Lizards, Birds, and Chimpanzees, Oh My!

If you know me, then you know I love animals, and seeing the wildlife in a new country is something I enjoy. It is a special opportunity to see wildlife in their local environments instead of a zoo. Sierra Leone is home to many native species, including crocodiles, giant and pygmy hippopotami, elephants, waterbucks, pangolin, and the emerald cuckoo.

Despite the opportunity to journey out from the city and through the jungle, we saw few signs of this wildlife. Instead, we saw lots of domestic animals and livestock, including dogs, cats, pygmy goats, sheep, chickens, and cows. It’s possible we saw some emerald cuckoos, since a few brightly colored green birds flew past us, but they moved so quickly it was hard to tell exactly what they were. Mainly, we saw black birds that had white around their necks and upper bodies – they are pied crows, and we were told they’re called “Minister Birds” by the locals because of their coloring.

Lizard sunning itself

We also saw a lot of small lizards, many of them resembling the chameleons and skinks that I grew up seeing in South Carolina. They moved fast, and the ones we saw stayed mostly dirt colored, some with bright orange spots on their backs. I occasionally spotted one that had brighter coloring – a yellow head with bright blue and red on its body, but I never saw it up close or got a photo. The only other lizard I saw was a bright green chameleon with lighter green spots crossing the road. It was about 8-10 inches long, and it was the kind of chameleon with rotating eyes and mitten-shaped feet that had a starring role in the Disney cartoon “Tangled.” I watched with a mixture of amusement and fear as it slowly dance-walked its way across the highway because our land rover was bearing down on it so fast. Happily, the driver zoomed over it, and I saw it behind us, steadily continuing its rhythmic journey toward the other side of the road.

Thus, when it was offered, Lydia and I decided to take the opportunity to visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary during our free weekend in Freetown. The Tacugama Sanctuary is a rescue center for chimps that have been orphaned for various reasons. Some have been illegally captured and kept as pets, others were orphaned when their parents or families were hunted and killed. The Sanctuary works to rehabilitate the chimps for eventual release back into the wild and to educate the public about chimpanzees to reduce the capture and hunting of chimps as well as promote conservation of their habitat.

The Tacugama Sanctuary had suspended visits during the height of the Ebola crisis because chimpanzees are susceptible to catching the same diseases as humans, including measles, pneumonia, and influenza. They not only pass Ebola to humans but are also at risk of catching Ebola from humans. However, as cases have reduced, the Sanctuary has re-opened to appointment-only visits.

Lydia and I arranged to visit during the morning feeding time, when the chimpanzees are particularly active. We were part of a small group and were provided with a tour by one of the keepers who explained the mission and care provided by the Sanctuary. They took us to several viewing areas around the Sanctuary. Chimpanzees live in distinct family groups, so these different groups had to be kept apart from each other to prevent conflict and were living in separated, fenced areas. While one group was living in a yard area that had ropes and poles to offer them entertainment, most of the family groups lived in the extensive property owned by the Sanctuary. The acreage is fenced off, allowing the chimpanzees to live “free range” within a select area of jungle. They come to the viewing areas at feeding time to receive supplemental fruits and vegetables, and this is the best time to visit because the rest of the time they are usually in the jungle bush.

Our arrival at feeding time, however, caused a lot of concern among the chimpanzees who were afraid that we might be there to steal their food. It caused them to make a lot of noise, hooting, calling, and banging on cages if they were in the quarantine areas. They watched us closely for any sign of aggression. We were warned that they might throw rocks at us and to be on guard. One did get close to the fence, slyly pick up a rock, hold it for a while, and then hurl it toward our group. Luckily, we were in an observation deck about 20 feet above the habitat, so the rock didn’t make it onto the deck.

After a while, though, the chimpanzees calmed down, and it was fascinating to watch them interact among their groups. As I’m sure you know, there’s a distinct hierarchy with an alpha male heading a family group of females. The Sanctuary is not a breeding center, so there were very few babies in the groups – the only babies would have been rescued as infant chimps or been born at the Sanctuary because a rescued chimp was pregnant.

It was a fascinating visit, and we enjoyed visiting the educational center. The Sanctuary’s education work includes conducting research to learn to track the chimpanzee population, to identify where rehabilitated chimps can eventually be released that won’t put them in conflict with humans or existing chimpanzee groups, and to educate local populations and discourage hunting or eating chimps as well as preserve the forest habitat.

I’ll also admit that I find the chimpanzees rather intimidating and some can be quite terrifying. The Sanctuary workers repeatedly reminded us that chimps can be very loving to their family members but they can also be highly aggressive and strong animals. They shared the legendary story of Bruno, a Sanctuary alpha male who was the first rescue chimp for the center. Although he was a beloved resident, he led a mass escape of 31 chimpanzees in 1995 that resulted in the death of one person and significant injuries to three more. Many of the escaped chimpanzees were recovered, but Bruno and another chimpanzee named Charlie Boy were never found and are thought to be living somewhere in the Western Area Forest Reserve of Sierra Leone.

Luckily, we didn’t witness anything at all like that! It was fascinating to watch the chimpanzees, and I am glad that a place like the Sanctuary is working to rescue orphaned and abused animals and – hopefully – return them to the wild where they belong. It is clear that the Sanctuary workers care deeply about rehabilitating these animals and preserving their habitats, despite the challenges.