by Becci and Mark Crowe
Tchimpounga…we had never heard of it until Dr. Jane Goodall opened our eyes and the hearts and minds of the world when she shared the story of an orphaned chimpanzee named Wounda during WCN’s Wildlife Conservation Expo in 2013. Wounda was near death when she arrived at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center outside Pointe Noire, Republic of Congo. Thanks to the dedicated care of Rebeca Atencia and the Jane Goodall Institute staff, Wounda survived. Dr. Goodall met Wounda for the first time in June of that year when she helped release her to a new home on Tchindzoulou Island, one of Tchimpounga’s island sanctuaries in the middle of the Kouilou River where Wounda could roam freely and safely. Wounda’s release, captured on video, brought the WCN audience to tears. Dr. Goodall then voiced an appeal, a birthday wish, that by her 80th birthday enough funds could be raised to move over 100 more chimpanzees to the three forest islands awaiting them.
My husband Mark and I knew, in that moment, we must answer the call. When WCN hosted Dr. Goodall’s 80th birthday celebration in San Francisco six months later, it created the opportunity for us to participate. We wanted to help make Jane Goodall’s birthday wish come true and we were hoping—somehow—to bear witness to the work being done. More than one wish came true that night when we won a trip to join Dr. Goodall in Tchimpounga and see the release of more chimpanzees to the islands. We will never forget that moment.
Mark and I waited a year before we finally set foot in Tchimpounga. Our first chimpanzee sighting was driving into the compound and seeing Group 4, the younger orphans, in their outdoor enclosure. As we stood facing the chimpanzees on the other side of the fence, they were as curious about us as we were about them. Looking into their eyes, they held my gaze with an intensity that took me by surprise. Then, being young and playful, they figured out they could get a really good reaction by throwing dirt on us.
Dr. Goodall was with us for seven days and we had the warm hospitality and expert guidance of the JGI staff. The days were full and the highlights many. Tchimpounga also has a Mandrill release program. We drove into Conkouati National Park on a rough road hacked through the jungle to join the Mandrill Release Team at their base camp along the Ngongo River. The release site is accessed by boat from this camp where humans enter a cage system directly from the boat and the mandrills roam freely around you. Luckily for us, the mandrills were interested in checking out their new caged visitors. We were privileged to see the amazing sight of a young mother who had given birth less than 12 hours before our arrival. She sat calmly with her newborn nursing in her arms right in front of us, the umbilical cord still attached to the baby’s abdomen.
But what about Wounda? That was another boat trip up the Kouilou River to the island currently home to Wounda and 23 other orphaned chimpanzees. We pulled up to the bank and remained in the boat, waiting. They started coming from the forest, a few at a time, towards the shoreline. Then, emerging from the forest in her own good time came Wounda. Not only is Wounda thriving, she’s a dominant female, and we were captivated as she and her new integrated family interacted with each other on their island home. What a sight to behold.
We also saw the construction progress on the three islands and how much has been accomplished under logistical challenges where everything must be transported by boat to the sites. What we witnessed during our stay is testimony to the tangible success of the work being done with donor funds on behalf of the chimpanzees. But that wasn’t the end of our journey. We were told three more chimpanzees were ready to be released onto one of the islands and we would be there to assist. Mark and I were each given a key to unlock the crates containing two female chimpanzees. With Dr. Goodall and the JGI staff around us we unlocked the crates and lifted the doors. Watching them bound into their new world, it took a moment to sink in. Ultimately, this is what it’s all about… providing these orphans with a secure home in a natural forest environment where they can live with a new found freedom. This is what brought us all together. Mark and I were humbled to be standing there. No matter where you are in the world—as wildlife supporters—we are one and we are making a difference.
Disclaimer: Please note that Dr. Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute do not endorse handling or interfering with wild chimpanzees.