Itsaso Vélez drains her coffee uneasily. He walks from one corner of the terrace to another, in silence. She is the technical director of the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center (CRPL). She is concerned that the chimpanzee rescued by the Congolese authorities last night is taking longer than estimated to reach her facility in an eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is such a peaceful place that the primatologist does not need to strain to listen to the jeep transporting the seized animal. As soon as the noise of the engine overlaps the claims of the Suimangas, little birds similar to American hummingbirds, Vélez rushes out onto the road. With no time to lose, with military efficiency, some rangers hand him a two- to three-year-old female: a ball of dark fur, covered with thick blankets. She is malnourished, but has no dangerous injuries. The CRPL team thinks he will recover quickly with the right treatments.
As he examines the health of the newly seized man, his biography shakes Lina Nturubika, the CRPL veterinarian. Hunters killed their parents to smuggle ape meat into local markets. She then spent many weeks in a tiny cage, where merchants moved her from one city to another in the hope of finding a generous offer in exchange for her. The CRPL is home to 93 chimpanzees seized by the Congolese authorities, in addition to 104 primates of other species. They all have similar stories. But even the most veteran workers of the center continue to listen to them with the same dread as in their early days. “I will never get used to hearing them,” confesses Nturubika. “They depress me because baby chimps remind me of myself. Like them, I also lost my father when I was little because of the war. I understand their suffering ”.
Chimpanzee habitats, our closest relatives, with whom we share 98.7% of our genetic code, are disappearing at an alarming rate. From 1990 to 2016, we humans cut down 1.3 million square kilometers of forests, an area more than double that of Spain. The hiding places of the last specimens have been transformed into forests separated by tens or hundreds of kilometers from orchards, cities or towns. They are an endangered species because, although there are still 173,000 to 300,000 in Africa, the populations recorded in 1975 will be reduced to more than half by 2050 if current trends do not change, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In the Congo, where eight out of 10 citizens live on less than $ 1.25 a day, some people in rural areas identify illegal hunting of primates as a way to get the protein they need or additional income to support their families. The decrease in forests facilitates such hunts. Humans are getting closer to chimpanzees: the interaction between the two species has increased. Also, after consuming the meat of adult animals, some traders auction the young. Their destinations they are numerous: many end up in zoos or private collections in China, but also in Europe, the United States or the Middle East.
The CRPL opened its doors in 2003 in response to the increase in this traffic. It did so shortly after the six African states involved in the last Congolese war signed a peace agreement. It was a program of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) who sponsored the NGO Cooperates. During the war, that killed two to six million people from 1998 to 2003, the multiplication of weapons and poverty in a gigantic territory, where the State did not have the capacity to defend protected natural areas or guarantee the most basic social services to the people, created an ideal scenario for the proliferation of poaching.
Rather than ending, the Congolese war has turned into an unhealed scar: more than 130 rebel groups continue to fight in the extreme east of the Congo. So this afternoon, as the CRPL team gives a bottle full of milk to the newly arrived chimpanzee, Vélez acknowledges that stopping animal trafficking or deforestation are still enormous tasks. But, according to her, all the efforts of this sanctuary are worth it because, in addition to offering a decent future to the seized primates, they are small steps towards that goal.
Every chimpanzee is unique
At dawn, a violet glow seeps through the windows of Vélez’s bedroom: it’s time to wake up. The CRPL technical director has no routines. Every day is different. She is responsible for both taking care of newly arrived primates and raising funds for the sanctuary, among other tasks. The only common denominator in his days is the walks he takes every morning, shortly after dawn, to check the health of all primates and inspect the interactions between them.
Before opening the doors of the center he listens to dozens of chimpanzees shouting energetically almost in unison: it is one of the methods they use to communicate. The apes approach the primatologist. She greets them through a fence. Recite their names. Recognize each individual. They are spread over different rooms to prevent fights. They are intelligent animals that establish social structures so complex that humans do not yet know all their secrets. The introduction of newcomers into these groups is a long, complicated process, which Velez closely supervises. In addition, after surviving all kinds of painful experiences, many suffer traumas that hinder their relationship with other individuals.
Vélez has an amazing empathy with primates. For her, all living beings deserve the same respect. Think that each animal is unique, an undeniable fact in the case of chimpanzees. These apes compile in their brain knowledge that they accumulate throughout their lives and can pass on to their descendants. The tricks they use to survive in the jungles of Africa are the result of a learning process that began millions of years ago. Almost all animals inherit an instinct at birth that allows them to feed, reproduce, or avoid predators. But, like people, the time chimpanzees spend with their parents – six to seven years allows them to slowly develop more neural connections to incorporate additional more complicated knowledge.
At birth, the parts of the chimpanzee brain responsible for decision-making, self-awareness, or creativity are still immature. This delay in the development of their brains with respect to that of other animals is the price for their plasticity to integrate, thanks to contact with other individuals, capabilities that until less than six decades ago we thought that only humans hadsuch as language, complex social interactions, or the use of tools to get food. When poachers slaughter an entire group to feed on their meat or trade in the smallest specimens, they are also eliminating forever a chain of knowledge as old as the first primates and unique abilities.
According to some primatologists, chimpanzees have cultures: each population has own behaviors or methods to, for example, obtain food. While in the kibale national park (southwestern Uganda) these animals use sticks to extract honey from the hives inside the hollows of the trees, in the Budongo forest (Western Uganda) use chewed leaves that function as sponges, suitable for absorbing honey from hives in tiny holes. Apes learn these skills the same way humans do: imitating their peers or family.
“Few orphans are capable of surviving,” says Vélez. “These primates are in contact with their mothers all the time until they are three years old. They are never separated by more than five meters. And even after their emancipation, it is usual that they maintain close ties with their mothers or siblings, especially in the case of males ”. In the CRPL, these maternal figures are replaced by a team of workers who accompany the babies and adolescents 24 hours a day.
Love to rehabilitate orphans
For Lorena Aguirre, psychologist and director of the CRPL, concentrating all the efforts of the center on primates would be a mistake. “We have designed an integrated human development program in the conservation of the great apes,” says Aguirre. “We all live in the same ecosystem. People are an active part of both the problems and the solutions ”. Aguirre combines his work at the CRPL with environmental awareness programs or psychosocial reinforcement projects for former child soldiers, forest rangers, health workers and rape survivors. His latest project is a women’s cooperative which now produces 160,000 kilograms of coffee per harvest.
To psychologically rehabilitate chimpanzees and other primates, Aguirre uses therapies similar to those he uses with humans. “All mammals need love, and even more so when we are small,” says Aguirre. “Without exception, all primates enter the CRPL with physical and psychological problems. On one occasion, a baby diadem gleam arrived at the sanctuary in apparently perfect health. He had no injuries or diarrhea. His fur was radiant. He did not even have symptoms of malnutrition or dehydration. But it was always in a ball, folded in on itself. I thought he had some problem with his legs. I was wrong. In fact, the little boy was so scared that he was petrified. He had given up. I could not do otherwise. In fact, he died shortly after. This story can help us understand the degree of psychological trauma that the animals in our center present, the extreme fear they suffer when they are separated from their mothers or from their groups ”.
For CRPL guests, their intelligence is an obstacle: they can remember the traumatic moment when they lost their mothers. The first step to psychologically rehabilitating them is to show them that they are in a safe place: as soon as they enter the sanctuary, before joining a group of their kind, they spend a whole month with a caregiver who does not separate from them. “During that time we monitor the health of the animal, its diet …”, says Aguirre. “But above all we make sure that he receives a lot of love.” In a region where assault rifle shots have been echoing for decades, the team at this center uses the love they feel for all living beings to heal their wounds.
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