Frolicking with chimps!
Although I had already done chimp tracking in Uganda, I had heard that there was a chimp sanctuary in Zambia near the Congo border where you could actually PLAY with chimps! However, having arrived in Lusaka, I didn't want to make the long trip up north without first getting in touch with the place because it's not accessible by public transport so I needed to somehow arrange to get picked up in the nearest town - Chingola. After a lot of research, I finally got in touch with Sylvia, the daughter of the couple that started Chimfunshi in 1983. The name actually has nothing to do with the word "chimpanzee" but means "the place of water" since the Kafue river runs through the property. As luck would have it, there were two other American women going up there by bus on the same day so I looked them up at a hostel just around the corner from me and arranged to take the bus together the next morning. The "five" hour journey ended up taking almost 10 hours which I should be used to by now but I have to say the landscape wasn't all that exciting so looking out the window lost its allure quite quickly. The trip did give me a chance to accumulate some food for my time at the sanctuary though (I was going to be cooking for myself while there) since there were all sorts of things being sold through the bus windows at each stop. At one point I took two guavas from a young girl and before getting a chance to pay her, the bus took off. Luckily, we stopped soon after and she caught up running to get her 1000 kwacha from me (a grand total of 20¢)!
There were quite a few other enteretaining characters on the way as well. One teen that looked like he thought he was part of some gang from LA was decked out in gold chains, huge sunglasses (it was cloudy), pants that hung below his butt and then, just to complete the outfit, he had on a sweatshirt with Eyeore (the donkey from Winnie the Pooh) on it and the words "Don't bother me!" written in baby blue and pink. Another thing that has continued to shock me as I travel through Africa is how they bundle their babies up even though its so warm everywhere I've been. I'll be sweating in my t-shirt and there will an infant with a wool hat, wrapped in a thick blanket next to me on the bus. I don't know how they don't overheat! During the last 30 minutes of the journey we were "entertained" by a preacher of some sort who got on the bus. I could hear him screaming through my ipod's music and could certainly feel the spit coming out of his mouth. He was so animated he appeared to be possessed and by then end of his shpeel he was sweating so profusely that his nice white button down shirt was transparent and sticking to him.
Anyway, we finally got to Chingola and Sylvia was there at the bus station to meet us. Her parents, Sheila and Dave, were cattle farmers when someone happened to bring them a sick, orphaned chimp in 1983. They nursed the little 1year old guy (still living at the sanctuary and now named Pal) to health and soon confiscated chimps from all over were being dropped off at the farm. Today, they have 120 chimps and cannot accept any more! Some have come from as far away as Chile and have gone through a lot in their lives. Some were pets, some were in circuses, others were taught to smoke and drink, one was even missing an eye because her owner tried to blind her. Unfortunately, they can't be released into the wild again since they've been in captivity their whole lives but the staff also claims that even if they tried to release them, there are too many poachers in the area so they wouldn't stand a chance at survival.
There are several other animals also at the sanctuary, the most beloved of which was a hippo that Sheila raised by hand in their house! The 5 day old baby hippo had been found by rangers under her dead mother who had been killed by poachers and the rangers decided to bring her to Sheila. There are photos of the "little" hippo sitting on a leather couch... apparently she loved to watch TV! She also drank two bottles of milk from Sheila's hand every day - even when she was full grown. Hippos are known to be the most dangerous animals on the planet because they are so territorial and aggressive but Billy (as SHE was called) was always kind to all visitors, including the many school kids that visited the sanctuary. I had really been looking forward to meeting Billy but was devasted to learn that on the very day that I arrived, she had been found dead in the river. She was only 20 years old (hippos apparently live to 45 years or so) and the staff here seems to think she was poisoned (perhaps by poachers or by some neighbors that were fed up with Billy eating from their garden). Needless to say, the 80 year old Sheila was beside herself with grief... the hippo had been a part of her family for 20 years. :-(
The feeling on the farm was definitely somber but I was still there to see the chimps so in the morning two French women and I got suited up for our "bushwalk". We were given fashionable blue coveralls and were instructed to take off all jewelry or anything we had that could be stolen. Only the guide could bring in a camera because if one of us held a camera, it would have been snatched away within seconds. Because my camera is so big I had to leave it outside the enclosure but my French friends have promised to send me the photos the guide took with their camera on the walk. We were given cookies, banana pieces, prunes, cheetohs and little candies (still in their wrappers) to fill our pockets with and off we went. There are six chimps that they have "walk" with visitors, presumably the most friendly and habituated to humans.
One particularly cheeky young one named Dominic loved to jump into our arms and generally fool around with everyone. At one point he almost pulled our guide off of a branch that he was sitting on by tearing past him and pulling his feet down! He was certainly just playing around but they are so strong that you could tell that they could easily do significant damage. They would play fight with each other and with our guide but it was obvious that their sharp canines were not being used to their full capacity. Among the six we were hanging out with was a mother with a four month old baby named Kitty. The mother was protective of her but still allowed us to pet the little one and feed her bananas and sweets (although we had to peel the wrappers off of the candies for the baby while the older ones were adept at taking the wrappers off with their lips). All of them knew exactly where the treats were and our pockets were quickly emptied by their long prying fingers.
At one point we were all sitting on the low branches of a tree and one of the chimps decided she wanted to get past me so she simply walked right over me from behind. I had no idea she was there until she was on top of my head! Unfortunately it happened too fast to get any photos. Dominic also loved to swing from tree to tree without thinking too much about where he would land (or at least it looked that way but he never fell too far before catching another branch). He would also slide down tree trunks like they were firemens' poles. The young ones seemed to like to do somersaults - sometimes by themselves and sometimes in a ball with one or more of their friends. And if there was a pile of hay around, rolling into that and throwing it all over the place seemed to be necessary. :-)
I was told that I should wear closed-toe shoes because they would like to pull on the velcro straps on my sandals but since I had left my hiking shoes back in Lusaka, I didn't have a choice. They behaved and didn't pull on the straps but they were fascinated by my toenail polish. A couple of them kept licking my toes, presumably because they thought the red color was some kind of sweet. They also seemed to really like the lemons that grew in a tree nearby their enclosure so we gave them a few and I was astonished how neatly they could peel them with their teeth. Same with the peanuts we gave them. They could crack them and pull out the nuts without using their fingers at all. Their hands were truly amazing... all black, even their fingernails were black but so humanlike. At one point, one of the older males sat off by himself by the trunk of a tree and started to bang and dig at the ground with a thick stick. He would occasionally bend down and lick the soil he had stirred up. At first I thought he was digging for termites since there were a lot of termite mounds around but when he moved away I went to investigate and I didn't find anything but dirt. I later learned that they are thought to eat dirt when it is rich in minerals that they need so that's probably what he was doing.
After spending about two hours with them, it was time to let them rest. We got changed out of our coveralls and went to visit the larger enclosures (500 acres each) where the more wild chimps hang out. These chimps are only approached by the staff here and can be dangerous which seemed quite apparent when the big males started hooting and screaming and chasing each other around. There is an electric fence around the enclosures but I was told that the chimps are smart enough to know that the power goes out once in a while so they will test the fence by putting some saliva on their fingertip and seeing if a spark appears when they put it close to the fence! Apparently there have been a few breakouts when chimps have discovered that they can lean big branches on the fence and then climb up and over. One exceptionally clever chimp is unfortunately now confined to a large caged room because she broke out one too many times. There was also another family that was quite adept at escaping so they are also in a large cage. The bars of the cage are not quite close enough together to keep the young daughter in so we saw her sitting on top of the enclosure. I was told that she is too young to venture far from her mother who is inside the cage so they let her squeeze in and out of the cage as she pleases. I also saw a baby apparently trying to reach a guava that was on the other side of the electric fence. The little guy was using a stick that was way too short to even come close to the fruit and leaned a bit too far and ZAP! he was shocked. He looked stunned but unhurt and I felt so bad for him that I rolled the guava to him. He wasn't quick fast enough though and a slightly older chimp snatched it away before he knew what happened. :-(
There was also a one day old baby in one of the enclosures that was so tiny it was hard to see it among the fur and arms of its mother. Apparently they try to inject the female chimps with birth control medication that is meant to last for three years but they have so many chimps and so much space that it's difficult to dart them too regularly. It was pretty hilarious to see some of the males sniffing the butts of the females (even ones with young infants that definitely would not be in estrus any time soon) just checking if maybe, maybe they'd be in luck.
Part of the job of the staff here is to monitor the health of the chimps so attendance is taken at every feeding. If anyone is missing for more than two days, some of the staff go out searching for them (while the other chimps are locked up of course). I spent a good amount of time chatting with one of the men working here. He said that Zambians really have no real respect for wildlife and he hadn't known anything about chimps before coming to work there. Now he is fascinated by them and knows every single chimp by name. There are no wild chimps in Zambia but because the habitat is quite similar to areas in Tanzania, Congo and Uganda where chimps are found, it's believed that they used to thrive here until they were poached or forced to flee elsewhere.
So although my visit to Chimfunshi started out on a really sad note with Billy's death, in the end it has been one of the highlights of my trip so far. I've always known that chimps are extremely intelligent creatures but having gotten so close to them, I have even more respect for them now.