JGI's Debby Cox: Rare Vision and Determination

Women who have dedicated their lives to protecting chimpanzees are known to be forces of nature, and Debby Cox is no exception. Founder of the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, she has fought tirelessly for chimpanzees for more than 20 years. Her achievements were recognized this week when she was honored as a Member of the Order of Australia for her efforts to benefit and preserve chimpanzees.

"She brings a rare combination of vision, pragmatism and most of all determination to the difficult task of chimp care and conservation," said Keith Brown, JGI’s Executive Vice President of Africa Programs. "Few people are held in such high esteem by the conservation community."

A native of Yanco, Australia, Cox always dreamed of working in Africa. After training to be a veterinary nurse, she worked with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Sydney and then became a primate keeper at the Taronga Zoo.

"Not going to let them die"
Africa became a reality for her when she was hired by JGI to take over the care of orphaned chimpanzees confiscated by local wildlife authorities in Burundi. But soon after she arrived, the country erupted into civil war. Unswerving in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Cox began negotiating a deal with the Burundi government to allow the relocation of these twenty chimpanzees. The effort took about a year, because rebels repeatedly attacked the airport, and commercial airlines were unwilling to fly in and out of Bujumbura, the country’s capital.

Using her tenacious negotiating and veterinarian skills, Cox managed the complete and successful transfer of these chimpanzees to the Sweetwaters Sanctuary in Kenya, where they thrive today.

"Relocating the chimpanzees was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do," said Cox. "I knew those chimps depended on me and I was not going to let them die."


Ngamba Island Sanctuary
Cox assumed the role of Executive Director of JGI-Uganda in 1996. Soon local authorities and wildlife advocates alerted her to 19 chimpanzees housed in sub-standard conditions in a zoo in Entebbe. Could a chimpanzee sanctuary be built to ensure their well-being? With no money, no land, but a vision, Cox worked diligently with a wide array of Ugandan government officials and private donors to create and move the chimps into a state-of-the-art facility -- the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. It took her and other key associates only two years to raise the funds.

In the years that followed, Cox not only increased the numbers of chimpanzees rescued and transferred to Ngamba, she helped make it a top tourist destination in Uganda. She started a forest walk program in which visitors to the sanctuary could interact directly with infant chimpanzees on a short, guided trek through the forest. She also designed and implemented a livelihoods program with women in the surrounding communities. They make handicrafts that are marketed in the United States and Europe, as well as to sanctuary visitors.

In 2004, Cox handed over management of the Ngamba Sanctuary to the Ugandan staff that she had trained. It is widely considered to be the model institution of its kind. Today she serves as our Director of Chimpanzee Welfare.

Cox, who received her masters in science from Australia National University in 2004, also is a founding member of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance and was a driving force behind its creation. She continues to be a member of its Steering Committee.

She also was instrumental in developing environmental education curriculum materials for the Ugandan public schools, and establishing local chapters of Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots, the Institute’s global environmental and humanitarian youth program. By educating young children living near wild chimpanzees and increasing knowledge and understanding of these animals, Cox hopes to ensure the chimpanzees’ survival for generations to come.

"We can’t say enough good things about Debby," said JGI’s Nona Gandelman. "What needs to be done, she will get done. One step at a time, she built that sanctuary, she created the local programs. She built alliances with governments and made partners with people around her. She’s an effective force of nature. She does not flinch."

About the award: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain established The Order of Australia on February 14, 1975 as "an Australian society of honour for the purpose of according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or for meritorious service."

The nomination and selection process is conducted by the Honours Secretariat of the Governor-General’s staff and the selection is made by the independent Council of The Order of Australia.  Awardees are announced by the Australian Prime Minister and Governor-General each year on Australia Day.

Watch a 1996 ABC-Australia/Journeyman Pictures video of Debby Cox on YouTube.

 Photo above shows sanctuary chimpanzees. JGI does not endorse handling or approaching wild chimpanzees. Photo by Pennie Tweedie.

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