The Plight of Chimpanzees (and Others)

Sara. | Photo: Courtesy Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust
Sara. | Photo: Courtesy Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust

As a journalist I am sometimes invited to events by people who mistake my importance and influence or perhaps simply want to fill a chair. I accede to these invitations because I know that, in attending these events, not only might I learn something, but I will also have access to yummy treats.

And so on a recent Friday evening, I found myself seated in the cozy living room of my friends Nancy Merrick and Gary Lairmore. Wife and husband, Nancy and Gary are bright, funny, and involved in the world, the sort of overachievers that would make you feel inadequate if they weren't so nice.

Not surprisingly, their guest Lilly Ajarova was cut from the same cloth. Lilly is executive director of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary & Wildlife Conservation Trust. It is a broad name because, as Lilly pointed out, "We want to use chimpanzees as a flagship species for the conservation of wildlife everywhere." Based in Entebbe, Uganda, as its name implies the Chimpanzee Sanctuary & Wildlife Conservation Trust operates a sanctuary. More precisely, 100-acre Ngamba Island, which sits upon Lake Victoria. Ninety-eight of Ngamba's acres are given to some 50 orphaned rescued chimpanzees, two acres to a human camp. The humans care for and study the chimps.

The chimps are merry pranksters. One of the first things Lilly told us was the chimps often switch off the electricity funneled into the fencing that separates the sanctuary from the human camp.

"They don't do it because they want to be out of the forest and in the campground," she said. "They do it for fun. They want to see what we do."

Who is studying who? Standing before us, Lilly's t-shirt read "98.7 % chimp." Our genetic makeup and that of the chimpanzee is just short of a 100 percent match. Those who think we are separate from the animals, take note.


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My friends Nancy and Gary invited Lilly into their living room because they have been to Ngamba Island (visitors are welcome) and the experience, along with others (Nancy has also spent time with legendary chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall), changed their lives. For one thing, it helped inspire Nancy to write a book about her experiences. Titled "Among Chimpanzees: Field Notes from the Race to Save Our Endangered Relatives" it will be published in June 2014, complete with a forward from none other than Jane Goodall. On a more immediate note, it also inspired Nancy to make delicious cookies with chimpanzee faces. I told you these people were overachievers.

Lilly Ajarova began her living room presentation to our small group by showing us a close-up photo of a wide-eyed Ngamba Island chimp named Sara (it's the above photo). Sara's expression was so familiar, but I couldn't quite place it.

Lilly watched our faces.

"What do you read from this face?" she asked.

The answer was escaping me, but not my fellow audience members. In answer to Lilly's question they said things like "curious" and "loveable" and "trusting."

Truth is, chimpanzees often have little reason to trust man.

Although our gathering was convivial and the treats yummy we learned some terrible and sad things. Chimpanzee meat is a delicacy in some African countries. The chimps are caught with wire snares and metal traps. It is very common for a rescued chimp to have a hand or a foot missing.

As you might imagine the pet trade is a problem, too, but there is more sadness here than you might expect. For every baby chimp taken from the wild, seven to ten chimpanzees are killed. This is because the mother -- and for that matter the rest of the social group -- doesn't give up her children easily. Chimps are five times stronger than a strong man.

"If a man tries to take a chimp he will be torn to pieces," Lilly said. "So the collectors use firearms and they will kill all the adults and the mother."


Lilly Ajarova. | Photo: Courtesy Gary Lairmore

Lilly recited these things in matter of fact fashion. She has given this presentation many, many times. She is often on the road. She arrived in Nancy and Gary's living room from a conference in Iowa. Iowa is a long way from Entebbe. She will continue traveling and speaking, even though she is a mother of three children herself.


"Every day I am traveling, I am wondering how they are," she told me later in the evening, her bright smile dropping away for a moment. "But there is important work to do."

During her presentation, Lilly told us many stories. Intelligent, funny, and charming, she was a natural story teller, as fine a champion as chimpanzees could ask for. She introduced her stories simply.

"I want to tell you a small story about this..."

Lilly's stories were moving, telling, uplifting, and shocking. In Africa, the situation is all of this -- but mostly it is dire.

"One hundred years ago there were over 1 million chimpanzees in Africa," said Lilly. "We are down to 150,000."

Uganda reflects this. There are roughly 5,000 chimps left in Uganda, and things don't look promising given a human population explosion (Uganda's population is expected to double between 2010 and 2050) that is putting the chimps' tropical rainforest home under heavy pressure.

"In eight to ten years we will have no tropical rainforest left in the country," said Lilly.

Lilly is Ugandan. She fully understands the concerns and questions of her countrymen, so many of whom live off the land.

"If we do not cut down the forest, then how do we eat? It's a practical question," she said. "We have to strike a balance. How do we preserve the forest while letting the humans progress?"

The issues are complex. Many conservation options are being discussed. Some are being implemented. The subject of chimpanzee (and human) preservation is a book in itself and I will leave that to knowledgeable writers like my friend Nancy (although you can also learn more here and here). But before you throw your hands in the air and turn to "The Bachelor," I will tell you that some options for balancing the needs of chimps with those of humans are quite simple. One is to pay the farmers for not clearing their land. What is the current cost of protecting an acre of forest for a year? Twenty-eight dollars.

It is, as you can see, about more than chimpanzees. How can nature be saved at a time when people need it most? It is a very difficult question, not just in Uganda but around the world. Mankind is seven billion and counting -- and it took only twelve years to add the last billion -- on a planet that is not expanding along with us. More humankind means more need; for food, water, energy, and other natural resources.

After Lilly finished speaking, everyone gathered for dessert and informal talk. A teacher in our group told Lilly that she planned on teaching her fourth and fifth graders about the chimpanzees and their plight. This made Lilly smile a smile that was not her presenter's smile.

"We really want to reach out to youth," she said. "They are the ones who can make a change."

Standing quietly beside the two women, each teachers in their fashion, it occurred to me that both children and chimpanzees are open-minded and quick. Ninety eight point seven percent.

Only then did I realize what I had seen in Sara's face.