First Group of Chimpanzees Released on Tchindzoulou Island
It’s been 20 years since the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center (TCRC) opened in the Republic of Congo. Dr. Jane Goodall founded the sanctuary to provide care and hope to the chimpanzee victims of the illegal commercial bushmeat and pet trades. Today, many of the chimpanzee residents are adults who need to explore and expand their horizons beyond the boundaries of the existing facility. Recognizing this need, the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) put a great deal of effort into creating a more natural environment for the Tchimpounga chimpanzees.
On September 20, 2012, after years of hard work and preparation, two female chimpanzees, Kudia and Vitika, were transferred from TCRC to JGI’s newly expanded sanctuary site on Tchindzoulou Island in the nearby Kouilou River. This magical wild place, composed of hundreds of hectares of pristine and mysterious tropical forest surrounded by river water, will be their new home.
At 8:45 a.m. on the day of the transfer, there was a great deal of movement around Kudia and Vitika’s dormitory. The Tchimpounga caregivers and veterinarians moved about with concentration and focus. After a few minutes, a group of caregivers came out of the dormitory carrying two large wooden boxes painted dark green, both featuring sliding barred doors on the front. Inside the boxes were slightly groggy Kudia and Vitika who were recovering from the residual effects of anesthesia, completely unaware how different their lives would be by day’s end.
A JGI vehicle transported the chimpanzees by road to the Kouilou River where JGI’s boat was waiting at a small beach. The air was filled with expectation. Curious children and adults from the surrounding villages crowded next to the boat to try to catch a glimpse of the two chimpanzees. Vitika held the bars with her fingers, showing her gray knuckles. Her eyes shone from inside the box as she pressed her lips to the bars as if wanting to kiss the people who were there. Alluding to the popular television series created by the Jane Goodall Institute-Congo, a small child exclaimed, “Look, it’s a chimpanzee like in the series ‘Super Kodo’!”
After leaving the beach, the boat traveled up the vast Kouilou River, the country’s second biggest river after the enormous Congo. The waters were calm and dark. Dr. Rebeca Atencia, head of the Jane Goodall Institute-Congo, kept a careful eye on the two chimpanzees inside the boxes. Kudia lay in the straw, calm and contemplative. Vitika, however, was constantly looking through the bars and taking in everything as the boat moved closer to the riverbank and the island’s seemingly impenetrable vegetation.
A few local people warmly greeted the travelers, waving their hands as they crossed the river in rudimentary canoes full of sugar cane and bananas. After 20 minutes on the water, the boat arrived at Tchindzoulou. Without delay, the team began moving boxes onto the island. Vitika screamed and waved her arms from inside the cage as the JGI team carried the boxes from the riverbank and moved them deeper into the forest.
The team placed the boxes side by side with just a couple of meters between them and then put sugar cane, oranges and bread on the ground to encourage Kudia and Vitika to stay nearby once they were released.
Jean Maboto, who has been on the Tchimpounga staff longer than any other caregiver, and another great sanctuary veteran, Adolphe, stood beside each box. While Rebeca approached the boxes and opened locks, she gave Jean Maboto the honor of opening the sliding doors to release the first of the Tchimpounga chimpanzees onto Tchindzoulou Island.
Everyone waited with anticipation eager to witness the chimpanzees’ long-awaited return to the forest. Jean Maboto stood next to Kudia’s box and lifted the slide up with great force. Kudia rushed out straight into the forest. Without wasting any time, Adolphe opened the other slide and Vitika exited with much more composure and caution. Rebeca encouraged her to follow Kudia’s path and eventually Vitika disappeared into the lush vegetation.
Several days later, JGI’s boat voyaged up the Kouilou River once again, this time with chimpanzees Ouband and Silaho on board. Upon arrival, Rebeca opened the sliding doors and the two females exited the boxes without hesitating for a second. The two embraced one another with great excitement. They appeared to be happily celebrating the magical moment as they smelled freedom in the forest’s enormous trees, lianas and palms. They began to walk a narrow path through the forest. From time to time, they looked hesitantly toward the river, astounded by the huge volume of water.
Something began to move between the branches of a tall tree. Two large water monitors raced down the trunk and dove into the river. Ouband and Silaho did not know this kind of animal existed and ran away in fear. While they fled, they began to hear another, more familiar sound. Kudia and Vitika were close. Kudia, curious and courageous, attempted to approach the new arrivals, but at the last second, a sudden fear came over her and she jumped from a tree onto Rebeca’s back. Rebeca went into the forest to show Kudia that her other friends were there.
Then Kudia saw Ouband and Silaho, she climbed down without hesitation and ran toward them. The three greeted each other warmly, sniffing and gesturing with their bodies as chimpanzees usually do during these sorts of reunions. Vitika, who was farther away, soon arrived with her hair bristled. Silaho embraced her with great enthusiasm. After a quick but intense session of "grooming," Vitika began to walk through the undergrowth, inviting others to follow her to the base of a large African Mamaea tree where they spent some time enjoying the delicious and nutritious wild fruit.
In the days that followed, Tambikissa and Louise were also transferred to Tchindzoulou. Like Silaho and Ouband, they embraced each other very excitedly when let out of the boxes, shouting and jumping with pleasure. Tambikissa is large and robust and her imposing size demands respect. While she ate a piece of sugar cane inside the box, Tambikissa turned unexpectedly and raised her hand close to the face of Serge, a caregiver from Tchimpounga who has been with these chimpanzees since they reached the sanctuary at just a few months old. The tip of her finger touched Serge’s cheek very slightly in a gentle caress. It was a greeting and a moment of assurance between them.
Shortly thereafter, the caregivers led the two female chimpanzees along a path that took them to the other four. Tambikissa walked with some difficulty as she had collected great handfuls of sugar cane, as well as a big orange. Kudia was the first to welcome them and after the greetings, Kudia began to look at Tambikissa’s food and begged her to share without much success. Louise, the smallest and most fearful of the chimpanzees, grabbed the base of a tree trunk to support herself as the others sniffed her without pause. Louise was scared and it showed on her face. Vitika seemed annoyed that she didn’t have access to Tambikissa’s food and while Tambikissa looked away, Vitika rushed over and nipped at her. Tambikissa avoided Vitika, allowing calm to return to the group.
In the days that followed, the six females tended to stay together near the camp site. A team of caregivers followed the chimpanzees, making continuous records of their behavior. The caregivers also provided the females fruit and soy milk to supplement their changing diet. At night, the chimpanzees climbed to the top of large trees and made nests close to one another. They are still somewhat afraid of the Tchindzoulou forest as they are unaware that they are safe from hunters and other wild chimpanzees in their wonderful new home.
For many years, the idea of transferring Tchimpounga’s chimps to a more natural environment has lived in the hearts and imaginations of everyone at JGI. Now, it has finally become a reality.