Inside the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone (video)
- The Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, located on the outskirts of Freetown, is a haven for orphaned chimpanzees in Sierra Leone.
- Part of a network of sanctuaries in West Africa, Tacugama provides refuge for orphaned western chimpanzees, who are critically endangered.
- Ashoka Mukpo of Mongabay visited Tacugama in April and sat down with Bala Amarasekaran, the shrine’s founder.
In the 1970s, there were approximately 20,000 critically endangered western chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. But in 2008, when the most recent census was taken, there were only about 5,500 western chimpanzees (Pan troglodyte verus) left. Like those of its neighbors in West and Central Africa, Sierra Leone’s chimpanzee habitats are shrinking, and so are their numbers.
Some are removed from their natural habitats to make way for agriculture, logging, and the development of roads or other infrastructure. Others are victimized by hunters or trafficked as illegal pets. When they leave behind orphaned babies, there aren’t many good options for what to do with them. Sierra Leone has a long list of urgent needs, and caring for young chimpanzees is not high on the list.
For nearly 30 years, the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary has been trying to fill this gap.
Located about an hour’s drive from the outskirts of the capital, Freetown, Tacugama was founded in 1995 by Bala Amarasekaran, who immigrated to Sierra Leone from Sri Lanka as a teenager. In 1989, Amarasekaran encountered an emaciated chimpanzee orphan in the countryside. He paid $30 for the young man, whom he and his wife named Bruno.
Six years of intense lobbying later, the government offered Amarasekaran a plot of land inside a forest reserve outside Freetown to open a chimpanzee sanctuary. It was 1995, at the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war, within two years there were 24 chimpanzees in Tacugama.
Today, the sanctuary is home to 111 chimpanzees. It is one of the largest such facilities in West Africa, part of a network set up to help sort out the damage the species is facing from deforestation and other threats. Part refuge, part educational experience for Sierra Leoneans, and part tourist attraction, Tacugama attracts visitors from all over the world. This year it was the subject of a New York Times list of post-pandemic travel destinations.
Over the years, the scope of Tacugama’s work has expanded. Beyond housing, feeding and rehabilitating orphaned chimpanzees, Amarasekaran says he and other sanctuary staff fund ecotourism and other projects in rural areas that aim to help to protect wild chimpanzees so they don’t end up in Tacugama.
“It started out as an orphanage and a sanctuary, but now we’re looking more at the root causes and what we need to do to protect wild chimpanzees where they already are,” he told Mongabay.
Getting communities to buy into chimpanzee protection takes patience and an understanding of the economic pressures they face, he adds. For people struggling to find their next meal and send their kids to school, conservation is often a luxury they can’t afford.
“It’s not about going out and preaching to people about conservation and climate change,” says Amarasekaran. “When people are hungry, it doesn’t work.”
In 2019, western chimpanzees were named the national animal of Sierra Leone. It was a celebratory moment for Tacugama, who was one of the driving forces behind the decision. But Amasekaran says he still needs to be backed up with action to stop illegal logging and other forms of habitat destruction.
“It took us 25 years to have them declared a national animal. But now it’s about being proud of it and seeing how we can carry forward that legacy and protect the species,” he says.
Amarasekaran and his team have not always had it easy. In 2006, Bruno and 26 other chimpanzees escaped in a notorious incident that resulted in the death of a local driver. Bruno himself remains at large; despite rumors of sightings, no one knows for sure if he is still alive.
And between 2005 and 2018, more than 50 chimpanzees died of a mysterious illness at the sanctuary.
Even the healthy chimpanzees that remain are symbols of the devastation the species faces in its natural habitat.
“Scientists have proven that every time you have a chimpanzee landing in a sanctuary, probably eight to 10 will be dead. [in the wild]. So if you look at 111 chimpanzees here, you’re probably seeing 1,000 that are dead,” says Amarasekaran.
In early April, Ashoka Mukpo from Mongabay visited Tacugama and spoke with Amarasekaran. Watch the report here:
Banner Image: Chimpanzee at Tacugama Sanctuary, Sierra Leone. Image via Flickr.