Several weeks ago I got to see chimpanzees in Sierra Leone, and even better, write about them. My colleagues and I visited the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which is about 45 minutes away from Freetown. It’s the most popular tourist attraction in Sierra Leone, according to the founder, Bala Amarasekaran. He established it in 1995 to rehabilitate chimps that had been orphaned after their parents fell victim to habitat destruction or the bush meat trade. It started with just one chimp that he and his wife bought from some villagers who were keeping it as a pet. Eventually, Amarasekaran and his wife were looking after several chimps at once. The government was able to set aside land for a sanctuary to house the chimps. The sanctuary continued operations through the Sierra Leone civil war, when it was occupied and robbed by rebel troops.
Now the sanctuary houses 75 chimps and continues to take in new orphans to rehabilitate and hopefully eventually return to the wild. The sanctuary also does extensive outreach in the surrounding community, which is mostly made up of subsistence farmers, to stop the problem of orphaned chimps at its source. The sanctuary educates people on how to change aspects of their lifestyle so as not to harm the forest — for example, by raising sheep instead of looking for bush meat. It also hosts chimpanzee researchers from around the world, and of course is a popular tourist attraction.
The drive to the sanctuary quickly brought me and my colleagues out into a more rural part of Sierra Leone.
At the sanctuary we got a tour from the sanctuary’s longtime chimpanzee expert Moses Kappia, and then we interviewed employee David Momoh and founder Bala Amarasekaran. My colleagues and I wrote several stories between us on the sanctuary, linked to below. I also wrote a column (on one of my slower days) about why the government should invest more in the sanctuary.