By Augustine Sankoh
Bala Amarasekaran never thought he would end up establishing a chimpanzee sanctuary when he left Sri Lanka some 25 years ago – but when confronted with Sierra Leone's devastating consequences of deforestation, wildlife poaching, and exploitation of natural resources, his passion and willpower obliged him to take the necessary actions so many choose to ignore.
How far they've come
Amarasekaran founded the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary (TCS) in 1995, together with the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL). She allotted 40 hectares of land inside the recently upgraded Western Area Peninsula National Park (WAPNP). As of 2018, the sanctuary cares for 78 chimpanzees, and unfortunately, each year, more orphan chimpanzees continue to arrive at TCS, an accredited member of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA).
Surviving the wildlife jungle
A recent survey found that Sierra Leone currently has about 5,500 chimpanzees in the wild nationwide, noting that in the past, it was about 20,000. The activities of human beings in the forest are the main factors reducing the chimpanzee population. Poachers are killing them, and they are also migrating as a result of deforestation. "We're trying to solve this problem by rehabilitating the apes and returning them to the wild," according to Bala. The oldest group (Tito) has 18 chimps, and they are waiting to be released into the wild.
Visiting the sanctuary
"Daily guided tours only occur at 10:30 AM and 4:00 PM, all year round. There are no opportunities to visit the sanctuary outside of scheduled tour times. Tours start promptly and last approximately 90 minutes. Allow about 40 minutes to get to the sanctuary from the western side of Freetown. Vehicles with 4-wheel drive are required to drive into the sanctuary. Otherwise, you can park or be dropped off by a taxi at the base of our hill, about a 100m uphill walk to the entrance. There are many routes around the beautiful surroundings of Tacugama offering hikers a range of day trails and paths to explore, peaks to summit, and views to relish."
Leadership among chimps
The chimps at the sanctuary are divided into the Orphan's Group, Toddler's Group, Tom's Group, Zack's Group, Rosalind's Group, Solo's Group, and Tito's Group. Every group has a leader; most times, the groups are named after their leaders. As they mature, they move from one stage to another. The youngest group is a set of 7 - 8-year-old chimps around. At every step, there is a leader that emerges. If the leader is removed from that stage, another leader will emerge. The struggle to have a leader often results in serious battles among the chimps.
Gender equality struggle
Also, every group has a leader among the female chimps. It is challenging to have a female at the head of a stage. According to one of the tour guards, it has only happened once, with Mama Lucy, who was not necessarily the strongest among the lot but command-ed respect.
Infidelity and greed among male chimps
If babies are given birth in any group, the leader automatically becomes the father. The leader mates with all the female chimps in the group and also prevents other male chimps from having intercourse with the female chimps. However, some of the male chimps do have contact secretly. If caught, the punishment by the leader can be severe.
The Great Escape
The story of Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary is incomplete without the infamous escape of 31 chimps from the sanctuary headed by Bruno, their leader. Care staff failed to close the tunnel properly, so one of the chimps went to the sliding door and removed the padlock. The chimps mauled one man to death and attacked four others after escaping from their enclosure. In the following two weeks after the escape, 21 chimpanzees returned, and 19 did so of their own will. After two months, 26 of the 31 came back. After another three months, one more adult chimp, Ole, was brought back. Until today, four chimpanzees remain at large: Bruno, Abi, Toko, & Char-lie Boy.
Sustaining the sanctuary
The chimps feed three times a day, but the oldest group is fed twice a day with Potato leaves and plants in the morning, different kinds of fruits in the afternoon, and bananas in the evening.
These days, the sanctuary scrapes on foreign donations, including funds from the U.S. government and the European Union. Amarasekaran tops that up with money from his computer business. A trickle of visitors, mostly foreign aid workers, supply around a tenth of revenues. Amarasekaran is optimistic that more tourists will come.