Haven for abused chimps

2009-12-18 00:00

IN JULY this year The Witness reported on two chimpanzees — Charles and Jessica — who were confiscated from the Natal Zoological Gardens and Lion Park at Umlaas Road, by ­Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife staff on the grounds of animal cruelty.

Both chimps were in a terrible state. Charles had been starved to a fraction of his proper body weight, his canine teeth had been removed and his spirit was totally broken. Jessica was also emaciated and was physically in a worse state than Charles.

The good news is that their story has a happy ending. Charles and ­Jessica were sent to the Jane Goodall ­Institute’s Chimpanzee Eden (also known as Chimp Eden), which is set on 1 000 hectares on part of the ­Cussons’ family game reserve — ­Umholti Nature Reserve — in Mpumalanga. After a year of dedicated care by Eugene Cussons and the staff at the rescue centre, they are thriving.

Cussons, who travels around Africa rescuing abused and orphaned ­chimpanzees, exploits which are chronicled on Escape to Chimp Eden on Animal Planet (DSTV channel 264), said that when the two chimps arrived at the sanctuary, they were in a bad condition.

“Jessica was underweight and had fingers missing and Charles was very aggressive, although physically he was in better shape,” he added. ­“Jessica was easier to introduce to the infant camp and within a few weeks she was outside and is now doing really well. But, it’s taken us a year to get Charles accepted by a group.

“It’s a problem you have when a male is not accustomed to being with other adults. You run the risk of an adult male being killed when you ­introduce him to a new group. But, he’s settled down, is now the alpha male in the infant group and he loves seeing us.

“Chimps are a species which shows gratitude. When these animals realise what you’re doing then they ­forgive human beings for what they have done to them in the past.”

Cussons, who is managing director of Chimpanzee Eden and rescue ­director at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) South Africa, explained that the rescued chimpanzees live in semi-wild enclosures and are provided with foraging areas, the aim being to give them the necessary tools to ­become self-sufficient for release into the wild.

Turning to his daring rescues, ­Cussons’ admits that his missions are often difficult and at times dangerous. Asked what had been his worst ­experience to date, he said: “Probably when I was stuck in ­Lebanon. I had had some trainers ­arrested and the day they came to court I was also called in to see the judge and a bargaining process started to keep these guys out of jail. I was up against drug dealers who threatened to kill me, so I had to get out of the country really quickly.”

Another hair-raising experience is documented in the current series of Escape to Chimp Eden. Cussons went to the Sudan to remove seven young chimps. At the time there was a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, but that didn’t mean he and the television crew were safe.

“We were on the frontlines and troops were headed to the town where I was trying to get the chimps out. They were already crated and the only way we managed to get out and fly to Uganda was to taxi to the end of the runway,” he said.

Cussons most satisfying experience was getting a six-year-old chimp called Suzie out of Angola. “She was stuck at a beach resort and had a stomach disease because of the conditions she was being kept in,” he ­explained. “It was one of those dead-end situations but I had to get her out. And for once it was a mission where everything went by the book. On the first attempt we got her out and to South Africa where we could help her. It was blessed.” Suzie has now recovered from her condition and is seen as a big sister by the younger chimps in her group.

Chimp Eden is currently home to 32 chimpanzees, ranging in age from 15-month-old Tamu to 59-year-old Jao — and all of them, Cussons says, have their own individual personalities.

“They are so close to human beings — and that’s their biggest curse,” he added. “We see so much human ­personality in chimps that the most common mistake people make is to see that and decide they want one as a pet.

“But locking chimps in a cage or putting a chain on them is just as bad as locking human children in a cage or chaining them — and it’s just as traumatic for a chimp as for a child, to be orphaned.”

Asked what his plans were in the new year, Cussons said they had ­identified six chimps that need rescuing in Liberia and one called Claudine in the Central African Republic. “At the moment we are waiting to accumulate funds to do these projects. We don’t always have the funds we need to do rescues when we need to do them,” he added.

Ultimately, however, he would like not to have to do rescues.

“The killing of chimps has to stop at some point. We can’t be heading for another ­extinction, especially of a species which is so closely related to us,” he said.

Chimpanzees are continuing to vanish in Africa. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were approximately one million chimps living wild in west and central Africa. A hundred years later only about 200 000 ­remain due to habitat loss, the bush meat trade and the live animal trade.



Through Chimp Eden you can help pay for chimpanzee rescue missions or get involved in the day-to-day running of the sanctuary by adopting a chimp and ­following its progress. Visit www.chimpeden.com for ­further information.




‘Escape to Chimp Eden’ can be viewed on Animal Planet (DStv channel 264) on Mondays at 6.15 pm and 6.40 pm with repeat episodes on Sundays at 7.10 pm and 7.40 pm. The series ends on January 18.



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