Hanging out with Chimps – just like work then :-)

I had this blog post mostly written, it just needed finishing off and the photos adding, so it’s kind of interesting that I heard the news today that the most famous chimp ever – Cheetah from Tarzan – has finally passed away at the unbelievable age of 80!! By all accounts, 50 is a damn good age for a chimp kept in captivity, so 80 was, as they say, a damn good innings!

Mack the Chimp – chomping on some Jackfruit

Now, before I met Mr Photog, a few years ago I had a big chunk of leave left which needed to be used up before the end of the leave year. None of my mates had any spare to take a holiday, and I didn’t want to waste it all sitting around doing nothing, so I looked at what I could do that was a bit different, and found a volunteering website.

This website was one of those that gap-year students go to, looking for something worthwhile to do, before going to uni – yes, I know, I’m not a student and a wee bit too old to be honest, but with this company you can volunteers for weeks or months, there were plenty or options.

Initially I applied to go and plant trees in Kenya, in the foothills of Mount Kenya, but about 1 month before I was due to go, there was quite a lot of unrest and rioting due to elections and the volunteering firm felt that it would be unsafe for their volunteers to travel there so I was given an alternative of going to Uganda to work in a Wildlife Education Centre, which to be honest, turned out to be an amazing trip and 10 times better than planting trees!

A few weeks later I found myself flying into Entebbe Airport, Uganda and was met by one of the local staff for the volunteering firm, who took me into Kampala, where I was going to stay the night whilst I got used to the place. I was taken to a hostel, and given the brief for the next few weeks, whilst we were going through the brief I felt the bed that I was sat on start to shake, and we looked at each other wondering what it was. I was sure it was an earthquake but the lady from the volunteer firm wasn’t so sure. It was only the following day that we found out that there had been an earthquake on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which, sadly, a number of people had lost their lives.

Kampala Bus Station – proper crazy, but there was actually some logical system there – it just took some figuring out!

My second day in Uganda and, after a quick introduction to the craziness that is Kampala we travelled back out to Entebbe to the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) where I was introduced to the staff there and left to fend for myself! The UWEC basically look after animals that are victims of poachers (i.e. baby chimps left orphaned when their mum was killed or taken for bushmeat), or something other problem that means they can’t function in the wild on their own. The Centre serves as an educational centre, teaching visitors about the animals of the Uganda, and sits on the shores of Lake Victoria.

I was accommodated in one of the dorms they use for schools, as you can see from the photo above, walking out of my room on the right-hand side gave me a lovely view of Lake Victoria J

I then spent the next couple of weeks working alongside the staff at the Centre; in the morning we’d prep the fruit and veg to feed the herbivores, all of us working together in a room with all the freshest produce you could imagine piled up on the floor, which we would then chop up into buckets for various animals. We’d have a quick snack whilst we prepped too, and I never realised how poor quality the bananas we get in our supermarkets are, they are nowhere near as nice as bananas picked about an hour before eating, from a tree just up the road. Perfect.

We would then load all of the food up into a trailer behind a tractor and head out to the compounds where the animals were, and scatter the food around. There was quite a wide range of animals in those compounds, from water buffalo, to warthogs, deer and zebra, along with plenty of birdlife – ostritch, shoebill, cranes and marabou stork to name a few.

Wonder why it’s called a Shoebill……?

There were a few reptiles there, this photo was taken through glass – I wouldn’t have got in close to it for any money!!

This is Coley the water buffalo, a brilliant escape artist, who broke out to go and hang out with the zebras as he was lonely in his paddock on his own!!

Once the fruit-eaters had been sorted we went and grabbed massive sacks of Elephant Grass which was harvested from one of the Centres fields, and we went into the rhino enclosure – actually into it, alongside the rhinos! This photo below was taken from sat on the trailer, with nothing but a pile of yummy elephant grass to protect me!

Once fed, the herbivores night-time accommodation had to be cleaned – I never realised that rhinos are actually quite tidy beasts – they pooped in one corner of their house, away from their bed, so their droppings were so easy to clean up.

After we’d fed and cleaned all of the larger beasts, we had to deal with the carnivores – they had a lion, a few hyenas and a couple of smaller cats – serval cats (pictured below), leopards that kind of thing. The lion had a cows leg every few days – luckily I didn’t have to help prep THAT! I did help with the cleaning up of his overnight quarters though, where the meat was – not pretty L The same with the hyenas, although theirs was worse, due to the fact that they like to drag their antelopes leg into their water pool to let it rot nicely before eating, it stank!

After all of those came the best job of them all – the chimps! I was (and still am) very jealous of the chimp keepers jobs, truly the best job of the lot, with the most entertaining, and friendly clients – although you still had to watch your back, and the clean-up of their sleeping quarters was the worst of the lot! Every morning we’d go to the primate house and open up the tunnel that led to the little island they spent the day on – as chimps don’t like water they are quite happy there, without fear of them escaping into the rest of the park, and visitors can view them from across the water without any fences in the way.

Someone needs a manicure!! The hand of Sarah, in the tunnel on the way to the island

Once they were on the island we’d go in and clean up their house – a big old job, with poop EVERYWHERE!! You could see when they’d been scrapping as there would be some examples of nervous poo “puddles”!! It would take a fair bit of sweeping, and hosing to get it cleaned. But the good outweighed the bad, and if cleaning up their poop was the bad, then hanging out so close to these awesome guys was well worth it!

A couple of little babies called Mack and Africa who had been rescued from poachers were in quarantine whilst I was there, so I spent hours watching them in their little quarantine cage, which was in the same complex as the vets.

Mack in his hammock

Africa and Mack with their “Chimp-sitter” in the back of the shot – he had the awesome job of pretty much living with these guys, whose mums had been killed by poachers.

On about the 4th day there I was hanging out with these guys as usual after all the cleaning and feeding had been finished, when one of the trucks came racing up with the head vet inside carrying a bundle. It seemed that one of the young chimps had been badly attacked by one of the older ones and was in a pretty bad way. Nipper (or Achan as she was also known) was about 18 months old, and had only recently been integrated with the larger group. Nipper tried to make friends with one of the “teenaged” ones, a 15 year old male, whose name I can’t remember, and he took offence and started to attack her, biting pretty much all the way through her right bicep. As I was there they made use of my photographic skills, as they usually photographed all of their surgeries, so they might as well use a professional!

Now, I don’t have the strongest stomach, and have never photographed surgery before, but the photographer in me took over and I snapped away without being too squeamish about it. I must admit, when I first trained as a photographer I never imagined I would one day find myself photographing baby chimp surgery!

The surgery over, for the next few days Nipper needed chimp sitting, so I was able to spend time with her and her keepers, which was a truly amazing experience – having a baby chimp rolling around the floor at my feet

Nipper post-surgery, having only just come round from the anaesthetic

Nipper chewing on her favourite treat – Jackfruit seeds

Nipper at my feet J

My favourite photo of Nipper

Alongside getting to hang out with Nipper on a daily basis, the chimp keepers decided to give me an experience with some of the other chimps that I will never forget. One morning, before the chimps were all let onto the island, the keepers separated out 4 of the younger chimps, aged around 3 to 5 years old, and let them into the tunnel. Then we mixed up some of the chimps favourite porridge, and filled our pockets with bananas and made our way out onto the island. Once we were out there, and had moved a little way into the trees, one of the keepers opened up the gate to let the 4 youngsters out, and I could hear them heading for us through the undergrowth, rushing through the bushes, desperate to play and get some treats!

The keepers said to just keep walking and let the chimps come up to us, so as I was walking I felt these two hands lightly on my back. One of the chimps, called Pal, was behind me and wanted a piggy-back –so I obliged and she climbed up – all 40 kg of her! It seems that as a little baby, she’d been adopted by a couple of white students in Kampala – she’d been well looked after, but as she was an illegal pet she’d been taken in by UWEC. She missed her human parents though, and whenever she saw someone white, she was reminded of them and felt comforted getting a piggy back off a white person. It was truly an amazing experience, and she stayed there for a good 10 mins as I helped to feed porridge and bananas to some of the others.

Loving the porridge

Fighting for the rights to the last dregs of porridge in the bucket!

At one point one of the males, called Onappa, decided that he would show me who was boss and as I was crouching on the floor, he jumped up on my shoulders and proceeded to (gently) smack me on the top of the head, kind of playing a game of King of the Castle.

I’d also hidden a couple of bananas in the side map pockets lower down on the leg of my trousers, and I thought this would have the chimps stumped as they hunted for treats, but they surprised me – especially as they were in a hidden zipped pocket, which was behind the standard flapped map pocket. Pal opened the flap on the top pocket and stuck her hand in, only to find that she could still feel a banana in that area, but couldn’t get to it. After a bit of investigation she spotted the zip and realised that it was that which was stopping her getting to the banana, and (with a little help from me) got the zip open and gained the banana reward!

Whilst in Uganda I also had the opportunity to visit Ngamba Island http://www.ngambaisland.com/

– a fantastic chimp sanctuary on an island in Lake Victoria – I got to cross the Equator twice in one day on the boat to and from the island! The island itself is around 100 acres, with 98 of those acres being forest solely for the use of chimps. The other 2 acres are the human part, separated by fencing, so it’s totally up to the chimps if they want to be seen by humans or not. It’s a lovely place – the only downside was the plague of lake flies in the boat on the way there and back, imagine a swarm of mosquitoes, so many that all you can hear is the buzz of millions of them, and they just buzz around your head like a swarm of mini-bees!!

A vervant monkey – these little chaps ran wild around the Centre – so cute!

It was a shame that the whole experience had to come to an end, but I will always treasure the time I made the best use possible of my left over leave, and hey, working with chimps in Uganda – not much different to life in this country, it’s just that the chimps know how to use toilets (most of the time!) and are slightly less hairy J


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