The healing zone
Dramatic, sensational and emotional introductions to an article are normally the preserve of sensation-seeking weekly tabloids. For once, we will indulge in this practice too. But it’s not fiction – it’s fact. Fortunately there is some light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the Escape to Chimp Eden sanctuary, and Mitsubishi South Africa
Text: Danie Botha
Photography: Jannie Herbst
The hunters, armed with automatic rifles, spears and pangas, stalk through the dense Congolese rain forest. They stop, listen… Then one points to an African mahogany tree. Two aim their AK47s in the direction of the mahogany’s branches.
Birds scatter, complaining loudly.
Two objects fall from the branches, to the ground. Two large chimpanzees. A male, and a female.
The hunters cheer, and move in to examine their prize.
The big male is still breathing, but a quick blow to his throat with a panga sorts out this minor detail. The big chimp’s companion is already dead, but there’s a sound emanating from her body. A strange, haunting sound. A sound that tells of sorrow, and loss.
It’s a six-month-old baby chimp clinging to her dead mother. She cries in panic as she’s cruelly ripped from her mother’s warm, bleeding body. The hunters concur that she is still too small to sell as bush meat, and will fetch a keener price if sold alive, as a pet.
The hunters take to the pangas to hack the two adult chimps into more manageable pieces. The pieces of meat are stuffed into two backpacks, and when the process is completed, the baby chimp is squashed in one of the bags too, along with the bloody remains of her parents.
Later, the meat of the two adult chimps is sold to a dealer, and the baby chimp ends up as the property of a restaurant owner in Luanda, Angola.
The restaurant owner places the small chimp in a cage in front of his establishment, hoping to attract more clientele. Growing up, her “master” teaches her to smoke, drink and wear clothes – much to the delight of the restaurant’s patrons.
The chimp’s name is Sally.
Sadly, this story is not fiction, but entirely true.
Thankfully, there is a happy ending to this tale. Today Sally lives a “free” and more chimpanzee-like life at the Escape to Chimp Eden sanctuary near Nelspruit. The project, run locally by Eugene Cussons and brought to life by the international Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), serves to rehabilitate chimps that are found all over Africa, mostly in horrific conditions of captivity. Eugene is also the presenter of the internationally renowned Escape to Chimp Eden documentary, commissioned by the Animal Planet channel.
At the time of our visit to the Chimp Eden sanctuary in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, Eugene was away in Gabon, trying to secure land where a sanctuary could be established, and rehabilitated chimps be reintroduced to the rain forest.
The documentary is an on-going project, and director Anton Truesdale was on the “set”, at Chimp Eden. A cameraman is stationed here around the clock, along with two other production persons, to tell the ongoing and moving tale of the chimpanzees landing up at the sanctuary.
Anton says the process of rescuing the chimps is long, tiresome, emotional and sometimes dangerous. It’s a task riddled with danger and abuse, and shows the darker side of human beings from across the globe.
“When a report comes through of a chimp being held in dire conditions, we ask the local animal welfare departments in that particular country to go and investigate. If the owner of the chimps holds a valid licence, which retails for about R8500, there is nothing to be done, no matter in what conditions the animal is being kept. But in the time we’ve been doing this not one single owner has had a valid licence.
“So, when the officials confirm that there is indeed a chimp in need of our help, we swing into action and a crew flies with Eugene to the destination. Once there, we approach the owner, but this is when it can get tricky. Some owners derive an income from the animal, and these owners are obviously reluctant to just give up this source of income.
“In these cases we walk away, go back to the officials, and return later with a few soldiers brandishing AK47s. There are normally no arguments at that point, as in Africa the gun speaks much louder than words,” Anton explains.
“However, some owners are very happy to see us, and hand over their chimps with a smile of relief. A typical scenario is when the owner had bought a cute and cuddly baby chimp, but when that cute baby became an adult, it wasn’t so cute anymore. Instead it became a demanding and dangerous beast, and very hard to handle,” says Anton.
However, taking custody of the chimp is only the beginning of the process. Next, blood samples have to be taken and sent to Holland, where specialised tests are done for the Ebola, Marburg and simian foamy viruses. The team has to wait for the all-clear before they can move the chimp, and this can take up to two weeks.
Once the chimp is in the clear, it is transported by plane back to South Africa, where it has to go into quarantine for a certain time. More weeks go by. Blood is again taken and sent to Holland for the same set of tests, and once this is clear, Eugene and his team are finally allowed to transport the chimpanzee in the Mitsubishis to the sanctuary.
Aha! Finally a mention of a 4×4 in a 4×4 magazine article!
Mitsubishi South Africa supplies the Escape to Chimp Eden sanctuary and the Triosphere production company with Triton and Pajero 4x4s to assist in all tasks. From lumbering around the proverbial bakkie-loads of fruit in the Triton ClubCab, to ferrying chimps, people and camera gear around in the Pajero.
But back to the rescued chimp. At the sanctuary, the animal is put in quarantine for another 90 days. Finally, after this time, it’s released into a solitary holding area. Now Eugene starts to work with the animal, a long process of integrating the traumatised chimp into one of the three “family” groups at Chimp Eden.
“This is a dangerous and time-consuming task. Sometimes the other chimps get extremely violent when a new chimp is introduced to the group,” says Anton.
Dangerous chimpanzees? But they always seem to be such calm and peaceful animals.
“In the wild, yes, as portrayed in some documentaries. After the free-roaming chimps get used to someone like a cameraman or researcher, and realise that there is no threat, they are not as aggressive. Our chimps all have lasting psychological scars, courtesy of man. So they hate man, and are vastly more aggressive than their free-roaming siblings. If they get hold of someone, they will rip him apart.
“Some of them throw rocks at us, and others will try any trick in the book to get at our camera crew. Like purposefully starting a fight, knowing full well that the camera crew’s attention will be on the fight. Then the chimp circles round, looks for an opening, and attacks through the metal bars in the sleeping quarters,” explains Anton.
Phillip Cronje, manager of the sanctuary and a mountain of a man standing more that 1,8m tall, recently had his arm pulled through the bars. He could make no impression on the chimp’s grip, and watched helplessly as the animal bit off two of his fingers.
“That’s why the cameramen always have an assistant by their side, to keep a look-out for these rogue attacks. Chimps are not only highly intelligent, but also immensely strong. Their muscles are seven times denser than human beings, so although they may not look it, they are incredibly powerful. Add massive canine teeth to the mix, and it’s a lethal combination,” says Anton.
Gene Cussons, former Land Rover dealer and 4×4 driving academy owner from Nelspruit, arrives at the sanctuary in a Mitsubishi Triton 3.2Di-D double cab. He’s Eugene’s father, and owner of the 1000ha Umhloti Game Reserve where the sanctuary is situated.
“I don’t really enjoy seeing my son get into the enclosure with the chimps, but he does what he feels is required to help the chimps with the rehabilitation process, and I support him all the way,” says the 65-year old Gene, who keeps himself busy with flying and other Chimp Eden projects.
“We recently acquired a Bell 205 Huey helicopter from an international mining group that works in Africa. It is believed that in the 1900s there were up to two million chimpanzees in Africa. Now the figure is closer to 100 000, but this is a guesstimate.
“The Huey will be fitted with advanced infrared vision equipment, as one can hardly see the ground in the dense mid-African rain forests. We aim to get a more accurate estimate of how many chimps are still around, to aid conservation efforts,” says Gene.
And lower to the ground? Like on ground zero?
“We can’t run a fleet of ill-maintained, unreliable vehicles that can’t reach the places we need to go. But we would need to fork out a small fortune to acquire a fleet of top-class, go-anywhere 4x4s that won’t let us down in the middle of nowhere. And a fortune is something the sanctuary does not have.
“So Mitsubishi’s sponsorship with the utterly reliable and competent Pajeros and ClubCabs is a real blessing for us and the chimps. Now we can worry about other aspects of the project, and not about breaking down, or how we are going to get that bakkie load of bananas from a local farm to the chimps. And they eat a lot, believe me!” explains Gene.
While we were talking, Nicki, the “womanising” male chimp who hails from Liberia, had been watching us intently, even trying to induce us into a tug-of-war game with a branch that he stuck underneath the electrified fence.
Suddenly, out of the blue, he smiled broadly, as a human would. Inge, the television company’s striking production assistant, came walking up to us. Nicki obviously also finds her very attractive…
And at that moment, we couldn’t imagine a person killing such an intelligent creature. Or locking it up in a small cage in a dungeon. Or leaving it outside with a chain around its neck for entertainment purposes.
Chimpanzees should be roaming Africa’s rain forests, free of the fear of poaching. And free of the vile abuse that thousands still suffer throughout Africa, and the rest of the world.