There is a zoo in Kinshasa that is privately-funded by a Chinese man who decided he wanted 4 endangered chimps and four critically endangered Gorillas displayed in his zoo. It seems the ICCN (Congolese government wildlife authorities), our founder and supposed partner in rescuing and protecting endangered primates, is now backing the transfer of these four gorillas (from GRACE in Goma) and four chimpanzees (from our sanctuary, CRPL) to appease this man. Ironically, CRPL’s reputation as an established refuge for orphaned chimpanzees now makes it an easy target if those protecting it decide to align with criminals or corrupt officials out to make a buck.
These chimps, most of which were abducted as infants, have already seen their entire families murdered (Maiko arrived with a bullet fragment lodged above her right eye-most likely the remnants of what killed her mother), been stuffed in bags or tiny crates, chained to poles, starved, abused, forced to live in tiny crates- all for the economic benefit of their worst enemy and biggest threat -humans. Even after being rescued, they were still kept in cages simply because CRPL did not have the resources to build bigger enclosures. It was only last year that CRPL finally completed 4 large, natural enclosures to house most of its resident chimpanzees and monkeys. After years of confinement, these four chimps- finally free to roam, to climb trees, to swim and play with their new family- will be anesthetized, stuffed in a crate and wake up in a strange place in yet another cage.
This is something to think about the next time you visit a zoo or a circus; most of those animals staring back at you have experienced similar fates. Although the founders will deny it, and maybe they truly don’t know or choose not to ask, animals rarely arrive at a zoo without experiencing extreme levels of abuse and trauma. And really, are they so much better off in their safe, confined cages, in a climate that is not natural and reduced to sheer boredom and complacency? For what reason, for our entertainment? Or perhaps the more altruistic justification, so these animals on the verge of extinction can breed and continue to ‘flourish’? Are we truly ‘saving’ these animals by perpetuating their existence in cages? In my opinion, the concept of breeding animals so that they can survive in cages is an oxymoron- akin to stating that a dying man is better off on a life support machine. Both scenarios require a decision to be made, usually for the benefit of the one who still has the power to decide, with little understanding of how severely they are impacting the quality of life for the one on the receiving end.
Of course, it is not so black and white. As a sanctuary for confiscated primates, we provide what we hope to be temporary protection from the elements that threaten the survival of the chimpanzees- rampant illegal bushmeat and wildlife pet trade; increased forest degradation and fragmentation; and high levels of infectious disease transmission from humans- all of which are fueled by the ongoing political and civil unrest. If we were to release them back into the wild right now, they would most likely be recaptured, especially now that they are more accustomed to human interaction. It is not ideal, and yes, they are confined, but in the closest thing possible to their natural environment and surrounded by their own kind.
I guess I find solace in the fact that there are places like this that are dedicated to the protection, survival and, hopefully, future release of the apes (and other endangered species) back into the wild. Yet if these Congolese officials (who represent key players in global declarations for the protection of endangered great apes) approve this transaction, they are undermining the credibility of our efforts to protect these animals. Qualifying for funding is challenging at best, but will our present and potential funders really want to give thousands of dollars to a sanctuary that is subject to trafficking by its own founders? There are too many political layers and players involved to contemplate at the moment. In the meantime, we have 4 chimps to save. Don’t worry, I will keep my wits about me, just don’t be alarmed if you see a picture of me chained to a chimp enclosure floating around the internet.