15 April 2017

Guinea: Traumatised Baby Chimps Find Love in Guinea Sanctuary

The Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Guinea is a sanctuary for orphaned chimps rescued from poachers, sometimes in the most tragic circumstances. Years are spent to help them overcome the psychological trauma of violent separation from their mothers. Some of them never do. The stronger ones are released in the wild after at least 10 years of care.

In a remote part of the Haut Niger National Park in the Republic of Guinea, there is a place for orphaned chimpanzees.

Their mothers were killed for bushmeat and/or poachers seized the baby chimps to be sold as pets. The infants brought to the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre (CCC) can be as young as four months old.

The Chimpanzee Conservation Centre has been in existence for 20 years now and 54 chimpanzees of varying age are currently living there.

Fourteen have been released into the wild.

Chimpanzee trade is illegal in Guinea, as is keeping them as pets. A number of the baby chimps are brought to the CCC by Guinean authorities who have rescued them from wildlife trafficking networks.

When the infants reach the sanctuary, they are quarantined for medical purposes and also because they need the 24/7 care of a surrogate (human) mother. After the first three months at the CCC, they will join other chimpanzees of the same age group.

Deep psychological trauma

The orphaned baby chimps are deeply traumatised because not only have they been removed from their forest habitat but they have also witnessed their mothers being hacked into pieces by poachers.

Estelle Raballand has 23 years of experience working with chimpanzees. She designed the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre as it is now.

A long-time director of the CCC, she handed the baton to Christelle Colin in 2015.

Raballand says that a baby chimpanzee is very important for the life of the group as female chimpanzees can only have offspring once every five years. Baby chimps are weaned between three and four years old. During that time, the infant clings to its mother, who carries it around. Poachers will have to kill the mother and members of the group to seize an infant chimpanzee.

"When the mother is shot, the baby is usually clinging to the fur. That baby is then pulled away from its mum. The mum is chopped and cut in front of its eyes. And then it find itself in a village, surrounded by human beings, not fed properly. Sometimes it is tied up, left alone in a dark room until it can be shipped out overseas [as part of the pet trade]," says Raballand.

"Many, many chimps don't survive that ordeal and the ones we get are the very strong ones," she adds. "For every orphan that [makes it] to a sanctuary, there are at least 10 chimps that died; the mother, the members of the group that tried to defend them, plus all the orphans that don't make it."

Chimpanzees share 98 percent of human DNA and there are many similarities in the coping mechanism to trauma. The process to help the chimpanzee overcome the psychological trauma can be a lengthy one. It is important for the baby chimp to be cared for by a surrogate mother, a human volunteer, to help them feel secure.

"The first step is to get them to want to live by giving them a lot of love. Being with chimps the same age also helps them. And being in the [habitat] they know. Sometimes it doesn't take long, sometimes it can take years and some never overcome the trauma", explains Estelle Raballand.

Laughing, playing, showing an appetite for food are signs that the chimps are on the road to recovery.

The chimps at the CCC in Guinea go for bushwalks everyday with the keepers into the surrounding savannah and forest. It helps them psychologically and provides them with the skills needed should they be released to live in the wild.

"The release [in the wild] is not for every chimp. It's not easy. The chimpanzees need to be very strong mentally and physically. They have to overcome a lot of fears. Not every single chimp can do it. And it will be cruel to force them to do it," explains Raballand.

She adds that releasing the chimpanzees in the wild is not the ultimate goal of the CCC. The ultimate goal is to serve as a conservation centre as it legally allows the wildlife conservation laws of the country to be applied. Without a sanctuary to house them, the chimpanzees cannot be seized and the poachers and traders cannot be arrested.

The centre's permanent staff comprises 19 Guineans and three foreigners. Volunteers from all over the world come regularly to give a much-needed helping hand for six months stretches. "We try to get people that can bring something and train the keepers as well," says Raballand.

Working with the local community

"It is very important to include the local community if you want to protect the wildlife," says Estelle Raballand. The CCC buys five tons of food every week from the surrounding communities which represents a sizeable source of income for the local suppliers. "We also provide medical support when we can and a few years ago we built a school", she adds.

There are also regular talks to raise awareness among the villagers about the importance of preserving the wildlife and protect its species. The CCC also intervenes in schools. There was also a radio programme funded by USAID.

150,000 US dollars (140,000 euros) are needed as a basic minimum to run the conservation centre. And that's not counting the costs of purchasing a new car, building new facilities. "If we want to be able to expand and increase the well-being of the chimpanzees, we should have 250,000 dollars", declares Raballand.

Project Primate Inc and Project Primates, based in the United States and France respectively, are the support organisations that also help with the fundraising. "Sponsor a chimp" is one of the fundraising initiative. Donations can be made on the website.

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