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For the western chimpanzee, sanctuaries are more than just a last resort

  • West Africa’s chimpanzee population has dropped dramatically since the 1960s, falling from an estimated 1 million to fewer than 300,000 today.
  • Across West Africa, a network of sanctuaries is working to provide shelter for chimpanzees rescued from traffickers.
  • Members of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance say their work goes beyond simply caring for individual apes, extending to protecting wild chimpanzee populations and supporting the people who share their habitats.

In the 1960s, there were an estimated 1 million wild chimpanzees in West Africa. Today, there are fewer than 300,000. With habitat loss, hunting and wildlife trafficking taking their toll, chimps have now disappeared completely from four countries in the region. That makes the western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus) the only one of the four chimp subspecies to be declared critically endangered.

At the forefront of the battle to save the western chimpanzee is a network of sanctuaries. These safe havens can have a dramatic effect on the countries where they are established, caring for individual animals while also working to help stabilize populations, tighten laws, and stop the illegal trade in wildlife from flourishing.

Twenty-three organizations operate as part of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), which was established in 2000 and now looks after 915 chimps in 13 countries. Many arrive as the result of habitat destruction, as forests are cleared for agriculture, logging and extractive industries, as well as infrastructure developments, decimating family groups and leaving young chimps abandoned.

Others will have suffered at the hands of hunters, victims of a lucrative trade that sees adults shot for bushmeat and  juveniles sold on the black market to end up as pets or as entertainment in hotels, circuses and zoos in Africa and beyond.

Chimpanzee at Tacugama Sanctuary, Sierra Leone, one of 23 members of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. Sanctuary managers say their work extends beyond protecting the welfare of individual animals. Image by Jeremy Weate via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Underpinning anti-trafficking efforts

While conservationists largely support the work of sanctuaries, there have been criticisms that they use funds that could be better used to protect wild populations, that their methods lack scientific rigor, and that they focus too much on individual animals rather looking at the bigger conservation picture.

What sanctuaries offer, says PASA executive director Greg Tully, is somewhere for the authorities to put confiscated chimps. Where they don’t exist, trafficking is rife, the authorities turn a blind eye, and the country often becomes a hub for the illegal trade.

“In countries that don’t have sanctuaries, wildlife law enforcement is a lot weaker,” Tully says. “Police and other law enforcement agencies don’t want to arrest someone who has a live chimpanzee if there’s nowhere to put it — they don’t want to be taking care of a baby chimp for the next 50 years.”

In recent years, Côte d’Ivoire has become a center for animal trafficking, as efforts to create a national chimp sanctuary have stalled.

“The destruction of the environment is at a level that is unseen anywhere else in Africa,” says Estelle Raballand, who has worked in West Africa for the last 25 years, the last three spearheading the push to create the Akatia sanctuary near the Ivorian capital, Abidjan.

Around 80% of the country’s forests were lost between 1960 and 2010. The government “has refused to have a sanctuary for many, many years and now they have lost almost all their forest and they’ve lost almost all their chimps,” Raballand says. “They have no management whatsoever of the wildlife trade.”

The few chimps that are confiscated are sent to the local zoo, which have neither the capacity not the skill to care for them, she says.

But Raballand says she remains hopeful. A new memorandum of understanding is on the table that could establish the Akatia sanctuary. The Côte d’Ivoire government did not respond to requests from Mongabay for confirmation about whether it was likely to succeed, or to comment on the country’s management of the wildlife trade.

David Greer, who also worked in primate conservation for 25 years, including a stint at the WWF and running a wildlife sanctuary, says he agrees that sanctuaries play a pivotal role in chimp conservation. But he says he also fears that unless they adopt a more proactive approach to law enforcement, they risk becoming dumping grounds where the rich can get rid of their chimp status symbols with impunity.

“They essentially go and dump these animals on the sanctuary’s doorsteps, with no repercussion whatsoever,” he says. When sanctuaries accept an animal, he says, part of the deal with the authorities must be that the poachers, traders and those who illegally own chimpanzees are prosecuted and proper sentences are handed down.

“Sanctuaries and big wildlife conservation organizations have to hold the government’s feet to the fire,” he says. “[They] need to enforce the law and establish deterrents.”

“In many African countries, the laws about wildlife are sadly outdated,” says PASA director Tully. “The penalties might be a couple of dollars … and maybe a night in jail, which for someone making thousands of dollars smuggling endangered species, is just part of doing business.”

Chimpanzees at Tacugama Sanctuary, Sierra Leone, where around 100 chimpanzees are cared for. Chimpanzees and other apes often end up in sanctuaries after being rescued from traffickers or from unsafe situations in the wild, or after being relinquished by people who kept them illegally. Image by Edward Akerboom via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Although largely supportive of sanctuaries, Greer says he believes there are other ways in which they could support the wider conservation movement, too. “They provide a humane setting for these animals to live out the remainders of their lives but that also comes with some responsibilities,” he says. “A lot of the sanctuaries work in a bubble and aren’t necessarily as collaborative as they could be.”

Most are reluctant to be audited, he says, or reveal details about the activities they are undertaking, their performance and their conservation impact. As a result, “It is difficult to measure whether these activities are having a positive impact on conservation objectives in the field.”

Sanctuary managers are passionate, Greer says, but they’re rarely traditionally trained conservationists. “Some of them are just so busy trying to ensure the welfare of the animals they are maintaining in captivity that they don’t have much time to develop strategic planning or project impact monitoring,” he says.

Many are also having to deal with a new threat, in the form of COVID-19. “Great apes are very susceptible to human respiratory diseases, as we share 98% of the same DNA,” Tully says. As a result, sanctuaries are taking extra precautions to minimize the risk of coronavirus affecting the animals, with many staff remaining on site 24/7 to reduce the risk of bringing the chimps into contact with the virus.

Kay Farmer, who helped establish the Limbe sanctuary in Cameroon, and has since completed a Ph.D. in chimpanzee reintroduction, describes sanctuaries as “a very visible example of failed conservation.” If conservation was working, she says, chimpanzees wouldn’t be coming into the sanctuaries.

It’s also easy to miss the point about why sanctuaries exist in the first place, she says. “Their raison d’être is rescuing these animals … which arrive in the most appalling conditions,” she says. “The majority are traumatized, dehydrated, they might have bullet wounds … They are experts at providing the triage … and getting those animals well again.”

Running a sanctuary is often a hand-to-mouth existence, Farmer says, with a constant battle to find operational funding.  “Sanctuaries quite simply haven’t got the time or the income to be carrying out audits and collect evidence and stats,” she says. “When you’ve got to feed your animals and pay your staff, a strategic plan often isn’t at the top of your agenda.”

A distinction has also been made between individual animal welfare, as practiced by the sanctuaries, and protection on a population level, as championed by intentional conservation groups, Farmer says. As a result, many of the bigger funders simply won’t give to sanctuaries.

“There’s just not enough funding and people view each other as competition,” she says.

This theoretical competition for funds is another reason why sanctuaries have been criticized, but it’s a point Tully is quick to refute. “The money for conservation and the money for animal welfare are largely two different pots of money,” he says, with few donors giving to both.

Chimpanzee at Tacugama Sanctuary, Sierra Leone. The Western Chimpanzee has declined rapidly since the 1960s. Fewer than 6,000 are believed to survive in the wild in Sierra Leone.  Image by BigMikeSndTech via Flickr via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Beyond animal welfare

While chimp welfare may be their key purpose, many sanctuaries fill a much wider role too. In 1999, Raballand took the post of project manager at Chimpanzee Conservation Center (CCC) in Guinea’s Haut Niger National Park, which now boasts the highest density of chimpanzees of any West African protected area.

The sanctuary helps run the national park, supplies rangers for anti-poaching and logging patrols, and contributes significantly to the local economy, buying more than 5 tons of food a month and employing 30 permanent staff.

The center also works with local villages. By integrating communities into conservation initiatives, Raballand says, people become “drivers of change” and develop a much greater respect for local biodiversity, leading to far fewer conflicts between humans and chimpanzees.

“Community development and education is a critical part of what we do,” Tully says.  Sanctuaries are there for the long term, he says, and this allows them to build up trust with communities, play a role in alleviating poverty, and develop better relationships with the authorities.

“A sanctuary isn’t just about taking care of the animals. They have strong connections with the government and have spent years pushing to make changes happen and get government officials to realize that these chimpanzees have value as an iconic species,” Tully says.

The Tacugama sanctuary in Sierra Leonne was set up by Sri Lankan-born Bala Amarasekaran in 1995, and since then its success has been based on a mixture of hard work and shrewd diplomacy.

“Other sanctuaries and conservation organizations talk of road blocks and problems with government – I have never experienced that,” Amarasekaran says. “We work very closely with the government and they don’t look at us as an outside entity. Tacugama is considered to be one of theirs.”

One of Amarasekaran’s key achievements has been persuading the government to declare the chimpanzee the national animal. It gave him the leverage to push for changes to Sierra Leone’s out-of-date wildlife laws too, and give the new national symbol greater protection against traffickers and poachers. “You can’t make the chimpanzee the national animal and then not have laws to protect it,” he says.

Yet in all this, Amarasekaran says he is careful to make sure it is the authorities, not the sanctuary, that takes the plaudits. “You focus on the goal, not about who did it.”

Babar Turay, a conservation manager at Sierra Leone’s National Protected Area Authority, an agency within the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, has worked closely with Amarasekaran. “If we didn’t have Tacugama, where would we be taking all these captured chimpanzees?” he says. “Do you just capture them and return them to the forest? [Then] they will be vulnerable and people will capture them again.”

Because of their autonomy, Turay says sanctuaries have an important role to play in “making a noise,” raising international and community awareness, and forcing governments into action. “That is the power that we do not have directly,” he says.

At Tacugama, Amarasekaran says, we “don’t just focus on confiscations and running an orphanage; we are movement, we  do a lot more.”

The sanctuary has been running an outreach program for 12 years and now works with 70 communities across Sierra Leone. These strong community links also help with law enforcement. Recently, when animal traffickers were tipped off that the authorities were closing in, they fled. However, Amarasekaran was able to go on the radio and make a plea to local communities that their national animal was under threat. Within 30 minutes they were inundated with phone calls about the poachers’ whereabouts. “People felt a sense of duty,” he says.

Tacugama also runs eco-lodges and yoga retreats, providing employment and reinforcing the idea that primates are more valuable alive than dead.

“If you don’t create some sort of a value for the people … in the areas that we are asking them to protect, how are they going to protect these places?” he says. “If that connection is not made, then we are wasting our time.”

Ecotourism is also an important income stream for the project, he says. Big conservation groups might get multimillion-dollar research grants, but sanctuaries don’t attract that kind of money. “Sanctuaries are sometimes considered to be some roadside circus,” Amarasekaran says.

“We are a very proud organization,” he says. “We don’t go around with our hat begging. Sixty percent  of our operational costs come from within, by our own initiatives.”

Chimpanzee at Tacugama Sanctuary, Sierra Leone. Though reintroducing apes to the wild is a “dream” for sanctuary managers, the reality is complex, expensive and can be dangerous for chimps. Image by Jeremy Weate via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

While Amarasekaran describes reintroductions as “every sanctuary manager’s dream,” the reality can be different. Rehabilitating and releasing a chimpanzee back into the wild is expensive.

Space is also at a premium, Amarasekaran says. Sierra Leone only has around 6% of its natural forest left and it’s impossible to release chimps into an area where other wild chimps already exist, and pointless re-releasing them where they can’t be given any protection. So, he says, “we have decided to focus on the 5,000-6,000 chimps that are still left in the wild and … on stopping them coming to the sanctuary.”

Tully says he agrees. “Great ape reintroductions are extremely complicated, expensive, and time-consuming, and aren’t possible in many countries because of the high risk of poaching and weak enforcement of protected areas,” he says. “It’s not just a case of opening a cage door and letting them go.”

Most PASA sanctuaries are huge forest enclosures where young chimpanzees can learn to climb, to socializes, and to recognize dangers, such as venomous snakes. But in all, PASA has released just 61 chimpanzees back into the wild, although 200 more live on large islands, where they can mix with other chimp populations and remain safe while living with little human care.

“For these reasons, while PASA members would like to reintroduce more primates to the wild, it isn’t a top priority,” Tully says. “To me, this underscores the importance of long-term care for confiscated primates — without this piece of the puzzle, law enforcement can break down.”

“It’s unfair to think that sanctuaries are not doing enough,” Amarasekaran says. “Sanctuaries can do a lot more simply because sanctuaries invest in the country; other big organizations, they come and go.

“We have gone through rebel wars, we have gone through Ebola, we have gone through a lot of civil strife — we never left.”

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