So we saved the best for last! Ngamba is an island in the middle of Lake Victoria where our partners for the workshop (The Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust) have a sanctuary for…chimps!
Before going to the island we talked to Lilly Ajarova, Director of CSWCT, to learn a bit more about the island and all of the different methodologies that CSWCT and partners are employing to reduce the number of orphaned chimps in the country. You see, in DRC, eating chimp meat is quite normal (I guess at some point in time it was in Uganda as well, but has since been outlawed). People can go into restaurants and order a cut of chimpanzee just like we’d order chicken or a steak. In the hunting of large chimps, many babies are left as orphans and are often taken as pets, many times passed from home to home or beaten and abused. CSWCT has been rescuing chimps from these areas for quite some time, rehabilitating them, and taking them out to Ngamba Island where they are cared for by CSWCT staff and also form a new family group.
At the same time, CSWCT has been working to educate local people about the chimps, teaching kids that chimps are not pets and also working to form a safe corridor for chimps to pass between the remaining forested areas near their homes.
The boat ride out to the island was pretty bumpy, but we got out there fairly quickly (1 hour or so). These trips are made almost every day with groups of tourists who wish to observe the animals. Upon arrival, we learned more about the island and the dos and don’ts. Then, it was feeding time! Since the island is too small to provide sufficient food for all the chimps they have (98 acres and 45 chimps – 98 acres would be for 2 chimps in the wild), the chimps food is supplemented several times a day. The chimps have become accustomed to this and know what time the food will be tossed to them. About 5 minutes before, they start to wander out of the forest and up to the fence line. This time is actually pretty fun because the chimps are really playful and make a lot of noise! Some turn somersaults and run around. Everyone knows when the alpha male arrives, though. He charges in and runs around the entire circle hooting (is that what you call a chimp’s call?) and showing his dominance to everyone else in the group.
The staff brings out buckets of food and tosses it in piece by piece to the chimps. (There’s an observation bridge that visitors and staff stand on that is outside of the chimp’s area for safety reasons – both to avoid people being hurt but also to avoid the chimps contracting human diseases.) It was interesting to me that the chimps eat the peels of bananas but not of limes…
Anyway, once they know there is no more food, they slowly go back into the woods for play time until later.
Once the feeding was over, a few of the staff members took us to another island where we met the head of a women’s group. This particular group makes beads out of recycled magazines and other paper and sells the necklaces mostly at Ngamba. The island also has a school that is supported by CSWCT which we also visited. On the walk there, the kids started to follow us and, once they were brave enough, they grabbed our hands to walk with us. The school was pretty basic, but it meets their needs quite well. Most of the men make a living off of fishing in the lake and selling it on the mainland.
Once we returned to Ngamba, it was time for the chimps to come in for the night. Chimps make a new nest every night which requires breaking trees and leaves in order to form a bed up in the branches. Obviously, if all of the chimps did this on Ngamba every night, pretty soon there would be no trees left. Instead, CSWCT has built special cages with hammocks, tire swings, benches and other places for the chimps to sleep. First, though, it was time for their porridge. They had millet porridge which looked really gross to me, but it seemed like the chimps loved it. Each night there is a different meal. Then they headed to bed.
We hung out with the staff members at night, watched some tv, learned some Ugandan dance moves and stared at the stars for awhile before going to sleep.
The next morning we got up fairly early (around 6ish) for our special adventure! We were able to go inside the fence (doing so required about 10 vaccinations) and they let out 5 or 6 of the calmest chimps to go on a walk with us. The first minute or so was filled with anticipation as the chimps came out of their enclosure and we weren’t really sure how they would react, but as soon as they came out, they came right up to us and climbed on our backs, wanted to hold our hands, and were all together super playful. Of course, they wanted to look in our pockets to see what we might have (the staff gave us little treats to “hide” there). We walked into the forest a little bit and sat down. One of the big girls came over and curled up in my lap where she wanted to be petted and groomed. A little boy, Rambo, sat in Tommie’s lap and was super playful, even kicking her in the face a few times, haha!
It was really cool to me to be able to touch these animals and really interact with them. Their hands are almost exactly like ours, but have the texture of smooth leather. Their feet also look similar to their hands, with opposable “thumbs”/big toes. Their hair is pretty coarse. They are definitely very curious.
We walked a bit farther after that, and Rambo wanted us to pick him up and swing him by his hands and feet like you would with a young kid. He was really funny once we reached the water’s edge (chimps can’t swim) but he was tempted to get closer and was throwing things out there to see what happened to them.
After a while, we headed back to the main part so the rest of the chimps could be released, get their morning fruit and head off to play. Meanwhile we helped the staff clean out the cages (the chimps aren’t potty trained!) before breakfast.
Our stay on the island coincided with a special event that CSWCT was hosting, so there was some set up and preparations to be made before the special guests (ambassadors and such!) reached the island. While they were there, the staff gave some interesting presentations, we saw another feeding, fed ourselves, and raised some money! It was pretty cool to see the interest from the high-level functionaries.
Then, unfortunately, it was time to leave; not just Ngamba, but Uganda! We made it back to the mainland and went to a hotel to relax for a few hours before going to the airport. Our flight left at 2 am, but it was smooth sailing the whole way home (even had whole rows to ourselves the whole way back!). Adjusting back to DST was a bit difficult, but the trip was well worth it, I wouldn’t have traded it for (almost) anything in the world!