Photos: Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

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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.

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On the way to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

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.

Links:

Tacugama Sanctuary a refuge for orphaned chimpanzees

Tacugama Sanctuary educates local people to help save chimpanzees

Salone government just received millions. Why not invest in Tacugama Sanctuary?

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The observation area. Rescused chimps spend some time here so that staff can learn their personalities and know if there will be any problems once they’re eventually released into a larger area

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A fight broke out while we were there. Moses Kappia, head of care staff at the sanctuary, said it was over food. “They have that habit of jungle justice,” he said.

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Inside the visitors center overlooking the observation area. The bush meat trade is responsible for poaching and, indirectly, orphaned chimps, many of whom end up at Tacugama to be rehabilitated. 

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Snares and bullet casings recovered from around the area. I was wondering how easy it is to hunt chimps, since they seem so fast and tough, but Kappia said it’s not too difficult

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Kappia explaining chimp behavior

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We saw some chimps being fed. These were all chimps who had progressed in the rehabilitation process

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Bala Amarasekaren, who founded the sanctuary in 1995

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Me with two of my colleagues and another intern who was in Sierra Leone for a few weeks

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