In Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, I visit an eco reserve that lies on the city’s outskirts.
Here, founder Bala Amarasekaran tells me the moving story of how the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary survived the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone for 11 years (and ended in 2002). Rebels attacked the sanctuary he founded three times, looting it for food, equipment and medical supplies. The bombing and shooting literally sent one chimp crazy as Bala and a few staff survived on charity themselves.
“The keepers were not paid but they went around door to door begging for money and food to help feed the chimps,” he says. It is a reminder that, during the bitterest of conflicts, most ordinary people just struggle to maintain their day-to-day life.
Bala’s story is an inspiring one even without his experiences during those difficult years. Formerly an accountant in Freetown, he was on a drive through the country in 1988 when he came across a chimpanzee for sale by the side of the road. The young male chimp was dehydrated and sick, obviously close to death, so Bala decided on the spur of the moment to pay the $30 needed to rescue him. It was the first of many that gave him a reputation for taking in unwanted animals. Within a few years, he and his wife Sharmila had a small family of chimps, most abandoned pets. Adult chimps are stronger than five men and soon outgrow the cute phase.
As the strays came in, his refuge grew until it now cares for more than 100 chimps. Watching them being fed and at play is a magical moment, the social interaction and gestures reminding me that we humans share 95 percent of our DNA sequence with these great apes. “We are rehabilitating them into family groups, which is difficult after the abuse many have suffered when kept as pets,” says Bala.
One family of chimps is now living independently in the reserve, behind an electric fence but ready to be released elsewhere when the right area of the country is found. When that might be is difficult to say. Like elsewhere in the world, people want all the land for themselves. However, there was good news in a 2010 survey across the country, the result of a two-year program by Tacugama, that showed the chimp population was twice the estimated number, with some 4,000 individuals in the wild, a sign they may be holding their own against human encroachment.
Now that the war is over, Bala sees real signs of hope: “Up to now our visitors have been mainly aid workers and people working in Freetown. But tourism is starting to pick up.” Of course, the country’s ongoing development will put pressure on its wildlife as well as bring benefits but his response is pragmatic. “We can’t stop development,” he says. “We need it. But you can learn to live with it.”
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