Expedition Africa Reveals FoA's Transforming Work Overseas
In late December, we stepped into a small wooden boat in the village of Kuntaur in
Gambia to travel a short distance to Baboon Island, also known as the River Gambia National Park in West Africa. The view was astonishingly beautiful: Lush, unspoiled gallery forests along the banks of the Gambia River, lots of birds and a few Nile crocodiles. Minutes later, we arrived at the camp for the island sanctuary, the unique Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project – home to chimpanzees, Guinea baboons, red colobus monkeys, hippopotamuses, more than 240 species of birds and an abundance of other wildlife.
We were greeted at the inviting water house that extends out over the river by the project director, Janis Carter, and several staff members from the local village. I hadn't seen Janis in two years, so I was excited about spending two days with her at the camp to view chimpanzees on the islands, and to relish hearing her captivating stories. Two nice-looking patas monkeys were in temporary cages at the camp before their planned release, far from a nearby village where they get in trouble. Free-living greenish-olive vervet monkeys appeared frequently at the camp, which thrilled us. We were warned not to feed them so they won't rely on tourists for food.
The Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project was established on the islands in 1979 to care for orphaned and unwanted chimpanzees who live on the forested islands with freedom and protection. The water's edge provides a barrier as chimpanzees cannot float well, and falling in deep water can mean drowning. Janis pays a staff of 24, and Friends of Animals has assisted with crucial funding for chimpanzee monitoring, supplementary food and other care for more than five years.
Today, there are 104 chimpanzees spanning three generations in four families who reside on three islands. These chimpanzees are the only ones to reside in Gambia, as wild chimpanzees disappeared in the early 1900s – likely for all the miserable reasons that accompany human disturbance around the globe.
During our guided boat tour we glided along the river and estuaries, getting an up-close view of chimpanzees who were identified by name. We even learned their rich—and sometimes comical—histories, like in the case of Melanie, the first chimpanzee I saw along the island's edge enjoying melon, with her offspring and social group in sight. Many years ago, after the project was launched, Melanie located Janis's row boat on the island, untied the rope that secured it, hopped inside and was seen floating down the river before she was swiftly returned to her home on the island. Janis observed that Melanie was probably bewildered by what she had set in motion.
As I set my eyes on the largest island, which holds Dash's family on one end and Pooh's on the other, raucous baboons appeared on tree branches, thrashing around to create enough of a disturbance that a chimpanzee might relinquish the fruit he or she found. However, the chimpanzees seemed unfazed by the commotion.
Meanwhile, on the river's opposite bank, a captivating scene unfolded—scores of rare red colobus monkeys used tree branches like trampolines, jumping up and down to lift-off, before swinging from tree to tree. They spend all of their time in trees eating the leaves that are increasingly scarce outside River Gambia National Park. Their survival is tied to specific trees that sustain them.
Our attention was then drawn to the water right in front of us, where the eyes and ears of several hippopotamuses peeked out from the river—watching us as our guide slowed the boat, and veered away from disturbing them. It was a treat to see them submerged in the river. At night hippos often venture on land to eat mostly grass. In areas outside the Gambia, hippos are not protected and are threatened by hunting, habitat loss and the ivory trade.
Leaving Gambia and Baboon Island was a bittersweet experience as we headed to Senegal to see dozens of protected scimitar-horned oryxes in northwest Guembeul's Reserve – the site where Friends of Animals launched its successful reintroduction effort years ago. Today, 246 oryxes thrive within two expansive, fenced, fully-protected reserves, re-establishing a presence in their African homeland.
Experiencing the success of our efforts to protect imperiled animals in Gambia and Senegal was beyond rewarding. Your generous support of Friends of Animals will continue to make those efforts in Africa possible.