An island chimps call their own

The Baltimore Sun

NGAMBA ISLAND, Uganda -- The produce starts flying every afternoon at 2:30, just after the 41 chimpanzees emerge from the forest. No one calls them. They know they have a standing reservation at this salad bar bombardment.

Passion fruit, carrots, watermelon slices, red tomatoes, unripe oranges, bananas - it all rains down on the assembled apes screaming with hungry excitement or as a show of dominance or to fend off attacks from those of higher rank. The more adept make over-the-shoulder catches. One with an evident love for carrots sits double-fisted, with a third jammed in its now-orange mouth. Some beg for more, shamelessly waving hairy arms at the caregivers hurling their meal over the fence.

It might not be the wild jungle, but this island sanctuary in Lake Victoria is far better than where these close relatives of humans used to be: kept as pets or circus animals, often chained up in grim conditions.

"If we don't protect them, this species will be facing extinction," said Musumba Apuuli, a caregiver at the 100-acre chimpanzee refuge who is awed and amused by his simian charges.

Overall, 150,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild, down from 1 million to 2 million in 1900, according to the Jane Goodall Institute, one of seven groups that oversee Ngamba.

The sanctuary's trust estimates that 5,000 chimpanzees are killed in Africa each year for "bush meat," a delicacy prized by many. The same poachers often take infants out of the forest and sell them as pets.

Chimps lucky enough to be rescued by wildlife officials and sent to Ngamba receive veterinary care, a balanced diet and the chance to socialize with others of their species. Because public education is key, Ugandans do not have to pay the $55 fee for the 45-minute boat ride from Entebbe to see the creatures up close.

The sanctuary's stated goal is to return the animals to the wild. Despite regular feedings and contact with humans, the chimps could do well in their natural habitat, staff members say, because they still forage for wild fruit on the island. They would need a place far away from people, however, or they might eat crops such as bananas and risk being killed.

But a return to the wild will not happen anytime soon. Uganda is not an option, Apuuli said, because human settlements have pushed ever farther into once pristine habitat. The country has about 5,000 chimps left in the wild, he said, and cannot safely accommodate more.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, next to Uganda, has vast forest blocs and is where roughly half of Ngamba Island's chimps were born. But its persistent instability would only jeopardize any chimps relocated there now. That danger was made clear recently with the killings of seven rare mountain gorillas in Congo's Virunga National Park.

Since opening in 1998 with 19 residents that had been sheltered on the Uganda mainland, Ngamba's chimp population has more than doubled to 42. All live communally except for Mika, the alpha male. He's residing temporarily in a grassy enclosure until three recent young male arrivals can bond sufficiently with adult females; those females will then protect the young males if Mika perceives them as a threat and attempts to harm them.

The chimpanzees have the run of the entire island except for a small swatch with staff housing, a visitor center and the enclosed structure where the chimps sleep at night.

The adult females on the island are given contraceptive implants. While it might seem counterintuitive for species preservation, the purpose is to reserve space in the forest for future rescue cases. The island's capacity is about 60 chimps. One female somehow removed her implant and became pregnant. Her 5-year-old offspring is named Surprise.

Scientists describe chimpanzees as the closest living relatives of human beings, with a striking degree of genetic similarity. They can learn American Sign Language, use tools for basic tasks and appear capable of empathy, self-awareness and group problem-solving.

Beyond rehabilitating and caring for mistreated chimpanzees, the island serves as a lab for researchers studying such areas as the cognitive abilities of these apes and whether injuries among captive chimps make them more aggressive.

Apuuli sees their intelligence at work on a daily basis.

For instance, Mika enlisted Eddy to help squelch Robbie's attempt to become alpha male. Having dispensed one rival, Mika then turned on another - erstwhile ally Eddy - until he was undisputed king of Ngamba.

"You see that kind of politics," Apuuli observed with a laugh. He also notices sneaky behavior take on various guises.

The other day a female named Connie ran off to the bushes to frolic with a young male named Kalema. Connie was in heat and should have mated only with Robbie, who is acting as the boss in Mika's absence. Predictably possessive, Robbie followed the pair, interrupted their tryst and proceeded to slap and kick both of them.

Lately Apuuli has enjoyed regaling visitors with tales of Sunday's exploits. Sunday is a male thought to be 20 years old. He has an understandable dislike for humans after being castrated and smuggled to a circus in Moscow.

One day last month, a group of fishermen from a nearby island hid on Ngamba hoping to avoid Ugandan tax authorities. Sunday found them before the taxman did. He roughed up the men, then ate their lunch. Caregivers later spotted Sunday holding a pilfered bottle of Coca-Cola.

The 2:30 feeding is one of four daily meals, and caregivers make sure that even the young ones get their fill. They do this by calling an individual's name to get its attention and then tossing a carrot or tomato its way.

Breakfast consists of bananas and hardened cornmeal. At 11, they eat produce, and at dinner it's iron-rich millet porridge. While chimps sometimes eat meat in the wild, the closest they get to that here is an egg.

By about 3 p.m., with the last of the fruit and vegetables tossed over the fence, the chimpanzees start ambling back into their island forest for a lazy afternoon.

A few linger in the clearing, including a young male named Okech. He starts playing with his food. Taking an unripe orange, he puts it on his shoulder and lets it roll down his back. As it falls off, he catches it with one hand and does it all over again and again, barely slowing his stride.

Okech should have plenty of time to perfect his trick. Chimpanzees can survive 50 to 60 years in captivity, and unless a safe home is found for them in the wild, this island of safety, tranquillity and flying fruit will be their home for decades to come.

Chimpanzee decline

Chimpanzees are now extinct in four countries where they lived 20 years ago: Burkina Faso, Gambia, Togo and Benin.

Scientists believe that chimp populations have declined by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years.

At the current rate of decline, one chimpanzee subspecies will be extinct in the wild in the next 25 years. [Sources: Pan African Sanctuary Alliance and the Great Apes Survival Project, part of the United Nations Environment Program]

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad