The Great Chimpanzee Escape
The whistle blew. It was faint, but I heard it. I turned toward it and a man was waving. I might have given him a wave back. I do not recall for sure. The whistle blew a second time, louder, longer, persistent. This time, our guide heard it. He had been smiling and laughing and talking with the girls, but his face abruptly changed. He stopped. I searched his eyes, and knew something was suddenly very wrong. He said we had to leave…quickly! Confusion, fear, and apprehension started bubbling thru my veins. I held my breath. I looked to my husband and our thoughts collided, “The girls!” The guide picked up Jasper, grabbed Sage’s arm, and started galloping off. He looked to us and declared, “A chimpanzee has escaped. We must go, now!” Reality slapped our faces and broke our frozen stares. We obeyed his orders and followed without question. He had both our girls and was moving fast. We stuck to him and our girls. He was carefully searching and scanning as we went, methodically but swiftly. He did not panic, and his soothing voice, every few seconds or so, reassured us to stay calm and we would be okay. We skirted around bushes and buildings along an offbeat path and finally to the parking lot where Alex was waiting for us. He shuffled us into our vehicle and ordered us to go. The car rumbled to a start as we anxiously looked in all directions to glimpse the escapee, but we saw nothing. We were off, the gates closing behind us. We were safe. And I exhaled.
The Full Story
It was our first full day in Ol Pejeta Conservancy when Alex, our safari guide, surprised us with a stop at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. We were then taken on a walk with one of the Chimpanzee handlers, introducing us to the chimpanzees and explaining the sanctuary’s mission when the whistle blew and The Great Chimpanzee Escape went down, as described above. It was exhilarating and obviously a bit scary in the moment, but now we were curious and excited to learn how it all went down. Luckily we did not have to wait too long, and returned the next day to get the full story (and a photo-op with our life-saving guide who carried us to safety – literally.) The story, as we understood it goes like this: The ‘alleged escapee’ had found a large branch or log and placed it on top of the electric fence, so he could walk over without getting zapped by the high voltage current running thru the wires. The handlers saw him outside the fence and immediately created a barrier between the chimp and other visitors. After realizing he was surrounded, the chimp ended up climbing right back over the same log into the sanctuary and then pulled the branch down. All occurred without incident or injury to human or chimp!
Although these chimpanzees are thriving and doing very well here, they can be unpredictable. They are still wild animals with extreme strength and crazy big teeth. Most of these animals have been abused in the past by humans, so accidental encounters under stress can become dangerous, and all precautions are taken to keep everyone safe. Chimpanzees are extremely smart (like placing a log over the electric fence to cross over without electricution gives us any clue). Our closest relative in the animal kingdom, they share 98.6% of our DNA. I find that stat mind-boggling. According to the handlers they are frequently outsmarting one another, and the chimpanzees keep them all on their toes. After our experience, we would agree!
Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary
In 1993 a civil war broke out in Burundi, forcing the closure of a chimpanzee rescue center there. Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and the Jane Goodall Institute stepped up to help out. They collaborated to create the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary with the purpose of providing refuge for chimpanzees rescued from the black market trade and the often horrific conditions and abuses inflicted. The sanctuary also works hard to advocate for chimpanzees by raising awareness of the threats to chimpanzees in the wild, and educating people on the illegal trade of great apes so the laws can effectively be enforced. Chimpanzees are not native to Kenya, and the sanctuary is the only place to view them in the country. Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary works tirelessly to provide these animals a safe, healthy and stimulating environment for the rest of their life, while advocating for their wild brothers. There are approximately 42 chimpanzee residents at this time, with 24-hour veterinary support, and handlers. It costs over $4000 dollars a year to look after just one chimpanzee, and funding comes in the form of entrance fees, grants and donations. If you are interested in supporting these efforts or one of the many other programs Ol Pejeta Conservancy is running, please check it out here.
Observations of a Chimpanzee
We visited the sanctuary for a brief time, yet we were able to observe multiple examples of the intelligence of these fascinating creatures. The girls were so impressed, and what an amazing experience for them as well. The chimpanzee, in our video below, was using a stick to try and get a piece of coconut from the other side of the electric fence. His tool was too short for the job, and he looked to the handler to help him out. The handler went scavenging for a longer “tool” and gave it to the chimpanzee, who then quickly used it to retrieve the coconut. He picked up the coconut and realized there was no fruit left in it for him to eat. He sort-of gave the handler a look that said, “Thanks for nothing!” Threw the coconut and walked away. Ha! It was hilarious, and spoke volumes to all of us on how smart they are and how they process their thoughts. Just like us! They feel, they get sad, they get angry, and they have a great sense of humor. This was such a fun and educational experience for the whole family, including the exhilarating albeit a tad frightening Chimpanzee Escape! Watch the video below and don’t forget to let us know what you think!
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