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Tag Archives: Chimpanzee
During a job interview I once answered the question about where I would see myself in three years time quite truthfully (but of course also very naively) with “oh, I have no idea. I stopped making plans that far ahead, cause they never turn out as planned anyway.” Surprisingly, I didn’t get that job … but I still believe that there’s something to my answer. We had so many plans for this journey, hell, Patrick spent the better time of two years trying to find the best route for a two years journey from pole to pole. But then the autumn gales hit early in Iceland, our engine broke down, and after fixing Widdershins up it would have been close to suicide to battle the countless low-pressure systems roaring mercilessly over from Greenland. So, what to do? Of course a change of plan was the answer. Forget Canada, forget the USA, Europe, here we come! Oh, and Africa, too.
After another few unexpected twists and turns we found ourselves managing over one hundred chimpanzees in the middle of the River Gambia, having signed a contract that would potentially keep us in the green jungle for one and a half years. However, however … well. To cut a long story short: we had a fantastic time, learned a lot, made many new friends and will never forget this time in The Gambia. But in the end our views of the project differed significantly from the views of our director, and under the scenario she envisaged we were simply not prepared to stay on.
So … what to do? After carefully considering our options we decided to hop onto our tiny Chinese motorbike, pack our few belongings and the dog in the backpack, and slowly make our way back to the coast. Camping along steep river cliffs, crossing the River Gambia on dodgy little ferries, marvelling at the iron age stone circles at Wassu that are mirroring their cousins from further north, admiring the wildlife and of course enjoying a not-so-fast ride past dubious trucks, donkey carts and TOUBAB screaming kids was a really good way to slowly say good bye to this country that was our home for more than half a year. Finally, after three days on the road, we got back to Lamin Lodge, where a very, very faithful Widdershins had battled all the rain, wind and thunderstorms of the past months by herself and was still happily afloat. Now we need to fix up a few things on the boat, and then we’ll be sailing once more into the blue! Next stop: Cape Verde Islands.
First of all: apologies to anyone who was worried that the jungle or the sea may have swallowed us … we’re still very much alive, although usually pretty much off the grid.
Our lives have yet again taken an unexpected turn, and these days Patrick and I call ourselves “managers” (it’s even written on our Gambian ID cards, so hah, there you go, must be true!). If you wonder what we might manage, well, it’s a long story.
After our propeller broke down in Morocco we found ourselves stranded for an undefined amount of time, realizing that we probably wouldn’t be able to cross the Atlantic before the next hurricane season would hit the caribbean. To counter our frustration we applied for a variety of jobs, and a few months later we found ourselves in the Gambian bush, looking after chimpanzees and other primates (i.e. mostly humans).
The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project is the oldest project of it’s kind: in the late 1970ies the first chimpanzees were re-introduced in the Gambia – more precisely on the baboon islands, a group of islands in the middle of the river Gambia. These islands were (and still are) home to the the last patches of undisturbed gallery forest in The Gambia, and ideal to become a new chimp home: whilst they provided a natural habitat and (at least some) food for the chimps they also provided a natural enclosure for the chimps, who cannot swim and are thus stuck on the islands. Furthermore the islands were un-inhabited and thus no conflict between humans and chimps could arise. The originally released chimps were mainly orphaned west-african chimpanzees, with an additional few ones originating from laboratories of the United States. Well, and those chimps have been on these islands ever since, happily multiplying. These days three generations of wild-born chimpanzees live on the island – including the last three babies born just a couple of weeks ago there are now 109 chimps to look after!
This “looking after” is probably quite different to what most people would expect. The chimps are being left undisturbed and no human has set foot on these islands for decades (unless an emergency arose), so there’s no cuddling of cute chimp babies involved in our work. Unfortunately the islands don’t provide enough food for the chimps though, so their diet has to be supplemented. And as we can’t do that from the land, we have to do it from the river, by driving boats close enough so the food can be thrown onto the islands. This way the chimps can also be medicated if any need should arise, and as our staff knows every single chimp they can be monitored on a daily basis.
But this feeding and monitoring is just one aspect of our work. We’re also patrolling the national park so no visitors from outside get too close to the chimps (which is to protect both the chimps and the people – chimps can be quite dangerous if they feel threatened), we have a huge education program where kids of all ages are being taught about nature, and of course we have tourists staying at the camp four days a week. All in all over twenty local people work for the project, which in itself can sometimes become quite challenging. On the other hand, there’s definitely never a dull day.
But more about our daily adventures some other time! For now we just wanted to let you know that we’re still alive …
While Leonie is sweating in the tropical heat of Africa I have winged my way to the other side of the world. In a mere three days I jetted back to the starting point for our big adventure of twelve months on the high seas and am now cruising past the jagged ice-capped coastline of Svalbard. It’s surreal to think that our yacht is moored in a tropical estuary surroundedby mangroves and cheeky monkeys while I cruise amidst icebergs, seals and polar bears in the arctic island of Svalbard on a 100m meter ship!
I’m up in the arctic for 2 months earning some cash as a naturalist on an expedition cruise ship and sharing yarns about our travels in the Arctic with passengers from all over the world. Meanwhile Leonie is getting stuck into some serious science writing research articles on the epigenetics of small alpine flowers. We are worlds apart both physically and in our day to day life at the moment but we are both dreaming of the next eighteen months that lie before us.
We have huge challenges ahead in the management of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project on the Gambia river but it is a challenge that fills us both with a sense of excitement, adventure and privilege. Here we have a chance to do some really meaningful work that has the potential to do some real good – both for the wildlife of the region and for the local people. Exciting times ahead!
Meanwhile it seems like we have both stepped into a surreal holding pattern with day to day tasks that are a far cry from the last 12 months of drifting free on the wide ocean. It certainly helps us to put our lives in perspective. It’s great here in the Arctic but I can’t wait to step aboard Widdershins and get into the swing of our new life with the chimps!
A couple of days ago we returned from our trip up to the River Gambia National Park. It has been a fantastic experience with encounters of some of the most threatened mammals on earth. The national park consists of five islands in the river Gambia, where since the 1970’s many orphaned and abandoned chimpanzees found a new, undisturbed home through the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. In addition, the area teems with wildlife: the rare red colobus monkeys swing through the trees around the camp, baboons roam the realms, warthogs trot through the undergrowth, hippos grunt at the opposite riverbank, while pythons, cobras and crocodiles only add to the excitement. We even got the chance to witness the release of a usually nocturnal and very elusive genet that had been caught and brought to the camp by some nearby villagers. Sparrow was initially a bit disturbed by the plethora of new smells and sounds, and was rather devastated when she lost a piece of bread to a cheeky green vervet monkey. But before long she made friends with the two resident camp dogs, and went off to explore the area with them.
Our trip upriver was not entirely for our own pleasure though. A few months ago we applied for the newly vacant position of project manager for the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, and got invited by Janis Carter, the director of the programme, to get a first hand impression of the project. As it turned out … she offered the position to us! Provided the Gambian government has no objections, we will be spending at least another year here in The Gambia, managing staff, tourists and chimpanzees! Well, first Patrick is flying to Spitzbergen for some Arctic adventure in two days time, while I will be working on publishing the last work of my PhD thesis. To facilitate my stay here, we also just purchased a new motorbike, my first (on land) motorized vehicle ever! Let’s hope that I’ll soon get better at driving on soft sandy back roads (I already dropped the bike once, oops). All in all we are very excited about the admittedly unexpected turn of events, and hope the two in the blue adventure will continue to excite despite the newly green environment!
It is morning here in the Gambia and the breeze is still cool despite the glowering sun rising over the canopy of trees that cling to the river. The trees themselves form a dense tangle of a million shades of green broken by the occasional flash of colour as birds dart amongst the foliage. Also moving through the canopy are dark shapes that screech and chitter as they crash through the leaves – monkeys for certain but which species? It’s hard to catch a glimpse in the mysterious gloom behind the bright green, and besides, the hippos in the river are snorting and grunting and it is hard to pay attention …
Leonie and I are sitting on the deck of the Waterhouse at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project camp on the River Gambia. For once we have left our yacht behind and hitched a ride up-river in more conventional transportation – a four hour trip passing through rutted roads, small villages populated by circular mud huts and smiling children, and of course through an endless vista of arid grassland populated by towering termite mounds and grinning baboons (the smiles of the children were genuinely friendly while the baboon grins were clearly intended to show us the pointy nature of their dentition). When the journey was finally over and we stepped into the shady haven of the River Gambia National Park we both felt we had stepped into a dream.
We have been privileged over the last 12 months to pass through some amazing wilderness and to meet some amazing characters, but the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Projects stands out as something special. Starting with the ambition of re-introducing captive and orphaned chimps into the wild, the project encompasses some of the most pristine wilderness remaining in the Gambia and protects a whole host of species including the endangered red colobus monkey, green monkeys, patas monkeys, olive baboons, genets, hippopotamus, hyena … well the wildlife here is far too diverse to start a list. And let’s not forget the chimps. Observing wild chimpanzees amidst the dense foliage of the river bank is a thrilling experience, and one that leaves a lasting sense of wonder.
But for now there is no time to wonder too much as there is so much more to see in this amazing reserve.