Poco, a 38-year-old chimpanzee at a conservancy in Laikipia County, is bubbly. He can stand, walk and even strut with a bipedal swagger just like a human being.
And just like 35 other apes being hosted at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Poco is a refugee. He is a victim of illegal wildlife trade. Poco is learning to live a life in the wild once again.
Even though things are looking up for Poco, his past is sad. He was confined in a small cage in Bujumbura, Burundi, for nine years. His captors used him to attract visitors.
“Poco’s story is the most tragic. He has remained an ambassador to raise awareness on the plight of chimps across the world. Poco spent the first nine years of his life in a cage suspended above a workshop in Burundi. Confined and used to attract customers, Poco was only allowed little space. He was only able to sit or stand on two legs — quite unnatural for a chimpanzee. Poco still does the same today,” said the sanctuary’s supervisor Joseph Maiyo.
Poco arrived at the sanctuary in 1995 and according to caregivers, has made progress slowly learning how to live in the wild again.
The sanctuary, one of its kind in Kenya, was started in 1995 by British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall. She first established a sanctuary in Burundi but later moved to Kenya following the civil war in the landlocked country in the African Great Lakes region.
Sweetwaters is part of the global awareness on the plight of chimpanzees.
Just like Poco, seven-year-old Manno, the latest and youngest entrant, was rescued from Iraq and brought to the sanctuary in November 2016. Manno was rescued after a two-year campaign for him to be released from a zoo where he was kept as a pet.
What angered those who campaigned for his release most was that Manno was being fed an alien diet that gave him constant diarrhoea.
“Manno finally gained his freedom after intervention of the Kurdistan Prime Minister who decreed he be transferred to Sweetwaters. After finishing his mandatory quarantine, Manno has begun the process of integrating with the other chimpanzees and is doing well,” said Mr Maiyo.
Kurdistan is a proto-state in the north of Iraq and constitutes the country’s only autonomous region.
Bush meat trade, increased commercial logging that has led to habitat loss as well as illegal wildlife trade in Central and West African countries has spiralled cases of smuggling of chimpanzees to be used as pets.
In most of the cases, mothers are poached for bush meat and when the vulnerable babies are orphaned, they are sold to other countries as pets.
Illegal wildlife trade is steadily rising and is partly caused by demand from China, which needs the animals for their entertainment spots in shopping malls and circuses.
Infants are often preferred because they are easy to train, smuggle and handle compared to a mature chimp, who is considered 10 times stronger than a human hence cannot be easily handled.
“Chimpanzee babies are cute and playful. But this changes when they grow older, as the wild instincts begin to manifest and they become aggressive. Owners start locking them up in small cages or even chaining them which hampers their growth,” said Cyrus Githinji, the officer in charge of Chimpanzee Adoption Centre at the sanctuary.
Most of the rescued chimpanzees, according to Maiyo, are often traumatised. Others, like Poco, lack muscle development to climb or walk properly after years of confinement in cages.
“Chimps kept as pets are often psychologically traumatised and are always scarred because of their experiences. They take time to rehabilitate,” said Mayo.
Mr Githinji said inadequate information on illegal trafficking of apes had continued to hamper efforts to enforce international laws to stop the trade. “There is need for more campaigns and advocacy,” he added.
Being in a country where chimps are not natives, breeding is controlled with contraceptives given to the females.
“This is primarily a rescue centre and if breeding is allowed, the numbers would be huge and there would be no more space for the rescued chimps to undergo rehabilitation. That is why we use contraceptives,” Maiyo said.
Githinji further said the cost of keeping and feeding the chimps was higher “since the host habitat is not native and they have to be entirely fed”.
“The cost of keeping a chimpanzee is over Sh500,000 a year. Allowing them to breed might spiral the costs, which may deny rescued orphaned babies a chance to grow well,” Githinji said.
The costs include medication and food. To raise the funds, interested visitors and sponsors often ‘adopt’ a chimpanzee through donations.
According to Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), lack of space in many PASA-affilliated countries is a major hindrance as it has left many rescued chimpanzees without a place to go.
However, contraceptives don’t always work as some chimpanzees conceive.
“Mwanzo, Ajabu, Angela, Joy and Oscar were born in Kenya,” said Maiyo.
Most rescued chimpanzees often suffer trauma and loneliness. Some suffer Zoochosis or deep depression.