the story behind sierra leone’s only chimp sanctuary

Tacugama chimpanzee sanctuary is the first and only chimpanzee sanctuary in Sierra Leone. This project began in 1995, in the midst of a grueling 11 year civil war. Today, Tacugama provides refuge for more than 80 chimpanzees, and works tirelessly to protect the surrounding forest ecosystem. They are dedicated to providing environmental education for the local children, working with rural communities to achieve sustainable resource management, and conducting field research to further wildlife conservation in the Western Area Forest Reserve.

Meet Bala.

27 years ago, with no prior experience with animals, Bala Amarasekaran rescued an orphan chimpanzee from the streets of Freetown. Soon after, he became determined in further investigating the appalling conditions that captive Sierra Leonean chimpanzees were in, rescuing a second orphan along the way.

Bala gave up his 15 year career as an accountant to work full time, transforming an abandoned charcoal pit from scratch.

As word spread that he was rescuing unwanted chimps, more people started offering them to him. Bala knew that keeping them in his home wasn’t a long-term solution, and these chimpanzees sadly couldn’t be returned to the wild. He decided to contact Dr.Jane Goodall, the   famous British primatologist and chimpanzee expert, for advice. The best solution she could think of was to have the chimpanzee’s transferred to a sanctuary in Zambia, as at that time there was no place for them to go in Sierra Leone. Weeks later, Bala was driving when he saw two chimpanzees for sale on the streets of Freetown. He realized that he needed to start a solution within Sierra Leone, and was determined to start the first sanctuary. Realizing his passion, Bala gave up his accounting job, as has worked full time at Tacugama sanctuary ever since. He managed to allocate 100 acres of forest for the project, and raise enough funding to create the sanctuary.

Civil war sacrifices

In 1997, Bala was forced to evacuate the sanctuary, as a coup occupied Sierra Leone. Due to the rebellion, the sanctuary’s funding was frozen, but Bala managed to scrape together funds to Sierra Leone remotely, by approaching various animal welfare organizations in London. Rebels had raided the sanctuary, taking food, medicine and the staff’s belongings. Despite ongoing war and violence, Bala returned to the sanctuary in November 1997, witnessing another brutal rebellion in 1999 where more than 3,000 people were killed.

“The staff had risked their lives to creep around the forest and find enough food to keep the chimpanzees alive.”

– Tacugama
Cesar, an orphan chimp recently recused from the pet trade.

Jane Goodall Returns

27 years later, Jane Goodall returned to Tacugama to meet her old friend Bala, witnessing all that he had built since they last met. It was touching to see the excitement of the staff upon her arrival, and how much she enjoyed her visit. Jane stayed in one of the eco lodges in the forest near the chimp enclosures.

Due to the arrival of Jane Goodall, Tacugama received much needed media attention, showing the local and international public the important work that is being done here, but also expressing how much future action is needed. Ideally, there would be less and less chimpanzees held in the sanctuary, but over the years the number of rescued chimps has only increased. So while Tacugama is working harder than ever, the government is failing to protect the wild chimp populations, as well as the forest as a whole. Not only does Tacugama provide rehabilitation to injured and orphan chimpanzees, but they also work with communities living in close proximity to chimp populations to achieve sustainable management of resources. They have also started an educational program to increase environmental awareness in primary schools, which has already reached over 800 students. Additionally Tacugama conducts field research on wild chimp populations and biodiversity richness, and supports a patrol team who engages in forest protection and reforestation in the Western Area Peninsula National Park.

Learn More, Do More

To learn more about the work being done at Tacugama, and how you can help, please support them on social media and consider donating! It only costs $6.60 per month to sponsor a chimpanzee! You can also donate or consider working as a volunteer (something I plan to do in the near future!)

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