures of apes for sale, sometimes advertising them as friendly pets for children.

Disturbing stories often lie behind those pictures. Many chimps have been drugged with muscle relaxers or alcohol to make them easier to handle. Some are trained to smoke cigarettes and guzzle beer.

Orangutans are gentler than chimps, but still, they are not always gentle, and investigators say zoo trainers sometimes beat them with lead pipes wrapped in rolled-up newspapers to force them to perform tricks. Several years ago, the Indonesian police rescued a female orangutan who had been shaved and was being used as a prostitute at a brothel.

“Even if we can rescue them, it’s very difficult reintroducing them to the wild,” said Mr. Cress, the former head of the United Nations Great Apes program. “They’re all goofed up. They need serious rehab. The ones who have been given alcohol, their hands shake. They have the same withdrawal symptoms we do.”

International wildlife regulations prohibit the trade of endangered apes for commercial purposes. While zoos and other educational institutions are allowed to acquire apes, they need permits showing, among other things, that the apes were bred in captivity, not captured in the wild. (All great ape species are endangered; most gibbons species are as well.)

It’s relatively easy to falsify permits, though, and wildlife investigators have tracked illegally sold apes to Iraq, China, Dubai and Bangkok’s Safari World zoo, where orangutans have been trained to wear boxing gloves and spar with each other to howls of laughter.

Safari World was outed more than 10 years ago for using orangutans that had been smuggled from Indonesian jungles. Dozens of animals were seized from the park and flown home, where the wife of Indonesia’s president welcomed them.

But the boxing shows continue, with a new set of animals, despite an outcry from wildlife groups. Safari World executives said that none of their animals were abused and that the orangutans were fed “human-grade fruits” and lived in air-conditioned rooms.

They also said it wasn’t their fault that the authorities had discovered that some of their orangutans had been improperly acquired from Indonesia. Safari World said it relied on third-party suppliers, and the zoo insisted that most of its apes had been born in Thailand.

“When you come to our park,” said Litti Kewkacha, its executive vice president, “you will only see smiles on our orangutans.”

Constantly on the lookout for mistreated apes, wildlife activists have been frustrated with some celebrities as well. Last year, the United Nations program, Grasp, publicly chastised Paris Hilton for circulating pictures of herself cuddling an infant orangutan dressed in baby clothes. Saying that “apes are neither playthings nor pets,” it called Ms. Hilton’s behavior “appalling.”

To arrange his orangutan sting, Mr. Stiles checked into the Landmark hotel in Bangkok. From a quiet room overlooking clogged arteries of traffic, he began sending the wildlife trafficker Tom messages on WhatsApp.

Daniel Stiles, a self-styled ape detective who lives in Kenya.
Credit Georgina Goodwin for The New York Times

Mr. Stiles knew it was dangerous to flirt with a known smuggler. So he brought his investigation to Freeland, a nonprofit group that combats wildlife and human trafficking from a large office in central Bangkok. Freeland works in secrecy, with undercover agents based in a sealed room that other employees are not allowed to enter. It also works closely with the Thai police services, including one cheerful undercover officer who goes by the name Inspector X.

Over the next few days, with Inspector X and other agents lurking in his high-rise hotel room, Mr. Stiles exchanged more WhatsApp messages with Tom, trying to arrange a meet-up. A couple of times, they even talked on the phone. Tom’s real identity remained a mystery. He had a Malaysian or Indonesian accent, spoke English fluently and was never at a loss for words.

“Oh man, you’re going to have some fun,” Tom said about the orangutan babies. “Getting ready for some sleepless nights?”

In late December, the day of the meet-up, Inspector X and the other Thai agents staked out the appointed location — a supermarket parking lot in central Bangkok. A taxi pulled up.

Inspector X and the agents pounced, arresting the driver and discovering two baby orangutans in the back seat, clutching each other. They appeared scared but healthy, and have since been sent to a Thai wildlife sanctuary. But Tom was nowhere to be found.

Mr. Stiles was overjoyed that the orangutans were rescued, but he was frustrated, too. “We got to get to the dealers,” he said.

Since the sting, he has been back on Instagram, looking for more apes. And more Toms.

Update on Manno

Manno, the chimpanzee rescued from a private zoo in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing extremely well at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. The last update was on 1st June, which saw Manno integrated with three females, Jane, Akela and Bahati. The integration is being conducted in a small enclosure next to the sleeping quarters. A barred corridor connects the sleeping quarters with the outdoor enclosure.

Greeting Manno in the barred corridor that connects the sleeping quarters to the integration enclosure, Bahati looking on.

Since then Manno has made friends with all of the other females in the New Group, eight in all. More importantly, three adult males have now accepted Manno – the former alpha of the group, Niyonkuru, Romeo and Roy. Roy and Romeo are good friends and now they are trying to include Manno in their bromance alliance. Manno is still afraid of Niyonkuru, a rather imposing chimpanzee whose name means ‘God is the highest’ in Kirundi, but Niyon, as he is called, has accepted Manno. Niyon was confiscated in Burundi when a trafficker tried to sell him to the Jane Goodall Institute! Not a smart move by the trafficker, but it saved Niyon from the pet trade.

Akela even lets Manno ride on her back, like a good foster mum should

The next male to be introduced will probably be Kisazose, or Kiza for short, who also came to Sweetwaters from Burundi. He was confiscated from a Congolese trafficker and arrived at Sweetwaters in 1994 as an infant, ill and undernourished. After him will come Uruhara, a favourite of Jane Goodall’s, seen with her in a well-known photograph of them hooting together.

Jane Goodall with the photograph of her and Uruhara hooting.

Uruhara today, living up to his Kirundi name, which means ‘bald’.

Last but not least will be William, the current alpha male of the New Group. He is aggressive and strong. If William accepts Manno then the little guy from Kurdistan will be home free and he can be released into the main area, which includes a lovely spot on the banks of the Uaso Nyiro river with towering acacia trees. It will be wonderful to watch Manno mix freely with the whole group in natural interaction. There could still be moments of danger for him, however, from the large males, so hopefully Akela and other large females can protect him.

Manno has gone from living with people in Iraq…

… to living with his own kind in Africa.

New Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Liberia

Jenny and Jim Desmond arrived in Liberia in 2015 with a big job to do – overseeing the care of the 66 chimpanzees abandoned on six Marshall Islands by the New York Blood Center. They had come from Kenya where they had been assisting in looking after monkeys at Diani Beach’s Colobus Conservation, where the PEGAS project manager first met them. Within weeks of their arrival in Liberia, the government would be adding to their workload by bringing them orphaned baby chimpanzees who needed sanctuary, amongst them Guey and Sweetpea, which PEGAS had helped rescue from appalling circumstances of captivity.

Guey, found in appalling circumstances

Sweetpea was caged up by a Chinese woman who had tried to sell her

Liberia has a maximum of 2,000 wild chimpanzees remaining in its forests, made up of the critically endangered Pan troglodytes vera, the highest level of threat of extinction on IUCN’s Red List. The fact that these great apes are critically endangered doesn’t stop poachers from illegally hunting them for their meat.  The baby chimps, orphaned when their mothers are killed for their meat, are then sold as exotic pets.

Chimps rescued from the illegal exotic pet trade in Liberia are brought to Jenny and Jim Desmond with Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection (LCRP).

Before the Desmonds arrived in Liberia, the government turned a blind eye to the illegal chimp trade because authorities had no place to put chimps confiscated from their captors or new “owners.” Because the Desmonds have experience rescuing and rehabilitating great apes, authorities began to bring them babies – some just weeks old.

Jenny Desmond shows care and affection for orphaned chimps

Jim Desmond, a qualified veterinarian, looks after their health care

Baby chimps rescued by LCRP are raised by surrogate mothers until they are old enough to be integrated with a group of juveniles who no longer need around-the-clock attention.

The Desmond’s use the Liberia Institute of Biomedical Research grounds for their temporary sanctuary, not ideal for raising orphaned chimps. Ironically, LIBR was the institute that conducted research on the Marshall Island chimps for so many years. Jenny and Jim are therefore now looking for land in a nearby forest to build a proper sanctuary with all of the facilities needed to care for the chimps, including an infirmary, overnight housing for the babies, a kitchen, offices and housing for caregivers and volunteers. Now, they need to raise money for the LCRP in order to build the sanctuary.

PEGAS has adopted Sweetpea as a small contribution towards her upkeep.

People wishing to help LCRP can adopt a chimpanzee on their website

Jenny Desmond points out that providing sanctuary for rescued chimps is only part of their mission. One of their biggest priorities is using the sanctuary as a platform to educate the public about the importance of conserving chimpanzees in their natural habitat. “We’ll know that our efforts are having an impact when we stop receiving chimps,” said Desmond. “Our ultimate goal is to not need to exist at all.”

Please follow Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection (LCR) on Facebook and Twitter.

Research on lab chimps is over. Why have so few been retired to sanctuaries?

On 12th June, 2015, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service classified chimpanzees as Endangered, effectively ending biomedical studies on them. Two years later only 73 chimps have been moved to sanctuaries, leaving almost 600 still caged up in research facilities. They say there is a problem with finding space to house them all. Ol Pejeta Conservancy can help, the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary can take 30 right now, if anyone is interested. There is potential to accept many more.

This article published in Science , authored by David Grimm, explains the issue.

A chimpanzee waits for lunch at the National Center for Chimpanzee Care in Bastrop, Texas. (Photo: Shelby Knowles)

Hercules and Leo are only 11 years old, but they’ve already come close to retiring twice. The two chimpanzees, born and raised at Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center, became lab animals at the State University of New York in Stony Brook in 2011. There they shared a three-room enclosure, where scientists inserted small electrodes into their muscles to study the evolution of bipedalism. In 2013, they were the subject of an unusual legal gambit. An animal rights group sued to declare the pair legal persons and retire them to a Florida sanctuary, but the effort failed.

Two years later, Hercules and Leo returned to New Iberia, where they mingled with other chimps in outdoor domes with ladders and ropes. But retirement to a sanctuary, where they could climb real trees and have more room to roam, again seemed imminent: The U.S. government had just effectively ended invasive work on chimpanzees, and many observers expected all lab chimps to move to sanctuaries in short order. Yet today, Hercules and Leo, along with nearly 600 of their kind across the country, remain at research facilities. It’s unclear when—or whether—they’ll leave.

In the past 2 years, only 73 chimps have entered sanctuaries, and the slow pace has heightened tensions between the laboratory and sanctuary communities. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Labs have dragged their feet, sanctuaries haven’t expanded quickly enough, and the government itself didn’t have a concrete plan for retirement, despite setting the process in motion in the first place.

Chimps freely roam around an artificial termite mound at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. (BRANDON WADE/AP IMAGES FOR THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES)

The biomedical community has spent years defending the use of chimpanzees in research … instead of figuring out how to retire them,” says Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has studied chimpanzee behavior at sanctuaries around the world. “Now we’re scrambling to do something about it.”

Some labs have argued that their animals would be better off staying where they are. Retirement to a sanctuary is a “silly decision,” says William Hopkins, a neuroscientist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who has studied chimp cognition at research facilities for decades. “I don’t think that’s really helping the chimps, and I think it’s going to take a really long time.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, acknowledges the delay. “We share others’ frustration,” says Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division of strategic initiatives oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “But we’re moving as quickly as we can for the safety of the chimps.”

For advocates of Hercules and Leo, and hundreds of other chimps stuck in limbo, that may not be quick enough.

Ambling into retirement

Movement from lab facilities to sanctuaries has been slow. (G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) CHIMPCARE.ORG,OTHER SOURCES)

What to do with all the chimps?

The U.S. government has been in the chimpanzee business since 1960. That year, Congress created a national network of primate centers to conduct research on these animals—some bred in captivity, most taken from Africa. The country stopped importing wild chimps in 1973, but 13 years later, when the AIDS epidemic created a demand for humanlike models of infection, NIH launched a chimp breeding boom. By 1996, 1500 of the apes lived in research labs, an all-time high. Some were owned outright by NIH, whereas others belonged to universities, foundations, and companies.

Just 4 years later, the government began talking about retirement. A law passed in 2000 created a national chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. The nonprofit sanctuary’s founders, who had worked with chimps in laboratories, felt that the highly intelligent animals—who, like humans, use tools, have some form of culture, and live in complex social groups—deserved to live out their lives in a setting designed wholly around their needs.

NIH got on board, pledging up to 75% of the cost of lifetime care for its chimpanzees that entered the refuge. (Other sanctuaries take privately owned research chimps.) But labs themselves decided whether the apes were ready for retirement.

That changed in 2013, when—in response to an Institute of Medicine report that concluded most invasive studies on chimpanzees were unnecessary—NIH announced it would phase out support for this type of research and retire most of its chimpanzees. Then in 2015—2 years ago today—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified all U.S. chimps as endangered, effectively ending biomedical studies on them. NIH followed by declaring that all of its approximately 300 chimpanzees would be retired, though it gave no time frame. Experts assumed that the remaining 340 or so in private hands would follow suit.

Since then, however, only 51 government chimps and 22 privately owned chimps have entered sanctuaries—a pace far slower than anyone had anticipated. “Large numbers are still languishing in laboratories,” Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D–CA) complained to NIH head Francis Collins last month at a congressional hearing. Collins said his agency was committed to chimpanzee retirement, but that the process had been “challenging.” “Realistically,” he said, “it’s going to take us several more years.”

The reasons are complex—and contentious.

Where are all the research chimps?

Fewer than half of all former research chimps now live in sanctuaries. The rest are still in scientific facilities.

G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE; (DATA) CHIMPCARE.ORG, OTHER SOURCES

Sanctuary struggles

On a sweltering day in mid-June, a group of about 20 chimpanzees emerges from a small forest and crowds around an artificial termite mound filled with applesauce and Kool-Aid. They seem to be negotiating over the food: Some scream, some wave their hands, and some climb 20-meter-tall pine trees to avoid the ruckus. When everyone has had their fill, a few disappear back into the forest, while the rest take refuge from the heat in nearby cooling rooms.

Such a scene, which took place at Chimp Haven last summer, buoys the sanctuary community: It’s a picture of what life can be like when chimpanzees are free to roam and interact with each other on their own terms. Not every sanctuary can offer what Chimp Haven does, but many are trying.

One is Project Chimps, a new 95-hectare sanctuary among the wooded hills of Morgantown, Georgia. The nonprofit organization made headlines last year when it announced it would take all 220 of New Iberia’s chimpanzees—including Hercules and Leo—within 5 years, in the most ambitious chimp retirement ever attempted.

Perhaps too ambitious. Construction has gone more slowly than expected, and Project Chimps has taken only 22 of New Iberia’s apes so far, rather than the 60 it agreed to accept by now. And although the sanctuary hopes to eventually give its animals access to the surrounding forest, they now live in enclosures that aren’t much different from the domes at New Iberia: three “villas” with indoor-outdoor areas for climbing and swinging.

Some say the slow pace and exclusive contract blocked other sanctuaries that could have taken some of New Iberia’s apes. Project Chimps Co-Founder and President Sarah Baeckler Davis left the organization last month, although the sanctuary would not comment on the reasons.

Funding also has been a challenge. Like other sanctuaries, Project Chimps relies on a mix of grants and public donations. Interim President Ben Callison says it will cost about $6.4 million to build new facilities, not to mention the expense of providing food, toys, and veterinary care for the apes; other sanctuaries spend $16,000 to $20,000 per chimp per year on those costs. That could mean more than $3 million in annual expenses for Project Chimps once all New Iberia’s animals are in residence. But New Iberia has only agreed to contribute a one-time payment of $19,000 per chimp, with no funding for lifetime care.

Other sanctuaries are scrambling to raise cash as well. Even Chimp Haven, which has an agreement to take all NIH chimps and so has some guaranteed funding during their lifetimes, pays for all construction out of its own pocket. Accommodating the 250-odd NIH chimpanzees still in research facilities could cost $17 million, says the sanctuary’s president, Cathy Spraetz.

Transportation is another bottleneck. Only four to 10 chimps are typically moved at a time because they can be aggressive and must be housed in individual cages; sanctuaries also prefer to keep them in the same social groups they lived in while at the labs. Once at a sanctuary, chimps are typically quarantined for a couple weeks to make sure they have no transmissible diseases. Keepers then sometimes carefully ease them into larger groups, but reintegration isn’t always easy. (When Hercules and Leo first returned to New Iberia, they didn’t get along with the females they were housed with and had to be resocialized with a group of young males.)

Transporters also have to be mindful of the health of the apes, many of whom are geriatric and have been injected with hepatitis and HIV. “They’re very social and sensitive animals,” says NIH’s Anderson, who notes that many suffer from diabetes, kidney disease, and heart disease. “Retirement has to be done in a safe way, because we owe a lot to these chimps.”

All this slows transfers. The largest one on record—when Save the Chimps, a nonprofit sanctuary based in Fort Pierce, Florida, accepted nearly 260 chimpanzees from a private New Mexico lab—took almost a decade and cost $5 million.

“Primadomes” housing chimps at New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. (FRANCOIS VILLINGER/NEW IBERIA RESEARCH CENTER)

Retire in place?

But retirement has been a long time coming, and critics say lab facilities should have prepared for it. Duke University’s Hare notes that a 1997 National Research Council report recommended a breeding moratorium, concluding that chimps had not proved as useful as expected for biomedical research. “The writing has been on the wall for 20 years.” Yet, Hare says, labs continued to insist the animals were needed, preventing sanctuaries from launching fundraising and construction. “It’s created a huge challenge for the sanctuary community,” agrees Save the Chimps Executive Director Molly Polidoroff.

Now, after the government has concluded the animals are not necessary for research, some labs still insist chimps are better off staying put. Neither the National Center for Chimpanzee Care (NCCC) at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Bastrop, Texas, nor the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico—which together house the 257 government-owned chimps not in sanctuaries—would speak to Science for this story. But NCCC Director Christian Abee told the Houston Chronicle in 2015 that half of his chimps were geriatric and not up to the stress of transport. He has advocated for retiring the animals at NCCC, citing their bond with the facility’s experienced care staff (and vice versa), as well as NCCC’s outdoor treehouses and playgrounds, which aren’t much different than those at some sanctuaries.

Some labs housing privately owned chimps agree. “[Our researchers] strongly believe the chimpanzees currently in our care are in the best possible environment,” Lisa Cruz, a spokesperson for the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, which houses 81 chimps, told the Chronicle in the same story. “Just because it’s a sanctuary, doesn’t mean it’s better for the chimp,” says Georgia State’s Hopkins. “Prove to me you’re making their lives happier.”

Proving happiness is a tall order. Renowned primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta says the small group housing found at many research facilities, with closely spaced geodesic dome habitats, “is a stress-causing design” because it forces chimps to hang out with, or at least see, animals they may want to avoid. De Waal says NCCC is as good as it gets for research chimps, but still doesn’t compare to facilities like Chimp Haven. “Whether the chimps are happier [at Chimp Haven] than elsewhere is another question,” he says. “They certainly look less agitated.”

NIH’s Anderson says his agency remains committed to transferring its animals. “They’re receiving great care at [NCCC], but we’ve made a commitment to move them to a federal sanctuary, and that’s a path they’re taking.”

Still, some say NIH, too, has lagged. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that the agency had not developed a clear plan for the transfer or effectively communicated its plans to lab facilities. Anderson says his agency needed time but now has a concrete plan. It will begin with the Alamogordo center, which now houses 126 chimps, before moving on to the 131 at NCCC. “We think a 10-year time frame for retiring all of these animals is realistic.”

A “villa” at the Project Chimps sanctuary in Morgantown, Georgia. The sanctuary hopes to eventually allow forest access. (PROJECT CHIMPS)

The waiting game

For the chimps in private hands, money rather than a government commitment may shape the future. With research funding no longer available and overhead payments from NIH dwindling, private facilities like Texas Biomed and Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, which houses 47 chimps, will have less and less financial incentive to keep their animals. Perhaps they’ll even help pay for sanctuary retirement. Or so people in the sanctuary movement hope.

Financial pressures were certainly at work in New Iberia’s decision. The research center’s director, Francois Villinger, says he sees the appeal of retiring his chimpanzees where they are, noting his facility’s large outdoor play areas and social groups of apes that have been stable for years. “When the Project Chimps staff came down here, they were surprised by how good the conditions were.” Yet New Iberia could no longer afford to pay for hundreds of chimps not being studied, he says, and did not want the public relations headache of keeping the animals.

He says New Iberia will do whatever it can to ease the transfer to Project Chimps. “It’s a beautiful and ideal property,” he says. “We just want to make sure they succeed.”

Project Chimps remains optimistic about the agreement, too. Financially, the sanctuary is now “solidly in the black,” says interim president Callison, and should have room for up to 100 chimpanzees within a year. The final phase of construction, slated for next year, should be able to accommodate the rest, he says. “It’s a balancing act between getting them out as quickly as possible and giving them the best environment,” he says. “We want to grow smart.”

He hopes the arrangement will serve as a model for other lab-sanctuary partnerships. It took many years to build trust with New Iberia, he says. “After decades of being on opposite sides of the issue, we’re finally working together.”

In the end, not all research chimpanzees will make it to a sanctuary. Dozens die every year from old age and illness. But, if all goes according to plan, youngsters like Hercules and Leo should live to move to Project Chimps. Indeed, says Villinger, they should be on their way in a few months.

Short video on Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary

PEGAS, working in collaboration with Sam Wolson Media, has produced a short 4-minute video that explains why the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary exists, its history and connection with Dr. Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert and conservationist. Jane was kind enough to narrate the video herself. The residents of Sweetwaters are the victims of the illegal pet and zoo trade, as the video explains.

Please view the video here

Update on the Iraqi Kurdistan chimpanzee Manno

Manno arrived in Nairobi from Erbil, Iraq, the afternoon of 30th November 2016. His rescue and relocation took exactly one year from the time PEGAS heard of Manno to the time of his arrival, giving some indication of the difficulty in rescuing and relocating chimpanzees across national frontiers.

Manno was released from his 4-star quarantine room at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on 31st March 2017. Many people were there to witness his transfer to the sleeping quarters of the New Group, where his introduction and integration process would begin. Manno remained in good spirits through it all and charmed all onlookers with his sweet disposition and amusing antics.

Manno could swing around to get exercise in his quarantine room

Dr. Edward Kariuki, KWS veterinarian on left, and Sweetwaters sanctuary staff carry Manno out of quarantine on 31st March

Manno’s transport crate, the same one used to ship him from Erbil, Iraq to Ol Pejeta, is loaded onto a small pickup truck.

Manno looks out with curiosity, “What’s going on?” he wonders.

A herd of elephants greets Manno’s transporters on the way to the New Group sleeping quarters.

The New Group sleeping quarters, where Manno will go through his introduction process.

No one was more charmed and happy to see Manno come out of quarantine than Spencer Sekyer, a Canadian ex-school teacher who brought Manno’s plight to the attention first of Jane Goodall, and then of Ol Pejeta Conservancy and PEGAS. Spencer flew all the way from Alberta, Canada, to see Manno’s release from quarantine and enjoy an emotional reunion with ‘the little guy’, as Spencer affectionately calls Manno.

Spencer greets Manno, whom he had not seen since early December.

Spencer first encountered Manno in late 2013 while volunteering at the Duhok Zoo, near Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan. Manno probably arrived in Duhok about July 2013 from Syria and was the only chimpanzee in the zoo. The zoo owner dressed him up in children’s clothes and he generally had free reign to run around and interact with visitors. At night he slept in a small cage, except for the last few months when he was taken into the family home of a Syrian refugee zoo worker. Manno became part of the family.

Manno spent the last few months before he departed Duhok sleeping with Abdul Abde and family, a Syrian refugee who worked at the zoo.

The first step was to find Manno a foster mother, as she would constitute the foundation of a Sisterhood Protection Society, as it were, to shield Manno from aggressive males when eventually he would be introduced outdoors into the full group. The Sweetwaters team, led by Dr. Stephen Ngulu, Manager, and New Group supervisor David Mundia, first tried Akela, a docile senior female who had previously fostered Jane, one of five chimpanzees seized at the Nairobi airport in 2005.

Akela and Manno were first kept in cages with an empty cage in between, so that they could get used to seeing one another. Akela showed interest in Manno, but Manno showed only fear of Akela and of any other chimpanzee. He did not know what these strange, hairy creatures were, and their hooting and screeching frightened him, especially at evening feeding time when all the chimps were brought into the sleeping quarters. For the first four years of his life, Manno had only known human primates and he had worn clothes like them.

Akela

The males in particular eyed Manno with suspicion, but his young age and small size signalled that he posed little threat to the dominance hierarchy. The cage Manno lives in looks bleak, but he is there for his protection. If he were released into the group without a lengthy habituation process, the males would kill him instantly as a foreign intruder.

After a couple of weeks, Akela was put into the cage adjacent to Manno, as she showed no signs of aggression towards him, only of curiosity. Jane, who spends a lot of time with her foster mother, showed even more interest in Manno, so Stephen Ngulu, manager of Sweetwaters sanctuary, on the advice of David Mundia, added Jane to Akela’s cage. Manno continued, however, to reject their attempts to touch through the cage bars and he kept his distance.

The team felt confident enough that Akela posed no danger to Manno, so she was introduced to his cage in early May. Manno ran away from any attempts made by Akela for physical contact. Finally on 13th May, Akela was switched with the much younger Jane, who is about 13 years old. Again, however, Manno would evade any attempts at contact by running away and swinging around the cage bars.

The PEGAS manager just happened to be at Manno’s cage watching on 18th May when the breakthrough occurred. Jane was making repeated attempts to touch Manno and he kept scampering away.

Manno was sitting on the wood platform set against the wall and Jane was on the floor, looking up at Manno. She slowly raised her arms and placed her hands on the platform, just at Manno’s feet. He watched. She gently touched his feet, then reached up and touched Manno’s head. Manno did not run away, but took Jane’s hand and went into a crouching roll off the platform, falling right on top of her. They started playing!

Manno’s first voluntary touch with another chimpanzee. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eodzZRoWIOc

Jane ran off with Manno chasing her. They spent a good part of the rest of the day chasing each other and play wrestling. Now Manno and Jane are like brother and sister.

Manno and Jane chilling together (Photo: David Mundia)

Stephen and David then reintroduced Akela to the cage and Manno accepted her. In late May they introduced Bahati, which means ‘luck’ in Kiswahili, so Manno now has his own little family. Bahati is a female from Burundi who arrived at Sweetwaters in 1996 at the same time as Akela. They were both victims of the illegal pet trade, so share something in common with Manno and Jane.

Manno with his new family – Akela, Jane and Bahati. (Photo: David Mundia)

For the first time in his life Manno is being groomed, a fundamental aspect of social life. Manno is learning to become a chimpanzee.

For the first time in his life Manno is being groomed, a fundamental aspect of social life. Manno is learning to become a chimpanzee. (Photo: David Mundia)

I asked David Mundia on 31st May how Manno was doing. David replied, “He is the happiest chimp ever.”