Charming chimps

According to TripAdvisor the number one attraction in Freetown is the Tacaguma Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which is in the hills just beyond the village of Regent, about fifteen minutes drive from our house. This village was once a remote settlement founded by Church Missionary Society’s (CMS) Reverend Johnson. The church of St Charles on the Hill was begun in 1809 and finished seven years later, reputedly becoming the first stone church in Africa, named after Charles MacCarthy who became Governor of the new Crown Colony in 1816. It has been renovated several times since.

St Charles on the Hill, Regent (circa 1920s?)

St Charles on the HIll, Regent

St Charles on the HIll, Regent 2013

Life for the settlers in these new villages must have been very tough. On arrival the ‘returnees’ (freed African slaves from the Americas and UK) were given rations for half a year and clothes. They were then on their own, cutting the trees to make houses and plant crops.  Of the 70 Europeans sent out by the CMS after 1804, by 1824 over half had died. However the congregation grew from 9 to over 1000. Today the settlement is about to be engulfed by development stretching out from Freetown. This is likely to accelerate once the road improvements are completed – this is the ‘mountain road’ providing a by-pass from western Freetown to Hastings and the interior beyond. The new road is already impacting on the area and its inhabitants who mostly grow fruit and vegetables on the fertile valley floor beside the river.  I have been here several times for shopping. If they don’t have what you need on the stall, they will happily send someone into the field to pick what you need.  As fresh as it comes! The road has taken some of the former farmland and eaten into the sides of the valley.  One week a stall was there, the next, it had been demolished and was set up temporarily on the other side of the muddy roadworks.

Shortly after Regent is the turn to Tacugama, a steep, single track road which winds up the side of the hill, with alarming drops over the side.  If that isn’t hair-raising enough, just before the sanctuary is an instruction to engage 4 wheel drive for the last section – and it was certainly warranted! Some passengers closed their eyes at this point.

The sanctuary’s 40 hectares of forest was allocated by the Department of Forestry and a grant from the EU allowed it to open in 1995. The founder Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila bought their first chimpanzee

 baby in 1988 having seen it for sale up country.  They named him Bruno after the UK boxing heavyweight Frank Bruno. After some years he turned into a 65 kg alpha male, who later lead a well planned breakout of 31 chimpanzees using tools to wedge open trap doors. The tragic consequence was the death of a taxi driver who encountered them and was killed. Half of the escapees soon returned, lured by food, and others followed, but Bruno is still at large.

The chimpanzees are mostly rescued from homes of people keeping them as pets – cute babies rapidly turn into strong  juveniles and an adult male is five times stronger than a human adult, so adult pets are often kept sedated.

Keeping chimpazees as pets is now illegal, so too is killing them for bushmeat – measures recently enacted to try to stop the decline in numbers.  There remains the problem of habitat encroachment.  From a estimated 20,000 chimpanzees in the 1970s, there seem to be now no more than 5,000 in the whole country.

Numbers were also reduced in the past by scientific research – chimpanzees share 98.6% of their DNA with humans – and were used in labs round the world for all kinds of experiments. This close genetic link means that they are also susceptible to human diseases (and vice versa – HIV!) so the chimps arriving at the sanctuary are kept in quarantine and vaccinated when they first arrive to ensure they don’t infect the existing inmates. One of the adults we saw in the final enclosure was walking very stiffly and the guide explained he suffered from polio.

Once they have passed quarantine the youngest arrivals are kept together in the first enclosure.  The juveniles (2-12 years) are kept through the fence at stage two, in a large enclosure full of ropes, tyres and enrichment equipment. We watched them at play from an elevated platform between stages 2 and 3. The youngest chimpanzees sleep in cages at night. The cages are connected to the play areas by enclosed runs, so that the chimps can be moved from place to place without any human contact and to prevent them from escaping.

The Stage 3 group have the run of a large fenced, forest enclosure but come to be fed three or four times a day. This supplements what they can forage for themselves.

In stage 4 they are in an even larger enclosure where they are still fed, but forage more widely and sometimes interact with wild chimpanzees.

There is a resource centre which tells the story of the sanctuary and gives information about ecology and environmental protection.  Photographs taken by motion sensitive cameras in the Western Peninsula Forest Reserve show the diversity of wildlife out there – some previously thought to be extinct. There is an outreach program to local schools to educate children about the importance of eco-systems and preserving the forest and with it, the animals that live there.

You are warned by the guides to keep to the paths and stand behind the nets when observing the chimpanzees because many of them have a habit of hurling stones at strangers.  This began during the war as a reaction to the rebel invasions of the sanctuary.The place was overrun and looted, but thankfully the staff and animals were spared. However, one chimp was badly traumatised and died shortly after.

At the moment the females are given hormone implants in an attempt to stop them breeding because the sanctuary want to be able to accommodate as many orphans as they can. However the presence of a few babies in the largest  enclosure proves what many suprised parents know; that contraception is fallible.

The original idea for the sanctuary was that the chimpanzees would be rehabilitated and ultimately released into the wild. However this is not so easy.  The chimps have had close contact with humans, many have learnt that they are stronger than humans.  They are used to being fed by humans, so the fear is that if they were released and were hungry, they would have no compunction about entering human settlements in search of food, which would not be good for the chimpanzees or humans.  So, for the foreseeable future the best that can be  hoped is that these chimps live as close to a wild existence as they can within the protection of the sanctuary and efforts continue to educate the people and ensure the remaining wild population does not decline further.

It costs US$1000 to take care of one chimpanzee so there is always a need for donations. Apart from the tours, other fundraising activities are the sale of souvenirs, a new book about the life of Bruno and overnight stays at the eco-lodges on site: a very peaceful setting.

Tours are offered twice a day and on the last Saturday of the month, if you get there early, or stay overnight, you can join a bird-watching tour.  But this time we just took the regular tour and will certainly be back to stay overnight on another occasion.

old postcard of St Charles thanks to


4 thoughts on “Charming chimps

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