The Jane Goodall Institute South Africa – A Real Chimp Eden.
Just outside Nelspruit on the R40 towards Barberton is a sanctuary like no other, an Eden for abused, abandoned and abducted chimpanzees taken over by an icon of conservation.
The Jane Goodall Institute SA is home to 33 chimps from across central Africa. Some lost their homes to deforestation, others are the orphans of the bush meat and mhuti trade, then there are those rescued from the pet trade and even the circus.
Each has its own sad story to tell and its own mental and physical scars from often years of abuse. Yet watching them interact in their three family groups, exploring their 5 hectare homes and enjoying the fruit snacks being offered, it is hard to imagine these chimps have experienced anything but happiness.
Charles and Jessica are a perfect example. The alpha male and female of family group one, apart from Jessica’s bald spots and Charles’ missing canines it is hard to imagine they’ve lived anywhere else. Disciplining their rowdy troop and ensuring they get the best of the fruit, Charles and Jessica are natural leaders but their life has not always been so bright. Rescued years ago from the Circus, these chimps were subjected to years of abuse. The proof of which can be seen across Jessica’s hairless body, a symptom of over-grooming as a result of having her babies taken away from her time and time again. She is riddled with cigarette burns and habitually regurgitates her food, which a sign of once starved chimps who do this to make their food last longer. Listening to their stories the message is be careful what you support. It is impossible to know what is going on behind the scenes and the circus Charles and Jessica were rescued from seemed from the outside reputable.
Then there is Martha. Taken from her parents when she was tiny and cute, she was once someone’s pet before being sold to a zoo when she became too big for her owners to manage. After 14 years in a jail size cell with only concrete floors and metal bars it is understandable that even now Martha doesn’t really behave like a chimp. When she arrived at the Institute she was too terrified to leave the night-room where the chimps sleep. It took days of coaxing by Lily, another chimp, to eventually get her to step foot outside. Even now, she constantly gets in trouble with the alpha male for not understanding how to act like a chimp.
Charismatic Mowgli charmed the tour group from his termite mound perch. Rescued from the pet trade Mowgli’s troop was cut up for bush meat to feed a global demand. Shockingly I learnt that if you know where to look chimp meat can be found in London, San Fransisco, Tokyo and even Cape Town. So don’t fool yourself into thinking this is simply a Central African delicacy. Ironically the meat is considered as a traditional cure for Ebola, Aids and even cancer. If only the consumers knew it is more likely to transmit diseases than cure them!
Probably the most entertaining character is Cozi rescued from an Italian gypsy who had him caged in a caravan wearing too tight jean shorts that prevented his hips properly forming. The first thing Cozi did was try to throw a rock at us. It is understandable, before the gypsy he was used in medical research and while it is unsure where he received the head blows that have given him brain damage his dislike of humans is obvious. What was incredible was watching another male Charlie block his path when he tried to throw the rock, almost acting like a shield until we were safely behind the netting and Cozi’s rock hurtled way overhead.
There are too many chimps to give each a mention and too many fantastic experiences in our hour long tour to write each down. What I learnt from the experience is every chimp has their own unique character and unbelievable resilience, which has enabled them to survive their past and flourish in the Jane Goodall Institute.
Unlike many wildlife rehabilitation centres the Jane Goodall Institute doesn’t run a breeding program. Their view is, ‘why spend money and space on new babies that can’t be returned to the wild when there are already chimps desperately needing our help’. Unfortunately the Ebola outbreak has put a halt to any rescues for the foreseeable future.
The reason these chimps will never be returned to the wild is due to the high proportion of DNA we share, around 98.7%. It means captive chimps are likely to have contracted human diseases that could decimate wild populations. So even if their forest homes weren’t under threat, it is unlikely any of the chimps here could be reintroduced to the wild. So for the time being the centre’s goal is to further rehabilitate the chimps they have, giving them as close to a ‘wild life’ as they can, while educating people in the hope that fewer chimps will need rescuing in the future.
Living in South Africa it is easy to disassociate yourself with the plight of chimps. But by simply changing your shopping habits you could dramatically influence their future.
When Jane Goodall started her research there was over 2million chimps in the wild. Now it is believed there are only 150,000. By far the biggest threat is from palm oil production that is resulting in over a million hectares of chimp habitat being cleared every year. This is about half the size of Kruger National Park. Palm oil is in just about everything we eat, but has only recently been added. Only by consumers putting pressure on chocolate, soap, ice-cream, chip and even coffee producers will deforestation, as a result of palm oil production, stop. The Jane Goodall Institute’s challenge to consumers is to read the label and opt for products that have gone against the grain and refused to use palm oil.
The Jane Goodall Institute is a remarkable organisation, doing conservation for all the right reasons and providing their chimps with the best quality of life possible. With chimpanzees being granted level-1 CITES status and captive chimps being given the same endangered classification as wild ones. The use of chimps in pharmaceutical research is likely to decrease, reducing one of the many threats this species face. Sadly there are many more they need protection from.
Do you bit by reading labels, boycotting palm oil and enjoying a day trip to visit the Jane Goodall Institute and learning more about their fabulous chimps. Just watch out for Cozi! With three feeding tours at 10am, 12 noon and 2pm plus passionate, animated guides to show you around the Institute is a fantastic family outing and just 10 minutes out of Nelspruit.