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Inside Sierra Leone’s Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (video)

  • The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, located on the outskirts of Freetown, is a refuge for orphaned chimpanzees in Sierra Leone.
  • Part of a network of sanctuaries in West Africa, Tacugama provides a home for orphaned western chimpanzees, which are critically endangered.
  • Mongabay’s Ashoka Mukpo visited Tacugama in April and sat down with Bala Amarasekaran, the sanctuary’s founder.

In the 1970s, there were around 20,000 critically endangered western chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. But by 2008, when the most recent census was carried out, there were only around 5,500 western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) left. Like those of its neighbors in West and Central Africa, Sierra Leone’s chimpanzee habitats are shrinking — and so are their numbers.

Some are pushed out of their natural habitats to make way for agriculture, logging and the development of roads or other infrastructure. Others fall victim to hunters or are trafficked as illegal pets. When they leave behind orphaned babies, there aren’t many good options for what to do with them. Sierra Leone has a long list of urgent needs, and caring for young chimpanzees isn’t at the top of it.

For nearly 30 years, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary has been trying to fill that gap.

Located about an hour’s drive past the outskirts of the capital, Freetown, Tacugama was founded in 1995 by Bala Amarasekaran, who immigrated from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone as a teenager. In 1989, Amarasekaran ran across an emaciated chimpanzee orphan in the countryside. He paid $30 for the young male, which he and his wife named Bruno.

Six years of heavy lobbying later, the government offered Amarasekaran a plot of land inside a forest reserve outside Freetown to open a chimpanzee sanctuary. It was 1995, the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war, within two years there were 24 chimpanzees at Tacugama.

Today, the sanctuary is home to 111 chimpanzees. It’s one of the largest facilities of its kind in West Africa, part of a network set up to help triage the damage the species faces from deforestation and other threats. Part shelter, part educational experience for Sierra Leoneans, and part tourist attraction, Tacugama attracts visitors from across the world. This year, it was featured on a New York Times list of post-pandemic travel destinations.

Camera trap photo of a chimpanzee with mangoes.
Camera trap photo of a chimpanzee with mangoes. Photo: Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary/DICE, University of Kent.

As the years have passed, the scope of Tacugama’s work has expanded. Beyond housing, feeding and rehabilitating orphaned chimpanzees, Amarasekaran says he and other sanctuary staff finance ecotourism and other projects in rural areas that are meant to help protect wild chimpanzees so they don’t end up at Tacugama.

“It started as an orphanage and a sanctuary, but now we’re looking more at the root causes and what we need to do to protect wild chimpanzees where they already are,” he tells Mongabay.

Getting communities to buy in to chimpanzee protection takes patience and an understanding of the economic pressures they face, he adds. For people who are struggling to find their next meal and send their kids to school, conservation is often a luxury they can’t afford.

“It’s not about going and preaching to people about conservation and climate change,” Amarasekaran says. “When people are hungry, that doesn’t work.”

In 2019, western chimpanzees were named the national animal of Sierra Leone. It was a celebratory moment for Tacugama, which was a driving force behind the decision. But Amasekaran says it still needs to be backed up with action to stop illegal logging and other forms of habitat destruction.

“It took us 25 years to get them declared the national animal. But now it’s about taking pride in that and seeing how we can carry this legacy forward and protect the species,” he says.

Amarasekaran and his staff haven’t always had an easy time. In 2006, Bruno and 26 other chimpanzees escaped in a notorious incident that led to the death of a local driver. Bruno himself remains at large; despite rumors of sightings, nobody knows for sure if he’s still alive.

And between 2005 and 2018, more than 50 chimpanzees died of a mysterious illness at the sanctuary.

Even the healthy chimps who remain are symbols of the devastation the species faces in its natural habitat.

“Scientists have proved that every time you have a chimp landing in a sanctuary, probably eight to 10 will have died [in the wild]. So if you look at 111 chimps here, you’re looking at probably 1,000 that died,” Amarasekaran says.

In early April, Ashoka Mukpo visited Tacugama and spoke with Amarasekaran. Watch the report here:

YouTube video player

Banner image: Chimpanzee at Tacugama Sanctuary, Sierra Leone. Image via Flickr.

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