To Hold a Chimpanzee

Yesterday, after a luxurious 12-hour stop-over in Paris, I arrived in the Republic of Congo. Stepping off the plane, I was greeted by that familiar scent of the tropics, a sour mélange of wood-smoke, peat-smoke and gasoline that never fails to make me smile. We were greeted by an Aussie named Debby Cox, who has worked all over Africa for the Jane Goodall Institute and who is now the interim director of the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre, the largest such sanctuary on the continent.

After negotiating our way past some very high-spirited customs agents and a melee of freelance porters, we piled into Debby’s Land Rover and made our way out of town. Soon the pavement gave way to potholes and rutted sand. This used to be the National Highway, Debby told us, until it was abandoned during the civil war in the 90s. Now the road is punctuated by black garbage bags every hundred metres or so, bags filled with pilfered gravel that local people have dug out of the road and plan to use as building material.

In forty-five minutes, the road is nothing more than a one-lane rollercoaster of sand. We’re now inside the Tchimpounga reserve, and the vegetation has transitioned to pure savannah dotted with countless termite mounds. Just as I’m wondering where the jungle is, Debby pulls off the track and takes us off-road. “This is my favourite lookout in the whole place,” she says, pulling up to the lip of a hilltop. Over the edge, we catch our first glimpse of a Congolese forest, a dense valley of green that stretches back and down almost to the horizon.

I will fully describe the sanctuary in a future post. For now, though, I want to tell you about Lemba and Mambu, who were the first chimpanzees I met upon arriving at Tchimpounga. Both were orphaned when their families were slaughtered for the bushmeat market, both are adorable rambunctious 2-year olds, and both are being raised in the ‘nursery’, which just means they get to go just about anywhere they want to, while being watched over by a dedicated and incredibly patient team of local caregivers/surrogate mothers. But there is one stark difference between the two youngsters.

Seven months ago, Lemba contracted polio.

It started with a fever, but soon Lemba was fully paralyzed, her arms and legs dangling uselessly at her side, surely a nightmare for an arboreal animal like a chimp. Today, happily, she has regained partial use of her arms and one of her legs, but her left leg still just hangs there, or drags behind her. All baby chimps love to be carried, and they ask to be picked up in the same way human children do, by raising their arms up above their heads. Lemba is no different, except instead of doing this from her feet, she does it from a seated position, which makes the gesture even more irresistible.

Anyone lucky enough to have held a chimpanzee toddler in their arms considers themselves to have been blessed. I joined that fortunate group of humans yesterday, just hours after arriving at Tchimpounga. After being introduced to Lemba, Mambu and their caregivers, Lembu rolled over to my feet, righted herself onto her bottom and then reached her arms up to me. I couldn’t resist (nor should I have). I picked Lemba up, she buried her head into my neck, and for the next five minutes we just held on to each other as tightly as we could.

This is Lemba. Let me know in the comments section if you could have resisted that face.