by Janis Carter
Karen and I have known each other for 43 years; a period longer than most relationships I have had with my own species. I first met her in early 1979. She was one of a group of eight chimpanzees who were wild caught in Sierra Leone on the southwest coast of Africa and illegally shipped to Europe via Amsterdam.
Her shipper was Franz Sitter, a notorious animal dealer who, it has been reputed, was responsible for the capture and export of hundreds and possibly thousands of young orphaned chimpanzees from their homeland. Named after the airport at which they landed, this group of chimpanzee orphans was referred to as “The Schipol Babies”. On arrival, the shipment was promptly confiscated and the legal decision made—the orphans would be sent home, back to West Africa. At the time there was no rehabilitation center in Sierra Leone so the chimpanzees were sent to The Gambia. And this is how I came to meet Karen.
I was in the process of transferring Lucy, Marianne, Dash, Lily and Lakey to an island in the River Gambia National Park when Karen first arrived. The park is home to the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project, an island sanctuary that Friends of Animals has been supporting since 2008.
Karen was quite a bit larger and older than the other seven orphans. I estimated her at about four to five years of age, and the others at between two and three.
The younger chimps clung frantically to her as if they were an extra appendage. Karen couldn’t take one step without the entire group moving in unison with her. She had fits of despair during which she rolled into a ball while tearing at her hair. She would scream and gag as if she couldn’t breathe. It was clear she could not manage the situation for much longer. She needed support and some breathing space for herself. I scheduled her release to the island before the others.
Karen joined our island women’s group–Lucy, Marianne, Lily, Lakey and me. In terms of age, she slotted in between Marianne and Lily. Even on the island, albeit to a lesser degree, Karen was easily frazzled. She was what I would refer to as an anxious chimp, one who preferred peace and quiet. I always describe Karen as the most gentle and sweet chimp who I have ever known. She did not have a mean bone in her body, which often translates in chimpanzee culture to being low on the totem pole of dominance.
When she was young her facial mask was pale with a light scattering of freckles. With age this darkened to a solid black color. Karen always kept a very trim figure—she was long and lean like a runner. She always had a well-groomed look about her as if she had just walked out of a hair salon. Her hair was silky and long and lay flat with each strand in place.
Life in the wild
During the years I lived with the orphaned and captive-born chimps on the island teaching them how to survive we participated in many rituals that I still remember with great nostalgia. Watching the setting of the sun was a special moment we shared every single day. As a group, we would sometimes traipse over to the back side of the island where we would sit to watch the bush-pigs cross the swamp. More often than not we would go to our jetty where we could actually see the fiery colored sun dip below the horizon. In slow motion, one following closely after the next, the chimps would saunter down the jetty; some would stretch out, their bodies gracefully draped across others, some would lie on their backs with their short stubby legs in the air while they picked their teeth. Karen and I were always next to each other, lying on our sides, looking at our reflections in the river. We would dangle our hands in the water and create mini-currents that would distort our faces. Our fingers would gradually find each other under the murky colored water, and entwine until our hands clasped. Never glancing my way, Karen would squeeze my hand once. I squeezed back. Karen would then squeeze two times. Following her lead, I would respond with two squeezes. We rarely went past three squeezes before starting the game all over again.
Karen’s family tree
Karen’s first baby was born on my birthday, which was such a joyous occasion for me and one of many threads that made our relationship special. I named her son Moise. When Moise was still quite young and dependent on his mother he was severely injured in an altercation between the adult males in the group. His arm was ripped wide open from the shoulder to the elbow, exposing raw flesh and bone.
I felt strongly that he needed medical attention. But I had moved off the island at least two years prior to this and no longer had any influence or control over the group. I waited in one boat while a second boat lured most of the chimps further down the island with food. When they were far enough away and busily chowing down on the food bribes, I quietly slipped onto the island.
Karen greeted me with a soft pant and held out her hand. Moise was nervous, clinging tightly to her stomach. Surprisingly, both Karen and Moise allowed me to approach close enough to clean and treat his open wound. I repeated this for several days. After a week, the edges of the wound began to dry and pull together. In a matter of weeks Moise was using his arm again.
Moise developed into a tall and lanky chimp much like his mother. As is often the case in chimpanzee culture, Moise also took after his mother in terms of being low on the dominance hierarchy. He was not suited for the unrelenting pressure that adult males experience in their drive for dominance.
On the contrary, Moise grew into a very kind and gentle male. He was almost always in the company of Dash; the dominant male and leader of this social group who just happened to also be Moise’s dad. They had a favorite log near the provisioning site where they would often sit together side by side. Dash, shorter yet far more robust, usually had his burly muscular arm slung across the narrow shoulders of Moise. There was no doubt that a deep affection existed between father and son. Though both are now gone, this touching image remains permanently imprinted in my memory.
Over the decades Karen gave birth to five more offspring; Kah, her second son; Koima, a female with her own baby now; Kameha, a male; Kinipopo a male; and little Kahlua, her most recent child and only other daughter.
Karen was always a superior mother. We voted her the best food sharer of all the moms on the island. Most mothers do share food with their offspring and sometimes with friends. I often feel that many mothers do this in reaction to the persistent begging and whining of their kids. Karen’s food sharing took a slightly different form. Prior to even taking a bite of her food, she would break it in half and hand it over immediately to her dependent offspring before any begging or fussing began.
In sickness and in health
In November 2021, members of the Dash and Pooh social groups, both groups residing on the same island, developed serious respiratory complications. Adults were the hardest hit, and there were fatalities. Some individuals, mostly adult females, disappeared for almost two weeks. Up until then the norm had been two to five days. Karen was among those not seen. Her baby Kahlua, who was then about 18 months of age, was seen daily, carried by her older brother Kameha. Although she nibbled a bit at the food her big brother was eating, it was clearly not sufficient. At this young age, most of Kahlua’s nutrition would be derived from her mother’s milk.
It was a mystery to me how the baby, who looked in good form, was surviving. After Karen had been absent for about 10 days, I began to fear she was dead. Nevertheless, we continued searching. We were all surprised and thrilled to see Karen show up a few days later with Kahlua clinging contentedly to her belly. Karen looked tired, slimmer than normal and disheveled. But she was back.
Karen recovered and continued to be strong, active and in good health for the next year. In early November 2022, almost a year to the date of her 2021 illness, both Karen and Kahlua disappeared. Neither had shown any signs of illness on the last day they were seen. We waited patiently counting the days. Two weeks came and went with no sign of Karen or her baby. Kahlua was now 2 ½ years old and much stronger than she was the year before when Kameha carried her daily.
We saw Kameha, Koima and Kinipopo regularly; some on certain days, some on others and often all three together. But Kahlua was not seen. As my concern grew, I tried to make sense of the few clues we had. And then, one day during week three, Kahlua appeared with her siblings. She looked strong, active and alert. However, with Kahlua’s arrival came a feeling of dread…that Karen must now be gone and that was the reason Kahlua returned. But after only three days of seeing Kahlua at the feeding site she disappeared again.
Based on past absences we developed a protocol to guide us through periods when chimpanzees were sick and/or missing. If an individual is recorded absent for three continuous days, we begin a search. As we can no longer go on the island we search from the boat. We search in the morning and afternoon, when the chimps are most active with foraging for wild foods.
We motor to their favored locations, turn off the engine and float with the river’s tide. Our hope is that we may get a glimpse of the missing chimp or that the chimp will see us and come for help. We have been successful a few times at this and were able to provide medication in time to make a difference. Or so we like to think.
A glimmer of hope
But it has now been more than a month since we last saw Karen. Her lengthy absence exceeds the framework of our protocol. Kahlua’s coming and going creates confusion rather than clarity. But I must say it is my only glimmer of hope.
However, Karen’s case is exceptional for other reasons. I estimate Karen to be about 48-49 years of age. She is one of the oldest chimpanzees in our project of roughly 140 individuals. She was caught in the wild, separated from her mother and family under the most grizzly and horrific terms, caged and sent to Europe for sale, confiscated, caged again and returned to Africa, rehabilitated with a new family and is now the matriarch of four living and two deceased offspring. She is also a recent grandmother.
Karen is a survivor.
She is also one of the first chimps I released on the island and a member of the family I lived with for several years. We are now both old and grey. Karen is bald, and I only have enough hair left to make one slim braid.
The decades of unforgettable memories that we created together make it difficult to give up looking for her. And though I feel at a loss of what to do, I remind myself that Karen and the others are free-ranging, and this is all part of life in the wild.
And yet, our search for Karen continues.
Janis Carter is director of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in the Gambia, which was established in 1979. It is home to approximately 140 chimpanzees who live in four groups in relative freedom—without bars or cages—on three of the park’s five islands.