An incredible visit to the Chimfunshi wildlife refuge.

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The Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in central Zambia is a non-profit refuge that cares for a wide variety of sick, wounded or unwanted animals — but the primary residents are over 100 orphaned chimpanzees.  Last week, I was privileged to chaperone the 9th grade field trip to this unique and fascinating place…and to learn about chimpanzees – our closest cousins on the evolutionary tree, with more than 99% of our genetic make-up in common.

NOTE: With the exception of the photos of the school, these wonderful pictures were taken by my colleague, Heather PIllar, a professional photographer.

From their website: Chimfunshi was founded in 1983 when a game ranger brought a badly wounded infant chimpanzee to the cattle ranch of David and Sheila Siddle, a British couple who had lived in along the Zambian Copperbelt since the 1950s. The Siddles nursed that chimp – nicknamed “Pal” – back to health, thereby establishing a tradition of care and respect that forms the legacy of the sanctuary.  Once word of Pal’s recovery spread, the Siddles found themselves inundated with orphaned chimpanzees. Although many are confiscated from poachers who attempt to smuggle the infants into Zambia for sale as pets, an equally large number are rescued from dilapidated zoos and circuses from all over Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.  The Siddles bestow love and care upon the traumatized apes and gradually introduce them to the extended family at Chimfunshi. Five social groups inhabit the free-range enclosures that span 1,100 acres at the orphanage, including three 500-acre enclosures, the largest area ever set aside for captive primates.

More about Chimfunshi here: http://www.chimfunshi.org.za/  (And worth a read…)

After a long bus ride, we arrived at the main camp and got unpacked.  The camp is situated out in the bush; there are a number of rustic cabins, a central pavillion, a kitchen and a meeting room.  All electricity is provided by solar power and any kind of Wifi is non-existent.  We were given a introduction by one of the staff members and saw a video about the rescue of “Toto,” one of the chimps now at the orphanage.

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The next day, we walked to the enclosures…about 4 km down a dirt road. DSC02958 DSC02959 DSC02964

The enclosures are the “second stage” of the sanctuary.  Here are chimps that have been successfully integrated into family groups and live fairly independently in enclosures about 10 – 15 acres in size.  They are not ready yet to be released into the huge, 500 acre enclosures as wild chimps, but except for feeding time, they are pretty much left alone.  The staff never go into the enclosures and the chimps only come to the borders for meals.  This is so that the staff can ensure that the chimps are eating enough and monitor them.  We also got to watch them being fed…they eat vegetables and fruits and they love nshima (a kind of cornmeal paste.)  They will negotiate with each other for food and steal it from other chimps who aren’t paying attention.  But they can also be generous and will share with a youngster or a chimp who is their friend.

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Each student was assigned a chimp to observe every 30 seconds for one hour.  They had codes to record various behaviors.  Sometimes the chimps would be very active – grooming, vocalizing, interacting with other chimps, climbing a tree, throwing rocks, cuddling their babies and sometimes behaving aggressively, including loud hoots and shrieks.  But some of them simply seemed to like the easy life and spent a good portion of the observation time relaxing. (Much to the disappointment of their observer!)

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The next day, we visited the Orphanage.  This is where animals are taken when they first come to Chimfunshi.  Many times, they have been so badly treated that it is impossible to move them to the larger enclosures…but the staff still strives to give them as natural an environment as possible.  “Toto,” the chimp in the video who was rescued from a circus in Chile was there.  He had been captured at age 2, along with 3 other baby chimps.  (Also, sometimes 10 – 12 adult chimps will die trying to protect a baby chimp.)  The other baby chimps died on their way to Chile and Toto was kept for more than 20 years in a crate about a meter wide, taught to smoke and drink and wear clothes.  He was castrated, chained by the neck and had most of his teeth pulled out.  When, he finally arrived at Chimfunshi (thanks to many people from many countries) he had not seen another chimpanzee for almost 25 years.

When he finally was let out of quarantine, he was cautiously introduced to a little 5 year old orphan chimp named “Madonna.”  He approached her carefully, and then reached out his long arms and enfolded her in an embrace.  He paid no more attention to the humans, but focused all his attention on his companion – able to be with one of his own kind at last.  (Go on, watch the video!  It is quite moving.)

Video about Toto: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqiEqUlB7V4

A website about his remarkable rescue: http://www.savetheprimates.org/happyendings/stories/saved-toto-the-chimpanzee

He’s an old man now…almost 37 years old, but he could live for another 20 years.  And although he cannot be released into the larger enclosures, due to his age, infirmities and the fact that he was castrated, he has bonded with several other chimps in a “family” and he is respected by them because of his age.

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We also met Sheila Siddle, the co-founder of Chimfunshi.  (Her husband David died a number of years ago, and she has carried on with the work.)  She was fostering a baby chimp whose mother had rejected her.  The baby is 4 months old.

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Chimfunshi also sponsors a school for the families who live in and around the area.  This is a one-room school house, for kids ages 5 – 11.  There are about 40 kids in the classroom…this is how it looks empty.

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Our kids came and introduced themselves to the students and even though all the students spoke Bemba and all our kids (except one) did not, they seemed to have a good time playing together.

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That evening, we were supposed to watch “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” but something went wrong with the DVD player…so some of our kids acted out the movie for us…it was hilarious.

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I thought Chimfunshi was a fascinating place and I really admire the work that is being done there.  Chimpanzees are highly intelligent, social, complex individuals who are suffering due to poaching, “bush meat” hunters, loss of habitat and general indifference.    Their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate with only an estimated 150,000 still living in the wild.  Surely our closest living “relatives” deserve better from us.

“Chimpanzees have suffered so much pain and trauma at the hands of humans, yet they still have the grace to forgive us.”  (Sheila Siddle)

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