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."

To Hold a Chimpanzee, Part Deux

When I posted this photo of Lemba and me on my facebook profile two days ago, the response was overwhelmingly positive. My hug with Lemba even made the news back in Canada (thanks, Quillblog!). But since then, I’ve heard from a number of people who believe photographs like this one can have real negative consequences.

In wildlife conservation circles, these pics are called “Me With” photos, as in “Here’s me with a three-toed sloth,” or “Here’s me with a lion cub,” or "Here's me with an orphan chimpanzee." The worry is that these photos detract from the fundamental mission of conservation—which is, of course, to protect wildlife from the destructive hands of humans—by making people think it’s ok to cuddle with wild animals. The more people see images like this one, the thinking goes, the more people will think animals exist simply for our amusement.

These people have a point. Tourists in conservation hotspots can cause many more problems than their dollars can solve. They spread diseases to animal populations that lack immunity to them. They encourage local markets for cute and cuddly wild animals, who are often bought from poachers. And the moment they are no longer cute and cuddly, these babies face a dire fate, either sold to the highest bidder, slaughtered for their meat or simply abandoned.

But there is a difference between the typical “Me With” photograph and this picture of Lemba and me. Before I was allowed to set foot in Tchimpounga, I had to prove that I had been immunized against a whole raft of diseases, from polio to tuberculosis to measles to typhoid fever. I had to bring extra sets of sanctuary clothing, just in case the measles virus had hopped a ride from Pointe-Noire on my t-shirt. Every effort is made here to protect the orphans from human-borne diseases, and everyone takes this effort very seriously, to the point that JGI has started vaccination programs in nearby villages.

But there is one other point to make here, and it the most important one. It has to do with the very raison d’etre of Tchimpounga. Baby chimpanzees spend the first five or six years of their lives in constant contact with their mothers. Touch is as important to a baby chimp—perhaps more so—as food or water is. Through physical contact, baby chimps are soothed, they learn about consolation and trust, and they begin building their self-confidence. These are crucial experiences for a young chimpanzee who will eventually have to make her own way in chimp society.

So whenever a Tchimpounga orphan is picked up, carried or simply hugged by their human caregiver—or by a temporary visitor who understands the context and has had all his shots—that chimp is taking another small step towards their own rehabilitation. To refuse a baby chimp physical contact, and all the fun, adventure, education and comfort it entails, would be the worst form of neglect.

Visiting Tchimpounga is a rare luxury. Only a lucky few who have jumped through all the hoops and who have a real reason for being here (and an official invite) can have an experience like this; no tourists are allowed. Debby Cox, the interim manager of Tchimpounga and one of the most knowledgeable chimp rehabilitation experts in Africa, once refused president Museveni of Uganda entry to her sanctuary because he failed to provide proof of vaccination. To his credit, the president didn’t complain one bit, but he probably fired the staffer who forgot to schedule his shots.

Anyway, what do you think? Do you have any “Me With” photos in your albums at home? Looking back, do you think they’ve done more harm than good?

While you're thinking, here is Mombou with the most important person in his little world, his human caregiver/surrogate mother, Antoinette.

Leki and Mkazi take us to school

Five years ago, the Jane Goodall Institute helped build a school in Boiti, a village that lies just outside the Tchimpounga Reserve. Before the school was built, the children of Boiti had to walk for hours both ways just to get an education. As one might expect, most of them opted to stay home and work with their parents in the forest instead, and as result the education level in Boiti was low to nonexistent. Today we were invited to witness the end-of-year celebrations at the new Boiti school. We sat and watched as the children sang, danced and put on skits for the entire village. Members of the JGI team then led a workshop on forest conservation with the kids, the same workshop they run in over 50 Congolese schools. The children sang out the names of all the endangered animals in the forest, and they learned about the destruction that is caused by hunting and fire, as well as the importance of the eco-guards in conserving Congo’s vast ecological resources.

Finally, awards were given out to the top performing and most improved students in each age group. Then the kids were given their report cards. Look how happy they seem; I don’t remember being this happy to get my grades.

Back at the sanctuary, we met two more babies, Leki and Mkazi. And if we thought Mambou was difficult to handle, these two made Mambou look like a little angel. I arrived to see one of our entourage begging to be let out of the enclosure—literally begging—as the two youngsters scaled her back and bit and yanked her hair.

We all went in, one by one, and none of us fared any better. I was shocked by the strength and relentless energy of the little boys. They led with their teeth, they were very fast and they just kept coming. At one point, just as one chimp dragged himself onto my head and the other sank his teeth into my kneecap, I looked at their regular caregiver. He just shrugged his shoulders and gave me an exhausted smile. Looking after baby chimps is far from a romantic endeavour.

Leki and Mkazi live with an adult chimp named La Veille, a beautiful old lady who spent much of her life at the Brazzaville Zoo. As a result of her lifelong incarceration, La Vielle doesn’t like living in big groups of chimps. So now, whenever a new infant emerges from the three-month quarantine, he is put in La Vielle’s enclosure. The baby gets some adult supervision, and La Vielle enjoys the company of another little one.

Although La Vielle doesn’t appear to be all that aggressive, she is very protective of Leki and Mkazi, a lesson I learned the hard way when I went into the enclosure to try to rescue another friend from the toothy onslaught of the babies. I must have appeared threatening, because La Vielle immediately stood up on her hind legs and began swaying back and forth, displaying at me, warning me to back away from her little charges. I left the scene, chastened, as quickly as I could, and La Veille quickly calmed down.

Then Debby Cox and Jane Lawton, the Executive Director of JGI Canada, went in with La Vielle and the boys. Look what happened next. That's Jane in the middle, being groomed/explored by La Vielle.