Chimpanzees, which have up to 98.7 per cent similar DNA to humans, could become extinct within 15-20 years if they are not protected, according to scientists. In Uganda, environmentalists are trying to protect those rescued from traffickers at Ngamba Island Sunctuary on Lake Victoria. The sanctuary offers the opportunity for tourists to get close to the primates. Benon Herbert Oluka & Flavia Lanyero share their experience:-
Watching about 40 chimpanzees prance around their feeding area at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, playfully beckoning their caretakers to fling food their way, and then wander off into the depth of the forest after they are done feeding, it is easy to take for granted the freedom that they now enjoy in the 100 acres of rainforest within Lake Victoria.
However, all chimpanzees at Ngamba Island were rescued at different times from hunters and traffickers who could have exploited them for anything from bush meat, as part of circus groups, and as specimen for medical research. With chimpanzees having 98.7 per cent of their DNA similar to that of human beings, they are particularly coveted by researchers for testing pharmaceutical products and for use in studies on diseases like HIV/Aids.
Yet, according to Ms Lilly Ajarova, the executive director of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWT), such activities have greatly reduced the number of an already endangered species of animals across the world. "These are the biggest threats to the existence of chimpanzees," she said.
In Africa alone, explained Ms Ajarova, it is estimated that there were more than one million wild chimpanzees 100 years ago. Today, however, there are only an estimated 200,000 chimpanzees on the entire continent, the animals having become extinct in at least 21 (nearly half) of the African countries.
Danger of extinction
Ms Ajarova added that within Uganda, there are an estimated 4,950 chimpanzees living in their natural habitats at Budongo, Bugoma, Bundibugyo and Kibaale forests in western Uganda. Environmentalists have estimated that chimpanzees could become completely extinct in the next 15-20 years if no measures are taken to protect them.
At Ngamba Sanctuary, the rescued chimpanzees have found a home away from home on an island that was gazetted in October 1998 for their exclusive use due to the fact that they are unlikely to be able to survive again in the wild. Ms Ajarova said Ngamba Island is an ideal sanctuary because it helps prevent conflict between the chimpanzees and humans.
Most of the island, which is found about one-and-a-half hours from Entebbe by boat, is reserved for the chimpanzees. Even the little space set aside for use by their keepers is set up in an eco-friendly environment with compost toilets, rainwater collection, proper waste management practices and solar energy for electricity and hot water. This has been done in order not to upset the natural environment at the island.
While the chimpanzees have the entire forest to themselves, they return to rest in cages specially made to replicate their natural resting environments.
Making own beds
This, according to Ms Ajorava, is because chimpanzees are very particular animals that, for instance, make their beds every night.
"We put bundles of hay on the floor every day so that the chimps can make their own nests," she said.
Also, because the forest does not have enough food for the chimpanzees' daily rations, their caretakers feed them on fruits two times a day, and then porridge later in the day.
"We give them a special meal of millet and porridge every evening and once a week, we give them boiled eggs for animal protein," said Bruce Ainebyona, one of the caretakers.
To finance such activities, CSWCT utilises collections from tourist visits. However, because it is not sufficient, they also receive funds from individuals and companies interested in gorilla conservation. Interestingly, while there were a few Ugandan companies that have donated money to the sanctuary, there was not a single individual.
Ms Ajarova explained that due to space constraints, they have put the female chimpanzees on contraceptive implants to deter procreation. However, while the female chimpanzees are injected every three years, there was a curious case eight years ago when the contraceptive control given to one of the chimpanzees failed to work and she conceived. The result was an addition to the chimpanzee family at the island, which was named Surprise.
The contraceptives are, however, not meant to stop procreation forever. The chimpanzees are kept at the sanctuary with the hope that they will one day be re-introduced to the wild forests where they can procreate.
Ms Ajarova said they have not yet found an ideal forest where these chimpanzees can survive. This, she says, is partly because the animals cannot be re-introduced as individuals but as a community, since communities can easily fend for each other for survival.
"We have not yet found the right forest. The ones there are already overcrowded and adding more populations would mean fighting for survival," she explained.
International standards stipulate that before animals are re-introduced into the wild, their security, protection against diseases and availability of food must be guaranteed.
Ms Ajarova says they are currently looking at the possibility of re-settling some chimpanzees to Rabongo Forest in the southern part of Murchison Falls National Park but this will not be done hurriedly as they study the animals with the capacity to re-adapt to like in the wild.
With the conditions at the sanctuary, however, none of the animals - if they had a choice - would ever want to return to the wild.