The Long Road to Chimpanzee Rehabilitation

Friday, July 27, 2012 - 4:51pm

As our 4WD trudges along the last stretch of road into the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre, one hour north of Pointe Noire in the Republic of Congo (Congo), it is the sound of hooting chimpanzees that first announces our arrival. The centre is situated on a hilltop, overlooking a patchwork of forest and swampy plains, just a few kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean. As with most visitors to the sanctuary, it took me a couple of weeks to begin to understand the complexity and dedication required to care for and rehabilitate chimpanzees.

Tchimpounga was first opened in 1992 to care for a group of chimpanzees that were being poorly kept at the Brazzaville Zoo. Since then, there has been a steady flow of chimpanzees into the sanctuary with more than 150 individuals here today, making it the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa. The vast majority of them arrived as infants after being orphaned by the relentless illegal commercial hunting of chimpanzees for the bushmeat trade. These infants are confiscated by authorities when they are sold as pets at the markets or by the roadside. When they arrive at Tchimpounga, they are often traumatised and require urgent veterinary attention. From this rocky start, it is a long road to rehabilitate these individuals and to give them the potential to be released back into the wild.

Stage 1. Veterinary care

When infants arrive at the sanctuary, they are often suffering from chronic malnutrition, dehydration, and carrying a range of parasite or bacterial infections. This was the case for tiny ‘JeJe’ who arrived at Tchimpounga on June 3, 2012, weighing just 2kg. Here he received the veterinary and nursing care to restore him to good physical health.

Stage 2. Stabilization and psychological security

JeJe is now being stabilised and provided with the psychological security he needs to develop. This means 24-hour direct contact with a few specific carers with whom he is developing strong bonds. These carers provide him with a stable environment, clean and bath him, feed him milk, and encourage him to begin to eat fruits.

Stage 3. Learning to interact with other young chimpanzees

For young chimpanzees to grow mentally and physically, they need to learn how to interact and play with other young chimpanzees. For this reason, Tchimpounga has a nursery group during the day where infants, supported by their carer, can begin to explore their environment, climb trees, and make friends with others their age. This is the stage at which I found one-and-a half-year old ‘Anzac.’ Anzac arrived at Tchimpounga missing her left arm from just below the elbow. Despite this handicap, she has a kind and gentle personality, is full of curiosity, and loves to climb trees and play with her fellow infants.

Stage 4. The first step of independence

As the young chimpanzees get older, they begin to roam and explore away from their carers at the nursery, making them difficult to manage. At this stage, they begin the slow integration into the youngest independent group. Within this group, there are seven young individuals who sleep together in a dormitory at night and have a large open enclosure to play in during the day. There is also a permanent adult in this group, ‘La Vieille,’ who was previously very asocial and unable to be integrated with the other adults. This is a mutually beneficial relationship with the infants getting a mother and La Vieille getting companionship. ‘Djoni,’ a two-and-a-half-year-old male, has now outgrown the nursery and has begun his integration into this independent group. This transition is a gradual process as each individual must voluntarily begin to integrate him or herself into the group, generally requiring a build-up of contact time each day over several weeks. This avoids a sense of abandonment by their carer, reinforcing the ever-important sense of security and belonging that each chimp needs. Once Djoni has established friends within the group and no longer looks to the carer for security, the transition will be complete. There are three age groups of these independent juveniles, allowing peer group development—the safest approach given the numbers of chimpanzees arriving at Tchimpounga each year.

Stage 5. A real chimpanzee society

Once chimps reach six to nine years of age, they are ready to enter a real chimpanzee society with its complex dominance hierarchy and broad age groups. These chimpanzees have a large forested enclosure where they spend the days and a secure sleeping facility to return to at night. Here they learn the importance of social structure, establishing allies, and the intricate functioning of a chimpanzee society.

Stage 6. The forest school

The Jane Goodall Institute team at Tchimpounga is currently constructing holding facilities on two large islands on the northern border of the Tchimpounga Nature Reserve. These islands, approximately 100ha and 40ha respectively, will offer the chimpanzee groups the opportunity to have a semi-free-ranging lifestyle and to develop the skills required to survive in the wild. These skills include nest building, finding and catching insects, and moving through a complex rainforest. The goal of this stage is to provide the chimpanzees with a basic repertoire of skills required to function within the forest.

Stage 7. Transition to the wild

Methods to successfully release chimpanzees are still being developed and constitute the fodder for a book, not a brief paragraph in a blog. In essence, each animal has to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to find food and avoid predators, and the group as a whole must have sufficient social bonds to allow it to establish and defend a territory. These social bonds are particularly important among the males who face a great threat from neighbouring wild chimpanzees. These skills take months or years to learn and a significant investment of human resources and money.

Stage 8. Non-releasable animals

Unfortunately, there are always going to be individuals that are not suitable for release. These individuals may have physical limitations that prohibit their ability to survive in the forest; they may have irreversible psychological damage that precludes them from integration into a chimpanzee society; they may be carrying a permanent illness that could threaten wild populations; or they may be a distinct sub-species and so not be able to be released here in Congo. The Jane Goodall Institute is dedicated to providing all these individuals with a safe and enriching environment for the rest of their lives. This may be a 60-year commitment and cost $300,000 per individual.

Clearly, the task of keeping 150 chimpanzees healthy and happy is momentous, requiring the tireless work of the 45 employees here. During our infrequent visits to Pointe Noire, we are reminded of the other side of the Jane Goodall Institute’s work here in Congo. Tchimpounga’s education team launched a roadside billboard program to teach the public about the chimpanzees’ and gorillas’ protected status, as well as the potential repercussions if people hunt these animals. The success of this program is monitored through community surveys that have revealed a significant change in the knowledge and attitudes of the people in areas where these billboards have been erected.

As ever, work continues here with the goals of having a group of seven mandrills ready for release by the start of September and the first group of chimpanzees ready to move to the islands by the start of October.



JGI does not endorse handling or interfering with wild chimpanzees.  The chimpanzees interacting with a caregiver in this image are orphaned and live at the Tchimpounga sanctuary.




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