A loss of habitat, taste for bush meat and desire for exotic pets has led chimpanzees to the brink of extinction. In late 1980s, enthusiasts opened a sanctuary for orphaned apes in northwest Zambia.
More than three decades ago, an English couple arrived in Zambia, looking for some peace and quiet in their retirement years. David and Sheila Siddle found a plot of land and began raising cattle. But one day, a ranger knocked on their door with a baby chimpanzee in his arms. It was badly injured and no one expected it to survive.
“He still lives here at Chimfunshi, and as time when on, the next came, and the next and the next,” says Sebastian Louis, recounting the Chimpanzee sanctuary’s early history. “Chimfunshi became known as a place where chimpanzees can live and be cared for in freedom.”
Compared to Pal, as that first orphan was named, Louis is a recent addition to the Chimfushi family. In 1988 his brother Stephan came to Zambia from Germany and discovered the reserve.
“He was really inspired by this place and set up a foundation – a non-profit association – and collected donations for the project.”
With funding, the project expanded so encompass six large enclosures on the 4,200-hecter reserve that Pal now shares with over 130 other chimpanzees. They come from all over the world, Louis says. And they often have a history marked by violence.
Some have been rescued from private homes or zoos, others are confiscated from smugglers at airports. “On the international market, a chimpanzee can go for up to 100,000 dollars,” Louis explains. “Mainly from large pharmaceutical companies that use them in research, but Micheal Jackson had his chimpanze, too.”
As well as being sold as pets, Chimpanzees are also consumed in Chinese medicine, and closer to home in Africa as bush meat.
Combined with habitat loss, these threats mean chimpanzee numbers are falling. “There are around 100 to 150,000 chimpanzees around the world and their numbers are falling,” Louis said.
That means sanctuaries like Chimfunshi are all the more important. After Stephan Louis died suddenly in 2011, and his brother decided to carry on his work. He says he’s driven by the need to protect these threatened animals. But also by his attachment to the Chimfunshi reserve itself.
“I got to know this place with my brother, and grew to love it,” he says. But he has also taken the project in new directions. “I've been trying to see a bit further, how will the future look, and in my view we only have a future when people who live here are trained and can come day take the project in hand.”
Over 300 people live at Chimfunshi – the sanctuary’s employees and over 150 of their children – and the Chimfunshi association has invested in a health centre and a school. Luis believes that investing in the future of the community is not only key to the project’s survival but also addresses a key problem in Africa.
“I believe it is fundamentally education in Africa that leaves much to be desired,” he says. “Now we have a school at Chimfunchi with three teachers and try to give the children a decent education, if possible to university level.”
Looking ahead, Luis would like to see Chimfunchi’s human residents take charge of its future. “In the medium term, the goal is to make a self-financing project under the Zambian leadership.”
“What the medium term is in Africa,” he notes with a smile, “is anyone’s guess.”