The morning walk with baby chimps
In the morning, before all the chimps were let back out, we joined the caregivers on a forest walk with a half dozen juvenile chimps.
The walks help the chimps get used to humans, which is necessary for proper veterinary care and other caregiving. It was cool and drizzly as we set out, and it seemed like everyone, chimps included, could have used a good cup of coffee! Face-to-face with the chimps, I realized for the first time how short they are, but heavy and dense.
One of them came right up to me and raised her arms to be picked up. For the first time in my life, I was holding a chimp in my arms! They hang on just like toddlers. We learned that the chimps usually like to ride on your back with their legs straddled around to the front of your body. But the chimp who picked me wanted to hang on in front, just like a kid. She got in real close and I just hung on and held her as close as I could.
We walked for a while and from time to time the chimps switched around. One of them did ride on my back, but with her feet pressed up against my back instead of slung around to my front. At one point the staff members suggested we take a rest. We all sat down on the ground and it drizzled a bit more. My chimp decided to groom me and worked on my hair a bit, moving it this way and that way, and snuggling in nice and close.
After a rest, we continued across the island to the far end. By now the chimps were perking up and seemed really excited to be there. A few of the caregivers gathered some algae or mossy clumps to use later as fishing bait, and, a few of the chimps decided to do the same. They must have watched the staff go fishing on other occasions because one picked up a stick and held it out over the water as if it was a fishing rod. The adorableness factor was off the charts!
After a while, we headed back toward camp. By now the chimps were not only perky but crazy full of energy, running alongside us, bouncing up and down and in and out of trees, swinging on vines and hooting up a storm. You couldn’t help laughing. The trail was a little slippery here and there, and at one point one of the caregivers held out his hand for Greg to grab while stepping down some rocks … and before you knew it, a chimp was there, too, holding out her hand to assist Greg. Their powers of observation and imitation are remarkable and wonderful, and just make your heart melt.
All too soon, the walk came to an end and we had to go back to our side of the fence so that the adult chimps could run free on the island, too. (We didn’t take any photos of the walk, by the way, because the sanctuary wants to avoid any possibility of exploitation. And that’s good to know.)
The sanctuary staff is proud of the way the chimps get along together. Rescued animals have been arriving at different times and from different places and circumstances since the sanctuary was established in 1998. On their website, they note that “most of the chimpanzees at Ngamba have accepted each other and live as a natural, wild community with a social system recognizing the hierarchy within the group.”
After some breakfast, we helped make lunch for the chimps (more fruits and veggies) and did some cleaning around the sanctuary. And, all too soon, our brief stay at Ngamba was over, and it was time for the boat ride back to the mainland. It was the first stop on a month-long trip in East Africa and definitely one of the highlights. I still think about it very often.
About the sanctuary:
To learn more about the sanctuary and to find out about visiting (for a few hours, for a day or for several days as a volunteer), go to www.ngambaisland.org. The island is 100 acres of rainforest situated 23 km from Entebbe, near the Equator in Lake Victoria, Uganda. It supports a rich diversity of natural wildlife and provides a variety of natural foods for the chimpanzees.
The sanctuary is open all year round to visitors who pay a nominal entrance fee to view one or both of the chimpanzee feedings. Day and overnight visits (staying in luxury tents) are available and can be booked through the booking agent, Wild Frontiers Uganda.
The Nagamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is run by the nonprofit Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, whose vision is that “Africa’s chimpanzee populations are appreciated and valued by the public, secure in their natural habitat, and no longer threatened.”
Trustees of the sanctuary are:
The Born Free Foundation
The Environmental Conservation Trust of Uganda
The International Fund for Animal Welfare
The Jane Goodall Institute
The Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre Trust
The Uganda Wildlife Society
The Uganda Wildlife Authority