“I Am Fine!” Thoughts and Observations on the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project
It is one of those rare days on the Gambia River when the murky water shimmers like smooth glass. Our boat glides quietly, leaving little trace of its passage through the still waters. The sky is clear and blue, and the wind seems to be taking a lengthy afternoon nap. I know this tranquil moment will soon pass. It is the end of the rainy season, when the rainfall pattern is unpredictable, and the weather changes quickly without warning.
We are on our way to see Jamton - the most recent baby born in the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. Jamton, whose Fulani name translates as I Am Fine, is remarkable for many reasons. For a start, she is the first baby born to Jarahma (whose Fulani name means How Are You? She is also the 93 rd baby born since the project was first established on the islands of the River Gambia National Park in 1979. More sensational still, and a definite reason for celebration: Jamton is the first member of the third generation of the island chimpanzees, a population now consisting of 87 individuals living in four family groups.
Jamton has the fortune of being born into a large family clan still led by the founder - her great grandmother Jenny. Now about 38 years of age, Jenny has spent her last 29 years living in total freedom on the largest of the five islands -- an island of mixed natural habitat covering almost 1,100 acres. After finding her for sale in a pet store in Spain, Peggy and Simon Templer were instrumental in organizing Jenny’s confiscation and her subsequent transfer to The Gambia for rehabilitation in June 1980. The Templers also spearheaded the campaign that halted the use of chimpanzees as photographic props along the Spanish beaches. Jenny was the first of several chimpanzees confiscated in Spain to join the Gambia rehabilitation project.
At roughly nine years of age, Jenny was older than most of the chimpanzees received by the project. And she arrived with very little information on her origins or background. Most of what we do know we pieced together from observing her behavior and reactions to her release. Her lack of confidence or tree-climbing ability and her preference for staying close to the ground led us to believe she was captured at a very young age and perhaps not exposed to a natural environment during her captivity. She has always, from the very beginning, been a rather reclusive character, keeping to herself at first and later spending the majority of her time with her immediate family. Despite her private nature, Jenny has established one of the largest family clans on the islands with a total membership of 10 individuals, seven of whom are still living.
To ensure that the introduced chimpanzees do not exceed the capacity of the island, we supplement their natural foraging by providing them with food provisions at various feeding stations. Of all the chimpanzees, Jenny appears at the supplemental feeding stations the least, and even then, she is often distant from the others.
Today is no different. Circling the island, we do not find Jenny or Jarahma with the rest of the group. Bruno turns off the engine, leaving the boat to float, giving them time to find us. I am thankful that the sun continues to beam down with a fresh, clean heat. We chat quietly, listening to the hippos splashing on the sandbanks nearby. Although the water appears smooth on the surface, a strong current pulls us downstream in the direction of Island Three, where Jumbo and his family of 12 other chimpanzees reside. A much smaller island of roughly 130 acres, Island Three is covered with dense vegetation, dripping with chimpanzees’ native foods. The river’s edge is thick with raffia palm. The lianas and threadlike roots dangling from the expansive fig trees provide a real jungle flavor to this island.
With our eyes glued to the edge of the river, both Bruno and I see a branch with yellowed leaves bend down. Jarahma emerges from the dense foliage and poses proudly on the end of the branch. Baby Jamton clings to her belly, with tiny hairless fists tightly clutching her mother’s hair. After twenty minutes, we hear leaves cracking in the near distance. Though she has not yet emerged, I can detect Jenny’s movement in the shadows. Peeking through the foliage, I watch her stop to groom little, three-month-old Jackie, her sixth and most recent baby. Seeing Jenny so casual and proficient at motherhood makes it hard for me to believe she was a poor mother with her first baby.
Jenny was the first of the island chimpanzees to reproduce when she gave birth to Jiffin in 1982. Clearly inexperienced, Jenny often paraded around with her newborn son hanging on her upper arm or thigh. Though she did not know how to hold her baby she was a voracious groomer, often grooming her baby until he was bald. Without the necessary physical support and nutrition required by the helpless newborn chimpanzee, baby Jiffin passed away before he was two months of age. Jenny’s lack of appropriate maternal care is another piece of evidence that suggests she was probably captured very young without experiencing maternal caring herself, and perhaps kept in species isolation without the benefit of appropriate role models. By the time Jenny had her second baby, Jooee, her mothering skills had dramatically improved -- she had learned with Jiffin, and, more importantly, from her observations of proper mothering exhibited by the other new mothers within her island family.
As grandmother and granddaughter finish their supplemental food, they both withdraw to the shadows. We hear drumming on the trunks of distant trees. Bruno identifies the sound as coming from one of the three males currently vying for dominance in this family group of 23 individuals. Jallo, Jenny’s third baby and only living son, took over leadership in 2007 when he deposed Gorko. But Jallo’s reign is shaky now. He is being challenged by a couple of tough brothers; Lakey’s sons Zorzor and Chinchin.
Bruno pulls out his clipboard. On every trip to the island, the presence of each of the chimpanzees, their locations, physical conditions and reproductive status is recorded. Keeping up with the details on the island chimpanzees has been a full time job for both Rene Bonang and Bruno Boubane since the first release of the chimpanzees on the island park in 1979. Thus, their relationship with these chimpanzees spans three decades; what greater gift could be given the chimpanzees than their long-term presence and caring? Their experience and knowledge is indispensable in training the younger caregivers and irreplaceable in terms of the project memory.
A big drop of rain appears on my camera lens. Several more follow. Looking behind me, I see dark clouds forming quickly and hovering low. The wind has picked up; the waves slap against the boat, rocking us from side to side. Even with the sun still in view, the rain starts to fall. Reluctantly I put my camera away while Bruno hastily shoves his clipboard in his bag and starts the engine. We head back for camp knowing we will be drenched before our arrival.
Please assist Friends of Animals' vital support of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project (CRP) by making a donation to Friends of Animals with CRP in the message line, mail to:
Friends of Animals
777 Post Road, Suite 205
Darien , CT 06820 United States
Your financial help will protect chimpanzees in their unique island homes.