Conservation news

Home for the holidays: Chimp exits war-torn Iraq, lands in Kenya

  • After years of effort, animal welfare advocates have negotiated the freedom of Manno, a trafficked chimpanzee who had been smuggled out of Syria for $15,000 and into a private zoo in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the zoo, Manno suffered severely cramped conditions; he was fed a steady diet consisting mostly of snack foods.
  • Freeing the animal involved diplomatic negotiations at the highest level in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Kenya. Manno arrived in Kenya on November 30, and is undergoing a 90-day health quarantine at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
  • The young chimp still must be accepted into the Sanctuary population. This is a slow, possibly multiyear, process, requiring introduction to a foster mother, followed by introduction to female chimps, then other males in the community. Manno’s long acclimation to humans will not allow him to ever return to the wild.
  • The chimp’s rescue was facilitated by individuals and organizations including Spencer Seykar, a Canadian high school teacher; Jason Mier, the executive director of Animals Lebanon; Jane Goodall and her institute; Daniel Stiles of the Project to End Great Ape Slavery; Dr. Stephen Ngulu, head wildlife veterinarian at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the staff of Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and others.
Manno the chimpanzee shortly after his arrival in Kenya at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. He will be in quarantine for at least 90 days and then gradually be integrated into the sanctuary chimpanzee population. Photo courtesy of Sweetwaters Sanctuary

Against all odds, a young illegally trafficked chimpanzee held in a tiny cage at a private zoo in war-torn Iraqi Kurdistan has been rescued, and has arrived safely at a new home at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya in time for the yearend holidays.

Achieving that rescue was no small task. It took many months of concerted effort by committed animal welfare advocates, international conservation organizations, plus much back-and-forth negotiation between Iraqi and Kenyan officials, before the young chimp — estimated to be three to four years old — could be relocated to Africa.

In the end, no less a person than the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Northern Iraq would step in to guarantee the chimpanzee’s salvation.

But in the beginning, it was just two men who lobbied actively for Manno’s rescue.

Saving Manno

In 2013, Spencer Seykar, a Canadian high school teacher and volunteer, discovered Manno in a private zoo in the city of Dohuk, in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. That was only about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from ISIS-held territory and about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the fighting around Mosul.

Though Manno was in no immediate danger from the civil war, he was in total isolation from his own kind — a very dangerous condition for members of the very social Pan troglodytes species. He was also being kept in an extremely small cage in which he could get no exercise, and was fed largely on fruit, fried sunflower seeds, candy, chips, other human snacks and caffeinated drinks such as soda.

Also aware of Manno’s existence was animal rights and welfare advocate Jason Mier, the executive director of Animals Lebanon. Locals reached out to this Beirut-based American in December 2013, just after the chimpanzee was smuggled from neighboring Syria to the private zoo, according to an article by Amanda Fisher published on Aljazeera.

Manno arrives at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya on November 30, 2016. Photo by Geoffrey Kamadi

It was Mier who got initial approval to remove the chimp from the zoo from the federal ministry of agriculture, though the process then stalled largely due to the government’s hyper-focus on ISIS, also known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

Seykar helped things along greatly by getting in touch with Jane Goodall, the renowned great apes conservationist, when she gave a talk in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He asked her if she could help.

Goodall quickly got the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy involved. The sanctuary is located at Nanyuki, in central Kenya, about a four-hour drive from Nairobi, the country’s capital.

The Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS), which runs undercover operations into great ape criminal trafficking networks, also played a key role. “I received an email from Debby Cox of the Jane Goodall Institute requesting our help in trying to rescue and relocate a chimpanzee that was captive in a private zoo in Duhok, which is in Iraqi Kurdistan,” recalls PEGAS project manager Daniel Stiles. This email request was received on December 1, 2015. Despite the mobilization of NGOs and government officials, Manno’s salvation was then still a year away.

Cutting through the red tape

Manno’s early history is unclear. Aljazeera reports that he was likely born somewhere in Central Africa, saw his parents killed, and was illegally trafficked to the Middle East. Other sources say Manno was born not in Africa but in a Damascus zoo. What is known is that the chimp was smuggled out of Syria into northern Iraq, at a cost of around $15,000.

According to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s website, Manno had been a local attraction in Damascus, where people would pay to have their picture taken with the young chimp. Manno would be rewarded with sweets and sodas, which would cause health problems for him including diarrhea, as this was hardly a diet appropriate to a great ape.

A gate into the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. There are 38 chimpanzees currently at Sweetwaters — add Manno to the list and the total annual bill for care falls somewhere between $175,000 and $200,000 annually. Photo by Geoffrey Kamadi

Those who observed the stressed young chimpanzee in captivity in the Duhok Zoo knew something had to be done, and done quickly, if he was to survive. But “Iraq is not a peaceful country, and getting the government permits [necessary to secure Manno’s release] was extremely difficult due to the war situation in the country,” explains Dr. Stephen Ngulu, the head wildlife veterinarian at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Ngulu played a key role in motivating official bureaucracies to cooperate, as did Jason Mier and Animals Lebanon. One of the big challenges was just getting the governments of Iraqi Kurdistan and Kenya to speak to each other, then to come to agreement, then collaborate. This required months spent contacting and gaining the attention, trust and cooperation of government agencies and departments in both nations.

“Getting veterinarians in Iraq to go to where Manno was being held, and having them examine the chimp according to the recommendations [and requirements] provided by the Kenyan government was yet another challenge,” Ngulu recalls. A chief concern for the Sweetwaters Sanctuary was that Manno be healthy and not harboring a dangerous infectious disease that could spread to the other chimpanzees at the sanctuary — anything from ebola to tuberculosis. However, he was screened and deemed healthy.

For some time, the private zoo remained unwilling to part with Manno, and prying him away from his careless keepers “necessitated intervention at a much higher level,” remembers Ngulu.

To solve that problem, Ol Pejeta Conservancy CEO Richard Vigne, drafted a letter expressing its willingness to take in Manno. PEGAS project manager Daniel Stiles, then sent the letter on to Animals Lebanon as well as to Nechirvan Idris Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Cheryl Benard and her husband Zal Khalilizad, the former US ambassador to Iraq, also played a role in reaching out to the prime minister. They knew the PM well, which made introductions easier and made matters a lot less complicated.

“Zal carried a letter I drafted, and gave it to PM Barzani in person in January 2016. The letter requested that the [prime minister] assist in freeing Manno, which he did,” recounts Stiles. PM Barzani issued a special government decree to secure Manno’s freedom and relocation to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Charles Musasia a tour guide and chimpanzee care giver explaining the life experience of a rescued chimpanzee at the sanctuary. Chimps rescued from captivity in private zoos, collections and circuses are too acclimated to humans to ever be released to the wild and will spend the rest of their lives at the chimpanzee sanctuary. Photo by Geoffrey Kamadi

After working through a mountain of paperwork, Iraq issued a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) export permit on the 28th of September. Initially, Manno was expected to arrive in Kenya at the end of October. But last minute red tape delayed the trip.

Safety at last

Manno flew from Iraq via Dubai, and arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, on November 30, 2016. But even though he arrived without incident and appeared healthy, he was still a long way from joining the Sweetwaters Sanctuary chimpanzee community.

The chimp’s health and behavior are now being closely monitored for an initial quarantine period that will last 90 days, barring unforeseen circumstances or complications. Otherwise, that period could extend to 120 days.

“This is a new introduction to the community in the sanctuary, so we want to make sure that [the animal] does not have any disease that will potentially affect the chimpanzees already there,” explains Dr. Edward Kariuki, a veterinary researcher at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), a state corporation that conserves and manages Kenyan wildlife.

Dr. Kariuki was at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to meet Manno and escort him to his new home. Not only does the quarantine ensure that other chimpanzee populations are protected, but also that “[Manno] does not bring in any other disease agent that could possibly put human health at risk,” explains Kariuki.

Though Manno was given a clean bill of health before leaving the Middle East, he still isn’t 100 percent out of danger. If while in quarantine he is found to have any serious incurable disease that threatens humans or other chimpanzees, he will need to be destroyed Dr. Kariuki told Mongabay.

Max, a chimpanzee rescued from Burundi. It could take up to 2 years for the greater chimpanzee community, especially other males, to accept Manno. Photo by Geoffrey Kamadi

The far bigger concern, according to Dr. Kariuki, is that Manno is a distressed animal, having lived under difficult and isolated conditions, and having taken a very taxing journey. For that reason, a variety of mental health and behavioral issues will need to be addressed during quarantine. Manno will also be introduced to a more natural, healthy diet and monitored carefully to see how he responds to it. If you don’t think this will be a stressful time for the young chimp, imagine how you might react if suddenly removed from familiar surroundings and denied all the sugary comfort foods you’d grown up with!

The next step will be to introduce Manno to the larger chimpanzee community, which is not as easy and straightforward as it sounds. Otherwise known as “integration,” the process is a delicate, gradual exercise and must be handled carefully.

Ngulu explains that once Manno has successfully completed quarantine, he will gradually be introduced into the young chimp’s group: “A foster mother will first need to be identified from among the females, for purposes of initiating a relationship between the two, something which will hopefully be built upon over time under our supervision.”

Foster mother and young chimp will be put into two rooms, separated by grills to allow for safe physical interaction. Once it is observed and established that the adult female has accepted Manno, the youngster will then be introduced to other community members, albeit little by little. Ngulu reiterates that this is an extremely slow process.

“It requires caution and a lot of patience, otherwise this could be a set up for an accident,” he cautions.

Acceptance of the new arrival by his would-be mother could take a month. Acceptance by a few other females in the group could take another month, according to Ngulu. Finally, full integration of the young outsider into the rest of the chimpanzee population, could take anywhere between six months and two years.

“It is a very tricky situation, but the advantage with Manno is that he is still a very young chimpanzee, so the hope is that he might bring joy to the group,” says Ngulu. This is in sharp contrast to introducing a much older new arrival, which might introduce tension, with other group members possibly feeling threatened by an older male’s presence.

The total cost for relocating Manno from Iraq to Kenya comes to well over USD $10,000, according to Stiles. This includes the cost of the crate in which Manno traveled, permits, various shipping costs and fees, as well as Spencer Sekyar’s and Jason Mier’s visit to Ol Pejeta. The expenses also include the financing of the KWS vet’s visits to the Sanctuary in connection with Manno’s quarantine.

But it is well worth the investment, say those involved. The world’s great apes are in great trouble. Illegal trade in chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans is growing fast, with 3,000 live animals lost every year from the forests of Africa and Southeast Asia — a drain these Endangered and Critically Endangered species can ill-afford.

The sanctuary building where the chimpanzees are housed, fed and receive medical attention. Photo by Geoffrey Kamadi

Typically, trafficked chimpanzees like Manno begin life as infants in the rainforest, only to see their parents slaughtered, probably for bushmeat. Then the infants are trapped, caged, traded, and smuggled around the globe illegally to private zoos, collections or circuses in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, the United States and elsewhere.

Throughout that miserable journey, their value rises from the $20-$50 likely earned by their captors to the $15,000 to $20,000 paid by their keepers — often wealthy sheikhs in the Gulf States, oligarchs in former Soviet nations, or among celebrities.

Much of the communication supporting the illegal trade is carried on via social media networks, and photos of illegally trafficked great apes, and lesser apes for that matter, often show up on various Internet social media sites — with the animals proudly displayed as ostentatious trophies and demonstrations of the wealth of the “owners”.

Inside the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Manno is one of the lucky ones. Once his quarantine and acclimation are complete, he will be living at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which sits on a 100 hectare (250-acre) piece of land, nestled within the 36,420 hectares (90,000 acres) of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya.

The Sanctuary was established in 1993, following an agreement between the Jane Goodall Institute, Kenya Wildlife Service, the Kenyan government, and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The aim — to provide lifelong refuge to orphaned and abused chimpanzees from West and Central Africa. The sanctuary’s immediate goal was to come to the aid of destitute chimpanzees in desperate need of rescue in Rwanda and Burundi, both of which were undergoing tremendous civil upheaval at the time.

A sign along a footpath inside the Sanctuary reminds visitors of the key role the facility plays for threatened wildlife. The mission of the Sweetwaters Sanctuary is to provide a lifelong refuge to orphaned and abused chimpanzees from West and Central Africa. Photo by Geoffrey Kamadi

Ol Pejeta Conservancy proved to be an ideal location for a chimpanzee sanctuary because its forest environment nearly mimics the great ape natural habitat found elsewhere in East and Central Africa. In fact, Kenya — which was politically stable — was able to quickly gather the needed resources to set up a facility within the sanctuary.

With construction complete, an initial group of three chimpanzees took up residence in 1993. Nine more were brought in from the Jane Goodall Institute in Burundi the next year. The institute sent ten more chimpanzees in 1995.

More recently, the Sanctuary began accepting chimps in dire need of rescue from around the world, including Dubai, South Africa, and West Africa, as well as those illegally traded and confiscated at the airport in Nairobi. Primate sanctuaries now exist all over Africa, with all or most belonging to the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA).

Because the rescued animals arriving at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary come from extreme unnatural environments, such as private zoos and collections, these primates will never be reintroduced back into the wild.

“Some chimpanzees were pets, some were animals used to attract customers into business enterprises, whereas others were used in circuses, so these are not animals that will survive on their own in the wild,” says Ngulu bluntly. They are too trusting, too acclimated to humans.

Tunnels through which the chimpanzees get into and out of the sanctuary building. Photo by Geoffrey Kamadi

“Even if you were to re-introduce the [rescued chimpanzees] back into their natural habitat, they would still not survive given the relationship established with humans,” Ngulu explains.

Also, Kenya is not a chimpanzee range state, unlike other African countries such as Uganda, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Liberia, Ghana and Cameroon. For that reason, and also due to lack of available resources, the primates at the sanctuary are not allowed to breed. Female chimpanzees have contraceptives implanted into their bodies, which are replaced every three years.

The cost of care for a single sanctuary chimp ranges between US $4,500 and $5,000. There are 38 chimpanzees currently at Sweetwaters — add Manno to the list and the total annual bill for care falls somewhere between $175,000 and $200,000 annually.

Manno — one chimpanzee — has found safety thanks to the compassionate actions and donations of a few human beings. But many more unscrupulous, profit-driven people continue trading in primates. And unless the international community quickly staunches the flood of trafficked great apes, the cost of saving these threatened animals will continue to escalate, and the wilds where they live will empty and go silent.

Manno the chimpanzee after his rescue. He is one of the lucky ones. An estimated 3,000 great apes are trafficked annually, ending up in private zoos, collections or circuses around the globe. Photo courtesy of Sweetwaters Sanctuary