Working at an Ape Sanctuary in Cameroon
by Susan Eberth
My interest in wildlife and Africa started long before I can truly remember. I always knew I would go to Africa; it was just a matter of when. I searched for projects in various parts of the continent and came upon Ape Action Africa (AAA), formerly Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund, so I decided to apply. Little did I know that in January of 2005 my life would literally change.
Ape Action Africa is a primate sanctuary situated approximately one hourís drive outside of Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. The sanctuary is home to orphaned chimpanzees, gorillas, mandrills, baboons and various other monkeys. It is situated within the Mefou National Park on approximately 1044 hectares of land. The project employs local Cameroonian civilians, many of which have been working there since its inception in 1996. Their goals are to address the immediate threats faced by gorillas and chimps in Africa, and to work with communities to develop long-term solutions to ensure their survival in the wild.
My arrival in Cameroon was in the evening where, despite the darkness, I could see evidence of the impressive rainforest as I approached the airport; I could even begin to make out small huts with fire light and signs of human life. Before I exited the plane, the intense aroma or smell of something burning took over. Itís the scent of Africa, Iím told, and one which stayed with me.
After nearly 24 hours in travel, I was running on complete adrenaline as I entered the chaotic Yaounde airport on my way to the sanctuary. Looking for my luggage like a long lost friend and gathering all my documents for the immigration interrogation, my huge sigh of relief was probably heard throughout the crowds when I finally met up with the project connection. From there we loaded up the vehicle with my bags and took the 30-minute ride to the forest. Luckily most of the ride was on tarmac road, with just the last leg being unpaved and resembling a cross between a bumper cars amusement ride and Dukes of Hazard.
Arriving at the sanctuary in the night, it was hard for me to get my bearings. There is no darkness so dark as a rainforest at night. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. Thankfully the project generator was left on for a little extra time, which allowed me to settle into my quarters comfortably.
In the morning I meet the project manager and received a description of my duties for the next three months. The project was broken down into animal areas covering a great distance in order to allow for adequate enclosure spaces. There were two gorilla enclosures, six chimpanzee enclosures, one olive baboon enclosure, one mandrill enclosure and three monkey enclosures. There was also a separate quarantine enclosure which houses incoming primates waiting for integration after their required quarantine period.
Typically the volunteers help with the infant chimpanzee group or with the small monkeys; however the workload is always subject to change. With the number of structures on-site, there is always construction work to be completed; this is an area volunteers can assist greatly.
My job was something of an honor and absolute privilege. I was to be surrogate mother to a six month-old female chimpanzee named Tilly. Tilly was the projectís most recent bushmeat victim. She had been confiscated from a Cameroonian man found carrying her in a bag while riding on a train. The authorities brought her to the project and, due to her age, she required 24-hour care.
Tilly and I were inseparable. Everywhere I wentóshower, bathroom, bed timeóTilly was with me. She was still eating through the night and required on-demand bottle feeding. During the days, we would venture out into the forest floor where she could investigate her world. It didnít take long for Tilly to begin climbing small trees and walking further away from me to satisfy her curiosity.
We knew that what Tilly needed more than anything was another chimpanzee. With my stay coming to a close, the manager wanted to have Tilly adjusted to a more permanent situation, thus avoiding the need for another volunteer caregiver. Within Cameroon there are three PASA (Pan-African Sanctuary Alliance) member sanctuaries; AAA, Limbe Wildlife Centre and Sanaga Yong Ė IDA Africa. All three sanctuaries work together in great ape protection and often help one another with placement of individuals. By pure serendipity, Sanaga Yong had a young female at its facility that was also alone. After much discussion by the project managers, it was decided that Tilly would move to Sanaga Yong to join its young female. This move would take place before my departure, and I would take the journey with Tilly to her new home.
Over the next few days, we prepared for our travel. In the early morning hours and by military escort, Tilly and I ventured out for the eight-hour drive northeast to the Sanaga Yong project. Fortunately for us, the weather was pleasant and the rain came the day before our departure. Most of the roads were passable until we got about four hours into our drive; the roads werenít paved and many were washed out. With the help of some local villagers, we were pushed out of what seriously could have been a disaster. Being stranded in the middle of Cameroon with an infant chimpanzee was not on my list of things I wanted to do that day.
Unscathed but exhausted, we arrived at our destination 12 hours later. Quickly, Tilly and I settled into a vacant hut to basically pass out. The next five days were spent transitioning her to her new surroundings and her new friend. It was slow going at first, naturally, but by the third day Tilly was climbing guava trees to help herself to the ripe fruit. My last day with my unexpected, brilliant and humbling sidekick was one of the hardest in my life. The bond between two friends couldnít be stronger, and my ride back alone to Mefou could not have been longer.
Itís 2011 now and Tilly is a part of a growing group, thriving and beautiful. Bittersweet, as this only means that more orphans are arriving at alarming rates, and more chimpanzee families are being torn apart by the bushmeat trade. Since I started volunteering with Ape Action Africa, Iíve been to Cameroon five times. Each time, I see more of the forest logged and, each time, I see more mouths to feed. Working there has confirmed my career path in life. I went back to school to educate myself further in caring for these incredible animals, and now work full-time as a animal caregiver at the Toronto Zoo in Canada.
Iím currently planning my sixth trip to AAA in January 2012. People ask me often about volunteering at the sanctuary; many have applied and have experienced the work for themselves. No matter who it is, from veterinarians to retired professionals, I always say that the project is a special place that will leave a lasting impression. Just prepare for a life-changing experience!
Ape Action Africa is a registered charity in the United Kingdom and United States.
About the author:
Susan Eberth is an animal caregiver at the Toronto Zoo. She also serves
frequently in Africa.
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