For an orphaned chimpanzee sitting on the floor of a rescue center in South West Cameroon, love unfolds with an exchange of sweet baby bananas and a warm touch from the nanny trying on the nearly impossible role of being the-next-best-thing to mom.
Yabien (above) made her way to the Limbe Wildlife Centre several weeks back under rather murky circumstances. She was brought in by an official from the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife who said she was contacted by someone who’d found a young chimpanzee trapped in a snare by one finger. When villagers arrived to turn in the chimpanzee four days later, the animal had more than just a finger wound. She was deeply malnourished and bound around the waist with a rope that had clearly been tied when her body was smaller. There was every indication that she’d lived in captivity for quite some time and veterinary staff knew at once that Yabien needed immediate surgery to remove the rope.
Yabien, named after her village of origin, was brought in from the Nkondjok subdivision close to the Ebo Forest Reserve which is being transformed into a national park. We suspect that Yabien was taken from that forest, which makes her an extremely endangered chimpanzee subspecies, the Pan troglodytes eliotti, one of the rarest chimpanzees on Earth.
The veterinary team and caregivers at Limbe were as concerned about Yabien’s injuries as they were about the way she “stared blankly into the air” on the exam table. This sweet baby needed her mother, and since that wasn’t possible, they would try their best to fill the void. But what exactly is the recipe for love in such a case?
The Recipe Begins With Touch
It begins with touch. Yabien and the other young chimpanzees in the nursery at the Limbe Wildlife Centre have two ‘moms” throughout the day because they must be constantly held, played with, cleaned and fed. The physical connection of one body to another is essential for the well being of these little ones who are 99.4% genetically similar to our own human children.
And Then There’s the Food…
When Yabien arrived, she would only eat bananas from Kili who is head keeper in the quarantine area where new animals spend their first few weeks at the center. It seemed that bananas were the only food Yabien had ever had in captivity. But Kili understands the malnutrition that comes from surviving on a single food, so he worked with Yabien day after day. They touched, tasted and played with new foods until the temptation finally overcame Yabien and one by one, she started accepting other fruits. She began with pineapple, then bush mangoes, avocados, guayabas, tomatoes and papayas. She also enjoys yogurt and the occasional plate of rice and beans with carrots.
Once Yabien and the other new arrivals have been cleared against contagious disease, they will join the other youngsters in the main nursery where they’ll have access to climbing structures, a water fountain and lots of room to run. They’ll also meet Gah who is proving that male chimpanzee have a lot of nurturing to offer.
“Uncle Gah,” as he’s nicknamed these days, is particularly good at taking care of babies, even though he’s practically one himself at just 6 years old. Gah is hemiplejic, meaning that one side of his body is paralyzed, due to a bullet in his cervical vertebrae.Veterinarians at the wildlife center fear that the surgery to remove the bullet is far too risky and so far it is not a threat to his life. Gah cannot mingle with adult chimpanzees and therefore seems to have acquired special skill in caring for the young ones. And he’s not the only one. Yesterday I checked in on the well-being of a chimpanzee named Mokolo, one whose rescue I was privileged to be a part of some 16 years ago.
Mokolo – The Rescue That Inspired It All!
Mokolo was an orphan too and his first beneficial human relationship was with a French family who bought him on a roadside. They felt sorry for Mokolo and kept him as part of their family, even welcoming him to their breakfast table. But when the family left the country, Mokolo was traded from home to home as his growing size and strength became a threat. He ultimately landed with some locals in Yaounde who had a torturous idea of how to protect their family from the natural displays of an adolescent male chimpanzee whose strength can easily be several times that of a man. They secured a heavy chain around Mokolo’s neck and bolted it to the back of an outhouse. And there they left him. The chain was so short that he could not even lie down.
For a while Mokolo survived without really living. The family dog was his only companion. This animal born to live in a community of others chimpanzees, to ascend the forest canopy, to forage for food and to fall asleep in the comfort of his mother’s arms, had become a prisoner of humanity.
He Knew They Had Come To Help
The first day investigator Garry Richardson and wildlife conservationist Karl Amman walked up to Mokolo, he was curious about the strangers. He reached out his arms, looking for the affectionate return he remembered from his former family, and perhaps, from his natural mother. Garry comforted him and held him for a while, but that first meeting ended in disappointment on both sides because a coordinated rescue effort would take time. Garry and Karl needed to alert the forestry department and secure the help of agents who would accompany them with the legal right, and the weapons, to assure a successful liberation effort. So Garry knelt down and stroked Mokolo’s forehead apologetically. “We’ll be back my friend,” Garry said looking into Mokolo’s begging eyes and that was a promise Garry intended to keep.
When the day of rescue arrived, Mokolo was visibly hopeful. There’s no question that he knew why the men had returned and he was all too glad to help. He pulled his head as far as he could from the wall and outstretched a hand toward Garry as the sledge hammer began pounding away at the bolt holding the chain to the cement wall. I’ll never forget the anticipation on Mokolo’s face as he looked back and forth, back and forth, between the hammer and Garry. Mokolo knew his miracle had arrived.
When the last blow broke the chain free from its anchor, Garry bent forward as Mokolo jumped into the air. They met somewhere in between and Mokolo wrapped his arms and legs around Garry much the way a child would to his father. It was such a natural gesture, so instinctive on both their parts, and that moment of salvation would influence my entire career in animal welfare. After all, if one forgotten chimpanzee suffering in a backyard somewhere in Cameroon could find his way out, then perhaps we need to redefine the word impossible. (photo below)
Today Mokolo is one of the lead chimpanzees at Limbe, but it seems that he hasn’t lost touch with his early suffering. Each night he builds a nest that he shares with Neo, another orphaned baby who has become reliant on this kindness for a good night’s sleep.
The Rescue of the World’s Most “Unreachable” Animals
Many years ago, when Mokolo was rescued from that backyard in Cameroon, something inside me changed and reshaped the way I view animal rescue. Indeed Mokolo’s rescue is what inspired me to create the Harmony Fund international animal rescue charity which I lead today. The Harmony Fund chases down exit strategies for suffering animals that others label as “unreachable” and these days it seems that each rescue we undertake surprises me more than the last. I invite you to please have a look at our work and make a donation if you wish. And I hope you enjoy this photo slideshow of the spectacular rescue work that takes place at Limbe. Thank you all.