We humans tend to be fascinated by our fellow primates, and given the opportunity to see and engage with them, often feel a close connection as they hold our gaze and look soulfully into our eyes. We have our own primates to enjoy here in Zimbabwe — vervet and simango monkeys, cachma baboons, night apes and bush babies.
If you’ve ever watched a troop of monkeys or baboons for an hour or two, it is easy to see that we are closely related, with the sorts of social antics that go on — the clear pecking order, the tussles and bickering, the nurturing and caring, the irritated disciplining of mischievous youngsters, and of course, the playing, all for its own sake.
When we visited Madagascar in 2007 we met the prosimian primates, the earliest kind — the lemurs, who are equally endearing and engaging, and equally capable of producing a powerful emotion response and sense of connection in a human being. They are absolutely enchanting, have the most amazing eyes and expressions and are also very playful!
Unfortunately, in many respects the appeal of the primates to humans has also been part of their downfall and endangerment, because people have insisted on keeping them as pets and exploiting them in circuses, and a massive illegal trade exists in baby primates in particular, whose very “cuteness” creates a demand for them as house pets.
Which, it goes without saying, they should never be! Keeping a primate as a pet is nothing more than cruelty, and sadly, those who do so, adopting them as babies, often grow tired of them once they reach adulthood, lose their “cuteness quotient” and become more aggressive and dangerous, as part of their natural progression to becoming a breeding adult. Wild animals are wild animals! Unless adopted for their own safety and welfare by wildlife sanctuaries for rescued animals who have been orphaned, snared or abused, wild animals belong in the wild and nowhere else.
Jane Goodall is probably the most famous primatologist of all time, and has dedicated her life to the study and preservation of the primates. Her research has been ground-breaking and the Jane Goodall Institute has established sanctuaries for chimpanzees to give safe haven to chimps rescued from appalling situations.
Chimp Eden in South Africa, set up and partly funded by the Jane Goodall Institute, is sanctuary to rescued chimpanzees misplaced from their natural habitats in Central Africa, and via public tours and education programmes aims to keep people far better informed about these wonderful animals and spread the human commitment to ensuring their survival as a species.
So we decided to take a tour, meet some chimps and find out more. The setting is beautiful and each group of chimps is carefully socially structured much as would happen in the wild, and kept in enormous enclosures which appear like natural habitat.
Our guide told us the harrowing tales of just some of the tragic stories that had led to the arrival at Chimp Eden of various individuals we met on the tour. One thing was certain — all were in a much better place at Chimp Eden, which is regularly visited by Jane Goodall, and whose staff travel regularly to other African countries to save and bring home, chimps in need of rescue.
Interestingly, while it is clear that after what they have been through, none of these animals would be able to survive if returned to the wild in the parts of Africa where chimps still roam free, Chimp Eden residents do still exhibit instinctive behaviours found in wild chimps, such as hunting. When a wild baboon occasionally finds its way into one of these enclosures, its fate is sealed. The chimps here also use natural “spears” — sharp sticks which they locate and prepare for the purpose — to kill bush babies resting in the hollows of trees and eat them, again, as is observed in the wild.
THE GLOBAL CHIMP STATISTICS
At the turn of the 20th century, there were around 1 million wild chimpanzees globally. Today, less than 200 000 remain in the wild, all as a result of human activities and population growth — habitat destruction, hunting for bush meat, trapping and selling as pets. A visit to Chimp Eden to learn more about chimpanzees, and observe them in a semi wild habitat is well worth it — harrowing, yes, but also heart warming and enlightening.
BY ROSIE MITCHELL