I stood in the baggage claim hall of Senegal’s Dakar airport, waiting. It was an early morning, 1978. With a lurch the conveyor belt started and a large white plastic travel cage emerged through the rubber curtain. Sitting upright and sporting a sailor suit, Lily looked bright and alert after a long, delayed flight from Kinshasa. Three years old, she did not appear nervous or afraid despite her unfamiliar surroundings. In fact, she reeked of confidence. This is how I would always describe Lily -- for the nearly 30 years that we knew each other.
Lily was one of many orphaned, wild-caught chimpanzees who are victims of the pet trade. Her surrogate caregivers were an older American diplomat couple who had fallen prey to the door-to-door salesman dragging with him a forlorn and sickly baby chimpanzee. Lily’s human mother ran a nursery school for children from the diplomatic community. Chimpanzee Lily played daily in the sandbox busily filling up plastic buckets with shovels of sand in the company of human children. This, then, was the context of her sailor suit.
Before their transfer back to the United States, Lily’s owners contacted me in The Gambia to request placement for her in my chimpanzee rehabilitation project. I was just getting started, and was living in a tree house in the Abuko Nature Reserve. I was responsible for three chimpanzees: Lucy and Marianne, whom I had accompanied from the States; and Dash, a young, wild-caught male confiscated by the Gambian government. I was reading Dashiell Hammett at the time; the timely arrival of a young female already bearing the name of Lily reflected, in my imagination, the love affair between Dash Hammett and Lillian Hellman. I thought it an omen.
Today, the River Gambia National Park supports more than 80 chimpanzees. Three of the islands provide habitat to four chimpanzee social groups. Although the chimps are free ranging on the islands they require various dimensions of support for their continued survival. Recurring costs for their upkeep include supplemental food, vitamins and medication, salaries, monitoring and patrolling costs, research and educational activities – none of it possible without the support of people who love animals.
But back in 1978, I couldn’t have imagined the successes – and devastating losses – that lie ahead. Dash and Lily were later joined by a gorgeous young female chimpanzee named Lakey. The three of them bonded and spent many an idyllic day romping through the nature reserve entertaining and harassing tourists. Lily, like most chimpanzees, was a prankster, inciting trouble on a daily basis. Her sense of humor took strange twists, manifesting itself in such acts as wearing a slim, harmless snake wrapped around her waist as a belt or mimicking my yoga by sitting in a lotus position. Still, Lily was often aloof -- a bit of a loner.
In early 1979, Dash, Lily, Lakey and I moved to the River Gambia National Park, a group of five islands located 300 miles up the River Gambia from the capital Banjul. The largest island, roughly 1,200 acres of gallery, woodland and swamp forest, soon became our home. Lucy and Marianne joined us later, followed by Karen, Geza, Marti and Kit. Our early days were spent exploring the island and learning more about our island co-habitants: hyenas, hippos, leopards and baboons. We soon developed a routine of looking for food, playing and resting. Our days were full and bedtime came early for all of us. At night I retired to my cage. The chimpanzees slept on my roof at first, and later in trees nearby.
I lived on the island alone with the chimpanzees for several years, finally moving off in 1986. Lily was then a young adult in a cohesive family of nine chimpanzees. We introduced a second group of chimpanzees around the same time I moved off. Although the introduction of the two groups went well each group decided to base themselves at opposite ends of the island with Pooh’s group choosing the northern end and Dash the south near my cage.
Our family grew slowly. Marianne had the first baby in early 1987, I named her Wury. In late 1987, on my birthday, Karen gave birth to our first male, Moise. Lily was next in 1988 with her first son, Labe, followed by Kit with Boo in 1990. In 1994 Lily gave birth to her second baby, Pita: a female of remarkable resemblance to Lily. In late 2003, Lily had her second son, Dalaba. As the first generation of males matured, problems developed, with each of them vying for dominance and leadership of the group. I worried. The islands are finite in terms of space; rejected male apes had nowhere to hide. Though there were three other adult males fit and ready to take over, Dash managed to maintain his position as chief and to hold the group together until his untimely death two years ago.
The group often traveled great distances, splitting into smaller groups and changing group membership, as wild chimpanzees are known to do. In time they moved farther away from the site of my cage which had served as a base in their early days on the island. At first Lily joined the group on these trips but she did so less and less once she began having children. Even with a growing family Lily continued to make sporadic visits to the group. Certain individuals, particularly Dash, would come back to visit her. As Lily’s son Labe matured he gradually spent more and more time with the group while paying regular visits to his mother. Pita followed the same pattern as she matured.
In January 2008, Pita had her first baby, a female named Patter. Within months, tragedy hit Dash’s group, shattering nearly three decades of peace and normalcy for the family members. Labe, at the time a strapping male of 20 years, was the first to develop symptoms of a mysterious ailment. He returned to his mother’s side near my cage, and this is where he died. Lily passed away soon, leaving her young son Dalaba behind. After the deaths of Labe and Lily, Pita returned to the site of my cage and took up the sentry watch that Lily had maintained for the past 20 years -- now caring for her own child Patter and Lily’s orphan Dalaba. Dash, Moise, Boo, and Kit would also pass away. In less than three months, seven adults were dead from the ailment, which even today remain undiagnosed. I was not managing the rehab project at the time and was devastated by the news that one after another almost all the chimps I had released and spent so many years of my life with had fallen ill and died under such strange circumstances.
With Dash and his first generation of sons gone, there was no adult male left to lead the group. Chaos broke out until two powerful adult females, Menchen and Niki, took leadership. On one of Pita’s return visits to the group the two females launched a joint attack blocking her return -- seriously injuring her in the process. Pita and her baby disappeared for several weeks and were presumed dead. And then one day Pita was spotted several miles away from the group by Rene, one of the senior caretakers working with the chimpanzees for more than 30 years, as he was driving slowly back to camp in the boat. Stopping the boat, he looked closer to be sure. It was Pita, straggly looking, covered with wounds and without her baby. Weeks later she appeared in Pooh’s group, visibly under his protection.
It was soon after Pita’s transfer to Pooh’s group that I returned to manage the chimpanzee project. Orphans Dalaba and Abdou were relatively easy to recognize. Their resemblance to their mothers was striking. Dalaba’s voice was identical to that of his mother.
It was immensely sad for me not to see Dash, Lily and the others, and also heart-wrenching to see the group floundering without proper leadership. There seemed to be far too many babies for the number of adult females. Without proper leadership or defense the young chimpanzees are at the mercy of the large group of aggressive baboons and other predators and dangers.
I wonder what the future holds for this group. Though they have suffered great losses and continue to experience stresses my hope is that in time this group will stabilize. Menchen’s son Mungo has his eye on the leadership position. His mother Menchen is one of the two females currently leading the group and his father Dash was a lifelong leader.
Visiting Pooh’s group on the northern tip of the island was, in contrast, sheer delight, even more so when I saw how Pita was integrated. She had a new family and was protected and obviously doted on by Pooh who had graciously stepped down from leadership of his group and had a lot of spare time on his hands.
With the passage of time, our wounds of loss begin to heal and other interests develop. And this was the case for Pita. If I had not been so intimately involved in her life I would not have believed that the chimpanzee I was observing had recently lost her mother, brother and child and been ostracized from her own family group.
Last January, Pita gave birth to a baby girl. All babies are cute but Pita’s was beautiful. I often struggle with the pressure of choosing exactly the right name. This dear and special baby would continue Lily’s genealogical line. And so I named her Poolilyla in recognition of her father Pooh, and both her deceased grandmother Lily and Uncle Labe.
Although her name carries with it the weight of the past, Poolilyla shows no signs of knowing. She spends a normal day with her mother cradling and grooming her. She is a member of a large family of more than 30, who live in natural chimpanzee habitat and complete freedom. Every day she watches a multitude of other chimpanzees of various ages involved in normal chimpanzee behavior. And as the sun goes down she holds tight to her mother’s stomach as Pita climbs up a tree and builds her nest for the night. What more could one ask? Poolilya is enjoying the miracle of life.
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