Sunday, July 30, 2006
Baluku is a handsome young chimpanzee who loves to play.
He lives on Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Lake Victoria in Uganda. Baluku is an orphan; his entire family may have been killed for bushmeat or so that a rich foreigner could obtain an exotic pet. But he is not alone. There are 99 other chimps currently with him, all taken from traders, circuses, and even an army unit that used one as a mascot. Only one baby was born there: the aptly named "Surprise". (The chimps are on birth control since space ag Ngamba is limited, but the mama pulled the implant out of her arm.)
Ngamba Island gives these orphaned chimps a safe place to live. They have formed their own natural community and live semi-wild lives, but they cannot be returned to the actual wild since territorial chimps would kill them on sight.
How did I make Baluku's acquaintance? It was naturally second-hand but thereby hangs a tale.
My upstairs neighbour, Monique, is a primatologist who has recently returned from a three week long trip to Uganda. Her husband Eric, a trial lawyer, came along. Who wouldn't?
They got to see the wild mountain gorillas in Uganda but sadly, very few of them are left and this species will almost certainly go extinct within the next few years.
Monique and Eric visited Ngamba and did the 'jungle walk' with the chimps. (" Ngamba Island: A unique experience: Take a forest walk with chimpanzees early in the morning where you will join a group of young chimpanzees in their habitat. Observe their morning or afternoon feeding and bedtime routines. Optionally, you may prefer to go to a local fishing village. Come back to Entebbe for overnight."--BROCHURE.)
Lake Victoria was beautiful and the people, though poor in material possessions, seem to have a nice living fishing and living on the water.
Their guide was one of the resident managers of Ngamba, a man whom I and they know only as Stany.
Monique came back with some amusing Ngamba souvenirs including a very funny T shirt that read "98.7% Chimp." This was a shirt I simply had to have. Monique suggested that it could be a birthday present and tried looking online and contacting primatologist friends to see if these shirts could be shipped to the USA.
Lo and behold, they were available in America, and the man who had them was....in Rochester. Of all places. He suggested that Monique and Eric and I come to a fundraising dinner for the Ngamba sanctuary that was being held in nearby, well-heeled Pittsford. This was a private party in a new city park but the man assured Monique that she and Eric would be admitted. I would be too, if I paid the admissions fee. I not only did that, but got my 98.7% Chimp T Shirt and some lovely pictures of the chimps on postcards. So that is how I met Baluku.
"And we would never have heard of this if you had not kept insisting you wanted that shirt!" Monique told me.
Here's where things get really weird: The main speaker at the event was none other than....Stany.
Now, the long arm of coincidence is really twisting when you meet someone in your hometown who you last saw in the Ugandan bush. But it got better.
Stany's trip to America was funded by...the Walt Disney Company. He is now in Florida spending a few weeks at their safari park. It is his first trip to America. He said it was hotter here than in Uganda!
You had to see the look on Stany's face when Monique and Eric went to speak to him at the function and he recognized them. Stany's English is good and he speaks four other African languages. Luganda was the only name I remembered.
Remarkably enough several other people in the party had also been to Uganda and one or two had even visited Ngamba. One woman reportedly did nothing but travel to 'look at apes'; she saved up and then went to Africa or Asia or wherever.
The Ngamba sanctuary was partially underwritten by the Jane Goodall foundation but since there are so many ape-related extinction fires to put out and Ngamba is bringing in a lot of ecotourists to Uganda, they are about to go solo so that Goodall and some of the other preservation organizations may spend funds where they are desperately needed. They even had to build a new office in Kampala so that they did not share quarters with Goodall's foundation.
We saw a short video about the Island and Stany bravely spoke in English for an hour. The worst news was that the trade in bushmeat was increasing. Two tons of 'bushmeat' (antelope but also ape) was confiscated in Dubai, and US officials have found coolers full of dead endangered animals in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Stany said that Europeans were also demanding this food.
Eating a chimp is like eating your auntie. The Ugandans, Stany said, feel the same way, and there is no real bushmeat trade in that country. But the export market drives the hunters. As a result we will almost certainly lose the mountain gorillas within a few years' time. There are only 380 of these gentle, inoffensive animals left in the wild.
I wish that another ape species could learn to control their...OUR depraved appetites.