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A Visit to Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Editor's Note: We were all shocked to read the recent news that the western black rhinoceros, teetering on the edge for decades, had been officially declared extinct. At Beacon Press, we understand the urgency for ecology and conservation as part of our broader humanitarian mission. What can be learned from the tragedy of extinction? That now, more than ever, we must redouble our efforts to save those species that remain close to the brink: the Bengal tiger, the giant panda, the Sumatran elephant, or—as conservationist Nancy Merrick details below—our closest relative, the chimpanzee.

By Nancy Merrick.

Two-year-old Sara has moxie. Dangling upside down, one hundred feet above the forest floor, she is absolutely fearless even though today is one of her first forays into this African forest.

Not every orphaned chimp discovers their tree-climbing talent so readily, we’re told. It all depends on how they were treated, how little they were when they lost their mothers, and their innate nature. But Sara’s genes seem programmed for audacity. We gaze upwards to feast on Sara’s first time launching from limb to limb as though she were spring-loaded, first time grabbing whole handfuls of fruit while dangling one-handed from a tree branch, and first time nonchalantly scaling upwards into the canopy to dazzle the other chimps.

Sara is Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary’s youngest orphan, and its current reigning princess.  Everyone—both staff and chimps—are completely enamored. It would be hard to resist all that resilience bundled up into one furry package. She is one of forty-seven chimpanzees who will spend their lives on this one hundred acre island in Lake Victoria. The chimps have free reign of the forest, returning at feeding times to interface with their human caregivers for the regular supply of favorite foods they offer. But Sara is not a part of this larger group yet. First, she must learn her way around the forest and show that she is ready.

All of these chimps arrived here over the years after being rescued from black market dealers who planned to sell them into the pet trade. All have survived the killings of their mothers, and then been subjected to cruel conditions while their captors looked for buyers. But these forty seven, and hundreds of other sanctuary chimps, are the lucky ones that were spared. They will forge new bonds, and in almost every case, manage a respectable recovery.

We know them all. Sunday, the tall, lanky chimp who loves carrots and once shang-hai’d a fisherman’s boat. Pasa, the tool expert, so adept at pilfering food from under the electric fence. Bili, the resident expert at untangling caregiver’s shoelaces. Asega, an uncommonly talented escape artist. Tumbo, a former circus chimp who uses his intelligence as a peacemaker rather than to dominate the social hierarchy.  

Pasa and Tumbo
Pasa and Tumbo

This is the start of yet another journey to gauge the status of East Africa’s chimpanzees. Earlier trips have taken my family and I back to Gombe Stream Research Center, where I worked as a college student, for an eventful reunion with Dr. Jane Goodall. We have seen the forests that some of Ngamba’s orphans were taken from, and learned why chimps are now endangered. And we have come to understand that efforts to save chimpanzees must also address the immense needs of local people.

Now, on our current three-week visit, we are back to reconnect with our friends—the people and chimps of Ngamba island, and to revisit wild-living chimpanzees lucky enough to live in protected national parks. We will spend time following some of them at Kibale National Park, in a manner reminiscent of the early days of Gombe Stream Research Center. But we will also meet other chimps that are living out a new reality, as they compete with struggling farmers for critical forest land that is not protected.

This is a time when chimps are extinct from four African countries and nearly so from ten others. But it is also a time of inspirational and often eclectic conservationists and of mind-bending new technologies that might just offer solutions. We are here remembering what it was like to walk among the greats in the early days of African discovery, and looking for what the future holds for man’s closest relative, the chimpanzees.



Nancy Merrick is the author of Among Chimpanzees: Field Notes from the Race to Save Our Endangered Relatives, forthcoming in Spring 2014, and the creator of, a website enabling users to advocate on behalf of chimps. Rapidly becoming a recognized leader in the battle to save Great Apes, she is also an accomplished physician internist and a reviewer for the Annals of Internal Medicine. She lives in Ventura, California.