World Chimpanzee Day

61 years ago today, an inspirational, ambitious young woman entered Gombe National Park to begin pioneering observational research, providing us with an up-close insight into the lives of our closest living relatives. This woman, of course, Dr Jane Goodall, dedicated her life to chimpanzees and today on World Chimpanzee Day, I want to tell you more about some incredible humans working tirelessly to save and protect the species and tell you why we should all be working together to secure a future for chimpanzees. 

Why chimpanzees?

I suppose the main reason I am so passionate about a career in conservation comes from my childhood. I spent my life surrounded by animals, appreciating the beauty of our planet and everything it has to offer. It wasn’t until later in life that I started to pay more attention to the damage we are doing to our only home and the price we and every other being on earth are paying for the continuing behaviour of our own species.

But why chimpanzees? That’s a different, perhaps slightly odd story so let me tell you. I fell pregnant when I was in my early 20s, it wasn’t planned, I had never considered having children and yet here I was, laying in a hospital bed after 70 hours of labour, exhausted but with this tiny baby in my arms.

First time mum, exhausted and overwhelmed, with a little fluffy headed newborn.

I felt an overwhelming need to protect this tiny human that I had only just met. My son was in hospital for a little while after birth and that gave me a lot of time to think. I started thinking about my own newly developed maternal bond with this person and it got me thinking about the connection other mothers, non-human mothers, feel with their babies. I had read a lot about chimpanzees and bonobos already as they have always been a source of fascination and wonder for me, but suddenly I felt myself looking at this subject of parenting from a totally different perspective. I was suddenly seeing the world from a new angle and in that moment I knew I wanted to know more. So of course I got to reading up on the subject (you have a lot of opportunity to do night time research during those first few months of having a baby) and my reading took me around many academic papers about chimpanzee parenting until I eventually started stumbling upon literature on the horrifying illegal wildlife trade (which I will expand upon shortly), it was in that moment I knew I couldn’t stand back with this new knowledge and do nothing about it. But at the time, I didn’t know what I could do. 

Fast forward a few years to 2020, sitting on the sofa watching a new BBC documentary called ‘Baby Chimp Rescue’ where Professor Ben Garrod was at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia, working with the team to teach the young chimps how to ‘be chimps’.

 As I watched more of the documentary I found myself totally in awe of Jenny and Jimmy Desmond for the work they and the caregivers at the sanctuary were doing to secure a future for these chimpanzees and I knew I needed to be involved in whatever capacity I could. So I reached out to Ben and by some miracle am now about to start working with him and another wonderful researcher, Dr Alex Georgiev, on a masters by research focusing on great ape conservation and science engagement, everything I have dreamt of! Thanks to Ben, I have had the absolute pleasure of connecting with Jenny and Jimmy Desmond and they have kindly allowed me to write this blog post to tell you a little bit about Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection in the hope that I can reach someone who maybe doesn’t know about the dangers faced by our closest relatives and by reading this, may be inspired like I was, to act.

Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection

Image: LCRP logo

My aim in writing this with Jenny and Jimmy is to highlight the sadness surrounding these babies and how the work of sanctuaries such as LCRP is vital for the future of the species and what we can all do to support them. But I don’t want to bombard you with statistics and intangible information, I want you, the reader, to connect with the stories of the residents of LCRP in the same way I have, with that powerful force known as compassion which has the power to change the world. 

Image: Jenny and Jimmy Desmond with Dr Jane Goodall and Princess, LCRP, 2020.

You can find out more about the work LCRP are doing here, but LCRP is a sanctuary in Liberia which has taken in and cared for over 70 chimpanzees, many of whom are infants under 5 years old. LCRP work together with local people and the Liberian government to track down those working in the illegal ‘exotic’ pet and bushmeat trade, in fact LCRP has been instrumental in the formation of Liberia’s first Wildlife Confiscation Unit (WCU) which has now evolved into the much bigger Wildlife Crime Task Force (WCTF) and as a result, more and more individual chimpanzees are being saved from a miserable life as a ‘pet’. As I said earlier, instead of listing stats here, I am going to tell you about a particular chimpanzee whose story made me realise exactly what these tiny, vulnerable babies have been through in their short lives. A ‘case study’ if you like to call it that, I prefer to call it a story of resilience and hope.

Image: Gaia*, LCRP, 2019.

Meet Gaia. Featured in ‘Baby Chimp Rescue’, her story particularly resonated with me. Gaia was just a few weeks old when she fell into the loving arms of Jenny and Jimmy after being found by a tourist who realised the person selling her was committing an awful crime. We don’t know how Gaia came to be in the hands of the person trying to sell another being’s life, but we can unfortunately guess based on what we know about countless other chimpanzees who are suffering in the same way. The most likely scenario is that Gaia’s mother was murdered, while she still clung to her and, too young to realise what was happening, she would have been forcefully dragged from her mothers body, away from everything a young baby needs to survive. Watching the footage of this newborn baby reduced me to tears then (and did again when I rewatched it a minute ago) but not just because of the sadness and tragedy surrounding her. I connected with this story because, when watching the footage of Gaia, too young to lift her own head, no teeth yet, entirely dependent on her mother for food, warmth and protection, all I could see was images of my own baby. Facial expressions Gaia was pulling, small noises she was making, all I could do was imagine my own child in that situation and that broke my heart into a million pieces.

Infants, human and non-human need touch and there is plentiful evidence to show the negative impact caused by a lack of this essential physical contact. Ape infants (don’t forget humans are apes too) who do not receive this care are likely to show what is known as ‘stereotypies’, abnormal behaviours as a response to stress. These behaviours can include rocking and self soothing and are devastating to witness. I think it is very easy (and a lot of people do it, I will admit now that I used to) to forget that humans are animals and all animals have a connection with their offspring. In some species it’s a purely ‘chemical’ connection, such as in mice who’s maternal bonds vanish the moment their young wean, but in others, like apes, the bond goes much deeper. Apes are altricial which means they rely heavily on their mothers and other members of their social group for protection and survival. Like humans, chimpanzees stay with their mothers for many years, learning the vital skills needed to be a chimp! 

Without the care of her biological mother, LCRP had to step in to ensure Gaia had a fighting chance at a healthy future both physically and mentally and took on the role, carrying this tiny baby 24/7 and doing everything not only a chimpanzee mother would do, but what I did with my own babies. With the help of LCRP, Gaia is now a thriving young chimpanzee, meeting her milestones and spending her days climbing with her adopted brothers and sisters. 

Image: Gaia, a happy and healthy young chimpanzee*, LCRP, 2020.

There is so much I want to tell you about LCRP, their work inspires me every single day so it was difficult to decide exactly what to write about in this short blog post. I hope that reading just a little about this one particular chimpanzee, you can see there is so much more to this story than just an animal being taken in by a sanctuary. Young chimpanzees like Gaia who would be with their mothers 24/7 need round the clock care, they need the right balance of nutrients and vitamins, they need physical and emotional support and without people like Jenny and Jimmy, Gaia and many other babies would have been living a miserable life right now, maybe chained outside the home of someone who bought them as a ‘pet’ or ending up as another statistic in the fight against the illegal bushmeat trade. 

What can we do?

Although we can all agree it’s a miracle that Gaia is now living a happy life at LCRP, soon to be exploring the forests everyday in the newly constructed natural habitat, enabling her to live an ‘as close to natural’ life as possible – the fact that Gaia is there is a tragedy. Gaia’s presence at LCRP is a reminder that a mother was murdered and a baby taken away.

I have discussed the illegal wildlife trade in my previous blog post so please if you have time, read this to familiarise yourself with how you can help join the fight against the industry. But for this blog I just want to bring to your attention one thing that keeps cropping up time and time again. Right now mother’s are being murdered and their babies will not be fortunate enough to end up in Jenny’s loving arms. You may see that baby on Youtube, on a Tik Tok video, or across social media. Your friends might tag you in it to look at the ‘cute pet’. Well what if I told you that every tag, every comment, every ‘like’ on an image of a chimpanzee performing for the camera is an act in support of the illegal wildlife trade. Every positive reaction fuels the demand for chimpanzees (and other wild animals) to be torn from their natural habitats in the name of human entertainment and greed. The best things we as individuals can do are:

  1. Don’t engage with images and videos of chimpanzees in unnatural contexts. Be aware of the context of the content and if you feel something is not right, report it as animal abuse or harmful content and do not react to it. The less ‘likes’ these posts receive, the less demand there will be for ‘exotic’ animals.
  2. Engage with the right kind of content. Share the great work that conservation organisations and sanctuaries such as LCRP are doing. Use the disclaimers* provided to inform your audience of the dangers of sharing content which displays animal abuse. 
  3. Comment. Okay so I know I said don’t engage, and there are some negatives to commenting on this kind of content, of course any kind of engagement boosts the chances of the post being seen by a wider audience. BUT that doesn’t mean we can’t still have an impact. By commenting and calling out the content creators there is a chance that the wider audience will see your comment and be less likely to share and engage themselves thus reducing the demand. The Ape Alliance has a brilliant article on this which includes some polite but assertive examples of what you can say to deter audiences from engaging. 

My message to you

Image: Jenny and some of the young chimps on their way to explore the Hundred Acre Wood*, LCRP, 2020.

It’s World Chimpanzee Day, a day to celebrate our closest living relatives, but also a chance to raise awareness of the suffering that is happening now. I connected so strongly with the accounts of the chimpanzees at LCRP because behind their eyes I could see the sadness and tragedy and I felt, as a mother, the heartbreak and the reality of what is happening. Despite efforts of conservationists around the world, the suffering is still occurring and right now somewhere, a baby is being taken away from their mother and will not make it to a safe place like LCRP. But the point here is that ending up at LCRP to live out their lives shouldn’t be a consideration. These beautiful animals, like all wild animals, should be afforded the right to live freely in their own natural environments, to continue to thrive and survive as they have done for millions of years. As well as being an aspiring science engager and conservationist, I am an archaeologist. My undergraduate dissertation focused archaeology and primatology crossing over to teach us about where our species came from. Dr Jane Goodall paved the way for generations of researchers to learn from our wild cousins. We have learnt so much in 61 years, but there is so much still to discover and if we don’t act now then we will lose the opportunity to understand more about these complex and fascinating animals, losing the chance to uncover more about where we started with our last common ancestor. We humans do not have the authority to dictate which beings survive and who does not. We have to remember that we are part of nature. We, as a species, are forgetting that and unless we act now, nature will cease to exist. 

Further sources:

  • If you haven’t yet, then please watch the BBC documentary which tells you all about the story of LCRP so far.
  • World Chimpanzee day
  • Chimpanzee and me‘, Professor Ben Garrod’s brilliant book which tells of Ben’s journey with chimps, the dangers faced and how we can act. Also available in audiobook format for those of you like me who can’t sit still for long enough to read a book.

*LCRP Disclaimer: Chimpanzees are not and should not be pets or forced to live with humans.The chimpanzee orphans at LCRP’s sanctuary in West Africa are victims of the bushmeat and illegal pet trade. Their mothers were tragically killed by poachers and require around the clock care. Thanks to the dedicated caregivers and staff, the orphans are being rehabilitated so that they will be able to thrive with others in a natural and safe environment when they’re older. Please support LCRP’s mission to rescue chimpanzees in need and keep wild chimps wild

Creating the key to open the door…

It was the day of the university open day. I was late. Very late. After navigating the busy roads of a new city, I flung the car into a parking bay, flew out of the drivers side, grabbed the pram out of the boot and with a baby under one arm and an 18 month old toddling behind me, ran through the doors of a glorious fifteenth century building. Out of breath and with two children in tow, I was greeted by a warm and friendly staff member who came out to assist this overwhelmed and very late potential new student. In that moment, I knew that this was the right place for me.

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Kings Manor, York. The sight that greeted me on that life changing day.

And that, folks, is how my journey as a mature student began. A 26 year old mother of two and feeling a little lost, like I had forgotten myself. I don’t know what made me decide to go back to university, I wish I could say it was some dramatic epiphany but it was just a desire to rediscover myself and start forging some kind of path for myself – which I suppose is an important revelation. I had had a varied work history up until that point. I had worked for two hours in McDonald’s when I was 16, a shoe shop, an abseiling instructor, a supervisory role at a log cabin holiday site before falling into a job as a trainee dental nurse which I stayed in until I started maternity leave with my first child. I fell pregnant again when my eldest was just nine months old and a difficult pregnancy followed by a premature baby prevented me from returning to work straight away. A long period as a ‘stay-at-home parent’ gave me a lot of time to really think about my life and what it was I wanted to do with it.

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Celebrating the decision I made to rediscover myself in the best way, through the medium of an overpriced gin.

It was actually when I was giving birth to my second child, that I had an inkling about what I wanted to do. Giving birth in a very clinical setting, hooked up to drips and machines and having a baby whisked away into an incubator really removed any potential to birth in a natural way and it really made me realise how much I wanted to learn more about our evolutionary story. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to follow a scientific path. I am and always have been, passionate about animals and conscious about the human impact on the natural world. I always thought how incredible it would be to spend a lifetime making a difference. I did not think it would be possible for me to enter a scientific pathway as I had always pursued ‘the arts’ in school- my side passion is for music and theatre and I still dream of being on the stage (only now as a science communicator rather than a West End star. Okay maybe a singing science communicator). As a child I would spend a lot of time wandering up and down the common behind our house collecting Victorian medicine bottles that were uncovered every time there was a large rainfall, pieces of pottery and rocks (that I would of course stick googly eyes on, everyone had pet rocks – didn’t they?). I had a lifelong interest in archaeology, I knew it would be an interesting degree to study but I knew it wouldn’t be the career I wanted to do long term. What I didn’t know is the doors that an archaeology degree would open for me.

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Last year I got the brilliant opportunity to assist with some data collection with captive gorillas. I am eternally grateful for this first experience.

So fast forward to January 2019, I was one term into my archaeology degree and having a brilliant time. The university had a great community of mature students and support for student parents and through that community I met some fellow students who understood the challenges of studying with young children. I was learning a lot, having fun and absolutely feeling I had made the right decision. But I still wasn’t sure exactly where my career would take me. An email dropped into my inbox – “Laidlaw Scholarship applications now open” – I clicked on it and read it. An opportunity for first year students to undertake two summers of paid research in an area of choice and while you’re at it, study for a leadership and management qualification. “Okay”, I thought, “what have I got to lose?”. We were part way through a module on archaeological science so I grabbed the chance and at the end of a lecture, I spoke to the lecturer who was totally willing to take me on as a supervisee and even had a project in mind that would give me the opportunity to gain lab experience and my first introduction to the scientific field. I wrote the proposal, went for an interview and one day, whilst excavating a wet and muddy Roman town in North Yorkshire, I opened my emails and found I had won the scholarship. I won’t talk too much about the scholarship experience, I will write another blog post about that in the future, but I will say that the opportunity gave me such confidence in my abilities and the gumption to just go for it and pursue exactly what it is I want to do. So after a couple of nervous twitter messages and a phone call, I’m now here finishing my third year of my degree and waiting to start a master by research in biological sciences, focusing on the welfare and enrichment of captive chimpanzees. It still doesn’t seem real and I imagine I’ll feel like this for quite some time! But choosing a degree that has given me a huge amount of transferable skills and taking a chance on an opportunity has worked, I’m finally entering a world I never thought I’d be able to.

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Conducting vital analysis (trying to work out what the witch marks at Creswell Crags could mean).

I suppose the message I want to send through writing this is, don’t ever feel like you can’t pursue your dreams. Even if the road to your goal is long and winding, there is still a chance. My journey is far from complete. I hope to become fully engaged in conservation and animal welfare. My absolute dream is to become a broadcaster and author, communicating important messages about conservation to the public (see, once a performer, always a performer). A few years ago, I would never have believed any of this was possible and yet here I am. So this one goes out to all those people out there, thinking about maybe returning to university, always wanted to do a degree but thought it was too late, it’s not. Begin your journey now, who knows what doors will open for you if you can just create the key to unlock them .

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Who knows what’s next on my journey, but whatever it is, I know it’s going to be amazing.