- Home to more than 130 apes, Zambia’s Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage is one of the world’s oldest and largest chimpanzee sanctuaries.
- Chimpanzees can live for 50 years or more, so each new animal the center takes in will require decades of care and financial support.
- With an ever-growing number of chimps in need of a home, simply financing daily operations is a challenge for this award-winning facility.
COPPERBELT, Zambia — Thirty-five years ago, a game ranger in Zambia confiscated a baby chimpanzee from poachers who had smuggled it from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
It was Oct. 18, 1983, when Pierre Faber took the animal to the farm owned by his in-laws, Sheila and David Siddle, and asked them to protect it.
In her book, In My Family Tree, Sheila described the dire condition the young chimpanzee was in when it arrived at the family’s farm.
“The small chimp — a bag of bones, really — had badly smashed teeth and the right side of his mouth was slit open about two inches more than it should have been,” she wrote. “Game rangers traditionally did nothing to confiscate the animals since there was no facility in place for keeping them.”
So the Siddles, who had previously kept a baboon, nursed the orphaned and sick chimpanzee at the farm. That was the start of their journey into chimpanzee conservation.
That farm is today the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, now home to more than 130 chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). The apes are kept in five enclosures spread across 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) of virgin forest on the banks of the Upper Kafue River, where they have access to a natural habitat with tall trees, grasses and wild fruit.
In addition to being one of the oldest ape sanctuaries, Chimfunshi is also the world’s largest sanctuary for chimpanzees. It’s affiliated with the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance and works closely with scientists at Germany’s Max Planck Institute, the Free University of Berlin, and Gonzaga University in the United States. The Siddles have been honored for their work by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Queen of England, among others. (David Siddle died in 2006.)
Three and a half decades after the arrival of the first chimp, Chimfunshi is grappling with the day-to-day logistics of caring for an ever-increasing number of animals and the challenges of maintaining a sustainable flow of funding year after year.
The orphanage spends some $30,000 per month on daily operating expenses like food for the chimpanzees, transportation and wages for staff. And new chimps keep arriving. Just this year, six have been received from South Sudan and two from Angola.
“We have a problem of meeting running costs,” says Innocent Mulenga, the sanctuary’s manager.
One difficulty is the center’s remote location. Chingola, the nearest large town, is 70 kilometers (43 miles) away. “We have to go there twice a week to get our supplies, especially vegetables and fruits for the chimpanzees,” Mulenga says. And transport costs add up.
The center isn’t connected to the electricity grid, which means it needs its own solar system to power everything from staff quarters to electric fences on the chimpanzee enclosures. Finding and paying for qualified staff is also a challenge.
The orphanage would ideally like to have one veterinarian for every 12 chimpanzees. Instead, it only has just the one vet, Thalita Calvi, a Brazilian, to look after more than 130 of the apes.
Mulenga, who trained in primatology at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., says there are plans to hire locally trained vets, but that it’s difficult to find ones who specialize in caring for chimpanzees, which are not found in the wild in Zambia.
The difficulties facing Calvi are compounded by overcrowding, particularly in the second enclosure, where the number of chimpanzees has increased to 47.
Female chimpanzees in the center are on birth control, both to keep the population from expanding beyond capacity, and to avoid random breeding among the apes, who come from all over Africa and whose genetic diversity has not been sufficiently studied.
In the second of the orphanage’s enclosures, however, this family planning effort is under threat. “The veterinary doctor is failing to insert birth control implants in female chimpanzees because they cannot all go into the handling facility,” Mulenga says.
Plans are underway to construct another handling facility. This is critical not only for veterinary care of the animals, but also to allow upkeep of the outdoor habitat, Mulenga says. “If the chimpanzees cannot go into the handling facility, it becomes difficult to carry out maintenance works in enclosures,” he says.
Keeping highly intelligent animals captive, even in comfortable captivity, also presents challenges of its own. The center has four chimpanzees that are particularly talented escape artists. Those apes, Mulenga says, are capable of using a log as a ladder to cross the electric fence, or wedging it beneath electrified wires and pushing them up to create space at the bottom for escaping.
As a result, the center has had to resort to keeping the four chimps in cages. Although these cages have been built with trees inside and enough room for the chimpanzees to play in, keeping them confined goes against the ethos of animal welfare, Mulenga says: “I do not believe in caging animals.”
One of the caged chimps is called Milla, an elderly female brought to Zambia by renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who rescued the ape from Tanzania, where she was kept as a pet in a bar.
Milla’s long exposure to humans (she was 19 when she arrived in Zambia) likely explains her exceptional skills.
“Milla is able to open a bottle of beer with her teeth and smoked cigarettes,” says an animal keeper. “Normally, chimpanzees make nests using branches and leaves in trees every day, but Milla is different because she can use blankets like human beings.”
Another chimp, Chiffon, has been known to push other chimpanzees against the electric fences to test whether the current is live.
To allow these extra-adept apes the freedom to roam, the center is planning to construct a special “escape-proof” enclosure with a 3.5-meter-high (11.5-foot) electric fence running 1 kilometer (0.6 miles). It will be completed next year at a cost of $3,200, Mulenga says.
That’s not the only pending expense. As the chimps like Milla grow older, younger apes tease them and undermine their authority. In the next five to 10 years, the wildlife orphanage will require a special facility to care for elderly apes.
The sanctuary has also begun work on a laboratory to be used for health checks and necropsies, as well as research by scientists from all over the world. Building that facility, and the solar system to power it, will cost around $64,000. Equipping it with appliances like microscopes and refrigerators will be an additional cost.
The orphanage has also built a community school and clinic for workers and their children as well as other members of the community surrounding the sanctuary. And more money is being spent on conservation outreach programs to preserve forests near the orphanage, where people collect fruits they sell to the orphanage for the chimpanzees to eat.
Other costs come from emergencies. For instance, the solar system at the orphanage was damaged by lightning last year, incurring an $8,000 cost to replace it.
And around Christmas last year, the orphanage suffered the worst escape of its animals, when a large tree fell on the fence of the enclosure holding 47 chimpanzees.
“We spent more money on anesthetics to dart some of the chimpanzees before we captured them,” says Mulenga. “It took us two weeks to bring the chimpanzees back into the enclosures. Labor costs rose as a result of the escapes.”
Keeping the lights on
In 1996, the Siddles created the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust to ensure the continuity of the chimpanzee conservation efforts. The trust relies mainly on donations from nongovernmental organizations, governments and individuals from rich countries, but this is far from a steady or sustainable stream of income for the long term.
To find a more sustainable source of funding, the center has experimented with other strategies. In 1998, German entrepreneur Stefan Louis formed the Stefan Louis Chimpanzee Orphanage Support Trust, with the aim of providing an income stream by raising and selling cattle.
Mulenga says this business, which currently has 700 head of cattle, hasn’t made the chimpanzee orphanage financially self-sufficient yet. Just covering the center’s basic operating costs would require selling 400 to 500 head of cattle per year.
“We sold 164 cattle this year,” Mulenga says. “We appreciate the donations, but we need a financial back-up plan.”
Conservationist Richard Hanguwa, who is not affiliated with Chimfunshi, suggests the vast land on which it sits can be turned into a game ranch to raise additional revenue. “Some of the animals that can be stocked are zebras, impalas, waterbucks and bushbucks,” he says. “Hippos can also be restocked in the Kafue River. That would, however, need the whole property to be fenced.”
Keeping chimpanzees is capital intensive, Mulenga says. “Whoever wants to venture into keeping chimpanzees should know that those animals are not going to be there for three or four years. Chimpanzees have a lifespan of 50-plus years, which means those who intend to keep them must be prepared for huge and long-term investments.”
Editor’s note: Jane Goodall is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.
Banner image: The chimps at Chimfunshi live in social groups large outdoor enclosures. Image courtesy of Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage.
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