I could not fathom what they meant by chimps sharing 98% of their DNA with humans, until recently when I got first-hand experience watching the behaviour of these distant cousins of ours.
You too would see a little of yourself in a chimpanzee if you visited…
More than 20 years ago as Lilly Ajarova was on a fieldwork tour with colleagues at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, they bumped into two groups of chimpazees in a territorial fight.
As the two Alpha males came face-to-face, one was bitten so badly that it took off and looked for a particular plant and squeezed juice from its leaves over the wound and the bleeding immediately stopped.
“That is when I got this love for chimpanzees. They are not so different from us,” Ajarova said at Ngamba.
She is now the executive director of Ngamba Island Chimpanzee sanctuary, which is making 20 years old. The island in Lake Victoria is home to 49 orphaned chimpanzees and has also fast-become a destination of choice for tourists.
If you are planning for a weekend getaway, a visit to Ngamba island would be ideal; from the joyous boat ride and crossing the Equator on water, to the beautiful sunsets and clear air on the island.
I joined a group of journalists for a conservation media camp at the island recently that was full of lessons and touching stories of man’s cruelty towards animals, and discovering how close we are to the chimpanzees kept here.
Safety rule number one? Walk straight into the water as soon as a whistle announcing the escape of a chimp sounds as they fear water; if you don’t heed the warning, you just might receive a slap as heavy as that of six men put together, according to Byron Semambo, a caretaker who, however, tells us chimps escaping from their holding facility are very rare.
For the time I spent there, my wish was to see one chimp escape, tease us into the water so I could see the reaction of colleagues who feared both the chimps and the water.
Apart from the community of chimpanzees, there are many bird species you will see, a cool breeze, flora and fauna and you just could find a baby monitor lizard inside your camping tent.
It is during this visit that I got to sleep in a tent for the first time and I would not want to try it again any time soon, because the night was uncomfortable. There are swanky tented cottages at the lakeshore as an option; so, come with your savings.
The programmes offered here include day tours, overnight programs and students’ camping which cost nearly Shs 180,000 for locals and Shs 240,000 for foreigners.
Ngamba is about 95 acres; 90 per cent of it forested and only five per cent taken up by human structures. The forest where chimps spend their day is separated from the human side by a high electric fence.
Ngamba has 20 male chimps and 29 females that have been rescued at the airport and different border posts from smugglers.
These come from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. According to Semambo, the United Arab Emirates has overtaken the USA as a major destination market for baby chimps. Forty-six out of the 49 chimpanzees at Ngamba are orphaned, while three have been born here.
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is one of the 22 members of the Pan- African Sanctuary Alliance that has representatives from 13 African countries and has been pointed out as a model sanctuary which is now doing exchange programmes with others.
Even with the dwindling numbers of chimpanzees in the country, the ones here are not allowed to reproduce and females have implants to prevent them from conceiving. However, on one occasion, a chimp removed the implant while on another, the contraceptive simply did not work.
After those two incidents, the island now has two baby chimps, Easy and Ruparelia, whose presence spices up the community.
“If we allow them to reproduce, they will eat up this entire forest, which is already too small to hold the number we have. They do not sleep in the same bed twice; each night, they have to make a new nest,” Ajarova said.
The conservation centre faces several challenges, among them inadequate funds to feed the chimpanzees. Currently, they feed four times a day on mainly porridge, fruits and cabbages procured from the mainland.
Ajarova says this is simply supplementing their meals. They then venture into the forest where they feed on termites and natural foliage.
Ngamba is neighbouring other islands including Myende, Koome and Bulago, among others, which are predominately occupied by fishing communities and these, according to Ssemambo, could pose a threat to the chimpanzees.
However, to give their neighbours a sense of ownership, the sanctuary management is carrying out different projects in public health and sanitation, safety on water for fishermen, education and social ventures including games.
A visit to Myende, about 10 minutes away from Ngamba, will blow your mind; the island has a marvellous view of Lake Victoria that some of my colleagues said they had never seen anywhere in the country.
“We have three days that are open to the community to come and see the chimps for free and that is Easter, Christmas and New Year’s day,” Ajarova said.
Chimps too, can draw
About 15 years ago, chimps became extinct from about four African countries, according to Ajarova. Today, there are estimated to be merely 170,000 to 300,000 chimpanzees left in Africa and their population is decreasing rapidly.
“As we talk now, we don’t know how many are left. It is a question of what is actually right. These animals deserve to be in their natural habitat, but who is getting them out? Man!” Ajarova said. “If we don’t do anything, we shall have no chimps left in the next 15 years.”
Semambo explained that for a baby chimp to be captured, about eight adult ones likely to come to its rescue have to be killed. The rescued babies are often times traumatised and, according to Ajarova, some of them overcome trauma through participating in art.
“You can see how much frustration they have gone through by the way they draw, they draw with so much anger and hatred,” she said.
Protect the habitat, protect the chimps – Jane Goodall
Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall graced the Ngamba-at-20 celebrations at Speke Resort Munyonyo last Thursday.
Goodall, one of the brains behind the 1998 establishment of Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees’ social and family interactions. She is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute that has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues.
She said at Munyonyo that the institute continues to work with partners like Ngamba to save what remains of the wildlife in Africa and called for conservation of natural habitats.
Chief Guest Janet Museveni, who also officially opened Ngamba Island 20 years ago, said “government has put in place policies, laws and a constitutional framework for the conservation and management of biodiversity.”