Debby and the Incredible Escape

I was only in Africa for a week, but my journals are overflowing with incredible stories, stories I couldn’t have made up if I’d tried. Take Debby Cox, who has worked for JGI for seventeen years and who is now running Tchimpounga. The following story is just one of many reasons Debby was awarded the Order of Australia in 2009 for her work protecting apes in Africa. Debby’s first gig back in the mid-90s was directing JGI’s programs in Burundi, a tiny country that shares its northern border with Rwanda. The Burundi operation was basically a small house and backyard in the capital city Bujumbura. Whenever a chimp was confiscated by the wildlife authorities, the ape was brought to Debby and her tiny staff, who did everything they could to nurse the chimp back to health. Soon, the JGI house in Burundi was overflowing with curious, rambunctious, traumatized primates, both young and old.

But while Debby was building up JGI’s presence in the country, a sinister force was building to the north. The conflict between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda had begun spilling south, and soon the country was in a full-blown civil war. Debby remembers seeing mutilated bodies floating past on nearby rivers. She remembers being locked down with her chimps under a strict curfew as rebels threatened the capital. And she remembers being told by everyone that she should get out, leave the imploding country and save her own skin. One estimate suggests more than 300,000 people were killed in Burundi during the civil war.

But Debby hadn’t come all the way to Africa from small-town Australia to just give up. And there was no way she was leaving her chimps behind. By July of 1994, Debby realized her compound could be attacked at any moment, and that her charges would surely be shot and devoured by the rebels. She had to get out, and she had to bring the chimps with her. So she made an audacious plan. She would airlift them to a sanctuary in Kenya named Sweetwaters.

Debby had a collection of travel-boxes built that could fit a sleeping chimpanzee. She booked a charter flight. And then, two days before they were scheduled to leave, the rebels attacked the airport.

Debby called Sweetwaters to tell them the bad news. For the first time since arriving in Burundi, she was despondent. She finally began to sense the world closing in around her. She was out of options, with a ragtag family of apes depending on her to get them to safety. She wouldn’t leave them, which raised the sickening decision familiar to everyone who has worked with chimps in war-torn regions: if the rebels breached her compound, would Debby have the fortitude to euthenize her chimps, to give them a peaceful end instead of a horrific one?

To this day, Debby is convinced she would have done it. Lucky for her, she never had to face that moment. The CEO of the company that funds Sweetwaters stepped in at the last minute and offered his own plane, an 8-seater Cessna, for the airlift. Although commercial airlines refused to land at the Bujumbura airport while it was under pressure from the rebels, if Debby could secure ground clearance, the plane was hers. Through her legendary connections, Debby got that clearance, and the next day she was knocking her adult chimps unconscious, loading them into boxes and trucking them to the airport.

The plane took off without incident. Debby spent the next five hours sitting between the pilot and the chimps, syringes of ketamine at the ready should one of her charges awaken and decide to break out of his enclosure. Having left the violence far below, she now envisioned a whole new nightmare, a panicking chimpanzee rampaging through the tiny plane and, through their fear, attacking the pilot.

That particular nightmare never came true. The chimps made it to Sweetwaters, and Debby returned to Burundi to ship her younger chimps overland to safety. JGI Burundi was shuttered, and Debby moved on to Uganda, where she would eventually found the famed Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Here's Debby making herself some lunch at Tchimpounga, with Lemba in tow. By her own count, Debby has hand-raised between 35-40 orphan chimps all across Africa. "I can't just leave them," she tells me. "They need our love and care and affection, because there's no one else to give it to them."