Nelspruit - The late summer sky was cloudless and I watched a giraffe walk across the bushveld behind the perimeter of Chimp Eden. A couple of guests strolled back from their 90-minute experience, listening intently as their guide chatted animatedly, their faces rapturous.
Beneath the viewing deck a few chimps dropped from the branches and loped off towards their night quarters as Phillip Cronje’s radio crackled to life and his son Marc announced that all the chimps in group three were safe and sound in their sleeping quarters. Safe and sound, a far cry from their early days, and this story began a full 50 years before.
I have always been an ardent admirer of Dr Jane Goodall, who celebrates her 80th birthday this month. She stands among the mighty when we talk conservation and her work with chimpanzees is world renowned.
Dame Jane Morris Goodall DBE is a British primatologist, anthropologist, ethologist and UN Messenger of Peace. The first article I ever read about her intrigued me. There was this young British girl, a real Jane for fictional Tarzan, who braved the wilds of Tanganyika (Tanzania) and studied the behaviour of chimpanzees with nothing more than her notebook, binoculars and great passion for wildlife.
On a visit to Kenya she met Louis B Leakey, famed paleontologist and archeologist, became his assistant and was sent to the lake shore of Gombe in the 1960s to study the chimps.
It was the start of a life-long love affair with these endangered animals and a life devoted to improving their lot and globally bridging the divide between all things living. When cited as a UN Messenger of Peace by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, she said, “we must not only stop fighting each other but also stop destroying the natural world”.
Chimps’ natural habitat spans 21 African countries from the west coast through the vast Congo to the western fringes of Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda. Jane Goodall established her first chimp sanctuary, Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre in the Republic of Congo. But the second one she set up right here in South Africa. Chimp Eden is in the lowveld, just a short hop from Nelspruit on the road to Barberton. You take exit 47.
It was here I met Phillip Cronje, whose primate pedigree is steeped in the Johannesburg Zoo where he was involved with small mammals, reptiles and primates. He was personally recruited by Jane Goodall to manage the primate care at this facility. At that time there were three rescued chimps being cared for in Johannesburg Zoo.
Today Phillip, who is assisted by his son Marc, cares for 34 inhabitants, all of whom have been rescued. Sadly there are still 40 waiting to be saved and brought to South Africa.
It is heartbreaking, captivating, rivetting stuff. Each chimp has a story to tell and all are victims of some atrocity or other. Most are bush meat orphans, a sad, sorry sign of the times, with 7.5 tons of bush meat finding its way into the UK alone.
Take young Nina. Her parents were killed for bush meat and she was rescued from the Sudan in 2007 along with Zee, Dinka, Thomas and Charlie. In 2008 a second batch of seven chimps were also rescued from the Sudan.
Many of the orphans are bought by ex-pats for around $50 just to save their lives, then the frantic phone calls start for they need to find a permanent place of safety. Some were pets, some landed up in circuses and others were used for human enjoyment, like Zac and Guida who were rescued from a nightclub in Angola. They were chained outside to amuse the patrons and taught to drink and smoke and given drugs. Their condition was appalling. Zac was an alcoholic and had suspected malaria.
They were severely traumatised, malnourished and their fur was falling out. The before and after photographs of Zac show just how terrible their original plight and how miraculous their recovery.
Then there is Lika, also from Luanda, Angola. She was kept in a dark cage in solitary confinement for 12 years. She took a long time learning to mix with her own kind again and is still subdominant. Will she ever truly trust again?
But closest to home must be the 2008 rescue of Charles and Jessica, two chimps kept in a South African circus. When Charles grew too powerful he was left for years in a small cage in a dark room in solitary confinement. Jessica suffered the same fate. Both showed signs of severe physical abuse and had torn the fur from their arms and faces. They were depressed. Today these two are bonded, settled and happy and have assumed the roles of alpha male and female in their group. Jessica is a surrogate for the little ones and Charles is very gentle with them.
The oldest chimp, Joao, 69, comes from Mozambique and lived in social isolation for 40 years. The youngest, Thabu, is a year old. He lives with Nina in a separate enclosure alongside one of the three big enclosures as he is too little to be integrated as yet.
Phillip says some of the rescues have been dangerous, with no guarantee that the chimp was safe until the plane was across international borders. Permits have been denied, visas spontaneously cancelled, as chimps have been left behind due to red tape and failed promises.
I looked across at the enclosures with a sense of sadness that it has come to this, but optimism that there is a Jane Goodall and a Chimp Eden. The sanctuary, in a 1 000ha nature reserve, covers 20ha and the 34 chimps are divided into three leafy enclosures each with their own sleeping quarters, covered in hay. They communicate in the most human way, laughing, hugging, kissing and even patting each other on the back. But then chimps do share 98.8 percent of our DNA. This makes them very susceptible to human diseases, which is why there is no contact between visitors and chimps. The chimps are regularly inoculated against Yellow Fever and tested for TB. Between them they chomp through 120 to 150kg of fruit and vegetables a day, even though in the wild these omnivores eat insects and meat.
The costs involved in rescuing and bringing just one chimp to Chimp Eden are astronomical and the sanctuary relies on the income generated from their beautifully stocked “chimp” gift shop, snack bar and daily tours. Another income source is the chimp adoption programme – imagine gifting a chimp to a loved one. Globally the chimps have quite a few adoptive sponsor parents. The sanctuary runs a volunteer programme, where visitors around the world can stay at Chimp Eden and work with these animals.
Never go to this part of the world without booking a tour to visit these chimps.
If You Go...
Open: 8am to 4pm Mondays to Sundays
Tours: At 10am; noon and 2pm costing R160 adults, R80 children, R120 pensioners includes conservation fees of R40 adults, R20 children and R25 pensioners – applies to all visitors.
Directions: From Nelspruit, take R40 to Barberton, after 12km turn left at the 4x4 Land Rover Experience. Follow the road 4km. - Sunday Tribune