Civil war, conflict diamonds then Ebola ravaged Sierra Leone for the best part of 30 years, but today, this West African nation is on the rise. And it’s the chimpanzee, and the sanctuary saving them, that could be the country’s new savior when it comes to tourism.
Baby Caesar is the most adorable baby I’ve ever laid eyes on. (Apart from all my friends’ and family’s babies, naturally). Wearing a nappy and swaddled by his human surrogate mother, Mama P, this seven-month-old orphaned chimpanzee has found a new home at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
Sierra Leone has had a turbulent past, from the Atlantic slave trade and colonization to independence in 1961, a brutal civil war that lasted over a decade from 1991-2002, the blood diamonds that sponsored it, and Ebola in 2013. The after-effects remain, of course, but the country is now looking ahead. And this chimpanzee sanctuary, south of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, is one example.
Tacugama was founded by Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila after they came across a weak baby chimp tied to a tree while traveling around the country in 1985. They bought him for $20, named him Bruno, and he was soon one of seven chimps they cared for. In need of space, the government of Sierra Leone allotted them 40 hectares of land inside the Western Area Peninsula National Park (WAPNP) in 1995.
In 2019, almost 25 years on, it was during primatologist Jane Goodall’s visit to Tacugama that the government announced the chimpanzee as Sierra Leone’s national animal and new face of tourism—moving away from diamonds. That was huge news, both for the sanctuary which now has 92 chimps, and for the country’s tourism. And now Sierra Leone’s only chimp sanctuary has a revolutionary new development manager, it feels like change is afoot.
“The chimp becoming the national animal is great for us,” says manager Aram Kazandjian. “We have a moral obligation to protect chimps—they share 98.6% of our DNA and display similar emotional traits.”
No other nation in the world has the chimp as the figurehead. For the likes of Aram, that’s significant because it puts conservation top of the agenda. There are around 5,500 wild Western Chimpanzees in Sierra Leone with their status set as ‘critically endangered’ due to deforestation, logging, encroachment and poaching for bushmeat or pet trade.
“When we rescue them, they’ve been deprived of their birth mum and it’s hard to replicate that,” Aram tells me. “It’s hard to fill in the gaps as they need constant nurturing up to the age of 4. We have a surrogate mum [Mama P] who spends time with babies—even then, it’s hard to replicate nature’s model.”
Aram is clearly fascinated by, in awe of, and respectful of the animal he’s dedicated to. And it’s hardly surprising—chimps are, as a species, so close to human. Their lives are based on interaction, he says. They have the capacity to recognize themselves in mirrors, and recognize people by face and voice the more time you spend with them. “The spatial recognition of chimp babies is considerably higher than human babies,” he adds.
As we walk around the sanctuary, we see this in action. Chimps grooming themselves and each other, playing together, recognizing the voices of staff as they approach. It’s most obvious with Caesar and Mama P, the way he touches her nose and gazes adoringly into her eyes. For anyone who doubts evolution, a quick walk here would make them rethink.
The figures are worth processing. Each time a baby chimp is rescued or brought to Tacugama, upwards of 10 wild chimpanzees would have been killed by hunters protecting themselves.
Tacugama receive chimps from Gola Rainforest National Park in the southeast, managed by the better-known conservation organization, RSPB. Known as Sierra Leone’s ‘green diamond’ it’s the country’s best protected park.
“Working together is key. We’re still rescuing chimps from Gola, but we need to amplify our efforts,” says Aram. “Last year, we rescued 10 baby orphaned chimps throughout the country.”
The figures are worth processing. Each time a baby chimp is rescued or brought to Tacugama, upwards of 10 wild chimpanzees would have been killed by hunters. While hunters are no longer trying to capture baby chimps to sell (“I can say, with certainty, that Tacugama has eradicated the pet trade market in Sierra Leone,” says Aram), baby chimps still become orphans as a result of bushmeat hunting.
Any pet trade that exists is a by-product of bushmeat hunting—there’s very little meat on a baby chimps so hunters try to sell them to fetch a higher value. Bushmeat hunting however remains an issue. “Some hunters are trying to feed their family,” explains Aram. “If they see a group of chimps, they’ll try to get the most meat possible so again, upwards of 10 may be killed. It’s a crisis.”
That means of the 10 baby chimps that arrived at Tacugama in 2019, at least 100 were killed. And with just 5,5000 remaining in the wild, the math is not hard to do.
Bushmeat hunting remains an issue. Poachers tend to go after the mother chimp as there’s more meat, leaving baby chimps orphaned. If prices of rice or similar produce go up, some may turn to other means of subsistence. “Many hunters think, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’” says Aram. “It’s a risk either way—’Either my family starve, or I kill a chimp for bushmeat.’ The penalty is less than $1 and there’s no imprisonment.”
“Can you imagine if we did nothing? That’s our fear. The conservation world is such that if something is going well and we take our foot off the accelerator, we’re playing with fire.”
Aram Kazandjian, Tacugama
The majority of the chimpanzees here are rescued, bar a couple—as with humans, accidents do happen, says Aram. “We don’t promote birth in captivity for the simple reason that our philosophy is to protect them out there in the wild,” he says. “If we start thinking, let’s increase numbers, then they’ll spend their entire lives in captivity. It’s not the message we want to send.”
No sanctuary is perfect, something Aram freely admits. “There’s never enough room for chimps. We’ve got enclosures that are 8–12 acres, but no matter how big, we can’t replicate the natural habitat. That’s part of the fall-back of conservation. People see the glory of conservation but the drawback is a harsh reality.”
That the Western Chimpanzee could be extinct in 10 years is a genuine fear. While Tacugama is receiving praise for its conservation work—reforesting corridors in the provinces, working with rural communities, creating education programmes, showing people how protecting the chimps can give them a livelihood—the reality is that 10 baby orphans a year still arrive there.
“And that’s with all our efforts. Can you imagine if we did nothing? That’s our fear” says Aram. “The conservation world is such that if something is going well and we take our foot off the accelerator, we’re playing with fire.”
It shows the fragility of the ecosystem; it needs constant pumping of resources, funds and time. “And we’re dealing with a flagship species,” adds Aram. “The chimps are flagship in the sense that if we don’t protect them, many other species in the forest could also go extinct.”
Saving chimpanzees is only part of the plan. As well as eco-lodges, yoga retreats and cinema nights at the sanctuary, Aram and his team are developing Sierra Leone’s first ecotourism circuit, to bring tourism to rural communities, and to empower women. They’re also earmarking other places that could benefit from protection. It also moves the tourism conversation away from Sierra Leone’s beaches which have long been its star, and often sole, player.
The sanctuary is also involved in protecting the surrounding Western Area national park. One of the country’s biggest water catchments—the Congo Dam—is down in the foothills of Tacugama and due to lack of lack of involvement from government ministries over the last 25 years, the responsibility to protect it fell on Tacugama. It supplies water to 20 per cent of Freetown which equates to 1.5 million residents.
For Tacugama, the chimps are integral to the bigger picture. “When we talk about landslides, natural disasters and hazards, the chimps are part of this—it’s a shared natural habitat,” explains Aram. With deforestation, logging and encroachment still happening around the peninsula here, both wildlife and human life are jeopardized.”
As Sierra Leone emerges from its past traumas, there are still battles to be fought. But some are already being won, slowly but surely, thanks to ambitious and bright minds. It may not be a first-to-mind tourist destination—and not everywhere needs to be—but the road is being built. And this time, it’s not paved with diamonds.
“We’re starting from scratch,” adds Aram. “Whatever progress was made in the past, it was ended either by civil war or Ebola. If potential isn’t tapped in to, even potential has an expiry date. For how many years are we going to talk about Sierra Leone’s potential?”
The writer’s research trip to Sierra Leone was set up by the national tourist board. As well as Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the trip included visits to Gola Rainforest National Park, Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, and the former slave-trading post of Bunce Island.