8.23.2014

Village of the Apes



Life as a IDPCV (internally displaced Peace Corps Volunteer) is quite dull, so much so that I am inventing stupid acronyms to describe my situation (such as IDPCV) and having long drawn out meowing conversations with my cat, whom I just reacquired last week after him being trapped in Lomié for a month. I spend my days in a very routine fashion - getting up, doing an hour of yoga, doing a bit of Insanity, eating breakfast, cleaning the case, and then sitting on the computer (electricity and internet permitting). It has almost been a month since I was evacuated from Lomié, and I’ll tell ya, a month of doing nothing can get insanely mundane. Not to mention, I've got worms (again), so I've been feeling pretty darn crappy lately (hence the lack of blog posts). Good news though is that my house in Ngatt apparently now has walls!

Since life in Bertoua has settled down and the novelty of internet is wearing off, I decided to check out the Sanaga-Yang Chimpanzee Rescue Center near Bertoua last week. Spencer was visiting Bertoua, since he too was evacuated a few weeks ago. Deciding that it was time we had some fun, we took the 90 minute bus to Bélabo and then an hour long moto ride through the forest to the free Sanaga-Yang Chimp Rescue.

After the butt-numbing moto ride, we arrived at the Chimp Rescue (which I accidentally kept calling the ’Chimp Farm’). Nobody was at the front gate so we continued on our way and made it to the camp. A German woman named Agnes, who oversees the reserve, greeted us. She explained that there were no guides because there was an ‘emergency’ today. I’m not sure what emergency there could possibly be, besides all the chimps escaping, which I don’t think happened. "We will find someone to take you around", Agnes said. She disappeared and a few minutes later came back with a volunteer from Nice, France. This girl was previously a secretary for the French government, but decided she wanted a break. She has spent 3 months volunteering at the Chimp Rescue and has 3 months remaining. Apparently the French government has some program where if you agree to work 10 years for the government, you can take up to 3 unpaid years off to do as you please and come back and have your job waiting for you. 

The Dominant Male

She led us around and showed us the first chimp area which had 15 chimps between the ages of 6 and 12. The dominant male of the group came charging up to us to check us out as the other chimps gathered around and played on the playground. This was by far the closest I’ve ever been to chimps before and in such a private environment. The girls explained to us about the chimps in this area, and told us about Milou, one of the chimps they rescued after his mother was killed for the illegal ape-trade and after he was taken in as a pet. After two years at Sanaga-Yang, he fell from a tree and a branch poked him in the eye, causing him to loose his eye.

As we walked to see the young chimps, one of the chimps in the area we had just seen started following us. Spencer looked at the chimp and asked, “Um, are those rocks in his hand?”. I responded, “I don’t know. What does it matter?”. Our guide said, “Yeah, I think those are rocks…” Just then, the chimp stood up, took the rocks one-by-one and began launching them at Spencer, and only Spencer. Nothing is quite as amusing as seeing a chimp chuck rocks at someone.

Milou, the Chimp who lost his Eye
The second area we saw were the caged area where the young chimps were introduced to the friendliest old chimps in hopes they would accept the young ones into their group. The young chimps would stay in this holding area until an older chimp accepts him. Adorable doesn’t even begin to describe these chimps! They were so rambunctious, loud, and playful. They swung all over their holding area, communicated with us, and did flips and tricks to impress us. After falling in love with the young chimps, we headed over to an observation tower to see the oldest and most aggressive chimps from above. When we got to the top of the observation tower, it was time for feeding the chimps. A worker came to their enclosure, called the chimps over, and gave them all baton de manioc. It was perfectly timed, not only did we get to see feeding time but we also got to see the majority of the 73 chimps at the reserve. We got a good laugh at the chimps eating baton de manioc - they eat just like all Cameroonians. I made sure to recommend to the chimps that they grill their baton to make it taste better. The chimps went crazy over the baton and a few even stock-piled their baton in their fat pockets, while other chimps wore their extra baton like necklaces.
Young Chimps

Our guide explained to us that the Sanaga-Yang Rescue Center takes in chimps whose parents have been killed or who were intended to be smuggled out of Cameroon to be sold as pets or tourist attractions in North Africa or Asia. Many of the chimps in the Rescue were found as infants, while others were rescued later in life after being locked up for years. Once the chimps are at the Sanaga-Yang Rescue, they are there for life, since reintroducing them back into the wild would mean their likely death. At the Sanaga-Yang Center, the chimps are slowly introduced to other chimps until they are adopted into an exising social group. There are 6  fenced enclosures over 2 square kilometers of land for the 73 chimps, and each enclosure has natural forest habitat which make the chimps feel as if they are in the real forest.  I was extremely impressed by the Sanaga-Yang Rescue Center, especially since they are mostly volunteer-run and sustained mostly by outside donations. In addition to the rescue and rehabilitation of chimps, the Sanaga-Yang center also works in community development by employing mostly local Cameroonians, does conservation work with the Cameroonian government, and raises awareness of the necessity to protect chimps with the nearby villages. That’s a hell of a lot of work.
Enjoying baton de manioc

On the bus ride home, I was amazed at the successful work the center had done thus far, especially in an area were the bush meat trade is so embedded in local culture and cuisine. It made me realize that my work here can be successful too, despite all the obstacles I perceive as blocking my way. Changing habits often feels impossible here in Cameroon when people do things merely because that’s how they’ve always been done. But one of the things the Sanaga-Yang Rescue center taught me is that behavior change is possible, even if it takes an impossibly long time. Another thing it taught me is that chimps are probably the cutest things ever. Seriously.

If you want to learn more about the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center or financially support their work by donating to help the upkeep of the camp, then check out their website. You can also donate items on their Wish List by mailing them to their office in Oregon, or you can also sponsor a chimp. Thanks for the support!

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