Eight years ago, dozens of chimps already traumatized by their use as laboratory test subjects found themselves abandoned on a set of islands in Liberia, after funding for their care was pulled. Even though the chimps’ caretakers no longer had jobs or support, they stayed and fed the animals as best they could to make sure the animals didn’t die. We stepped in to help them, and now Humane Society International/Liberia is responsible for their lifelong care at Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge Liberia. Here, Dr. Richard Ssuna, who runs the refuge as director and senior veterinarian, gives an update on the refuge’s wonderful residents and the island sanctuary they call home.
The work of caring for the chimps starts before dawn each morning. At 6 am, our team of 10 caregivers, led by Dr. Love Kaona, prepares for the morning feeding by slicing up over 500 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables for delivery to the chimps who live on six islands: Papayas, avocados, mangoes, pineapples, oranges and soursop with boiled rice or tubers, coconuts, palm nuts and peanuts. A dedicated team prepares birth control pills for all sexually mature female chimpanzees to ensure an efficient contraception program. The pills are crushed and mixed with fresh fruit and sometimes applied on bread with a spread of honey. The same process is used to administer medication as prescribed by the veterinarian.
The team leaves for the dock at 7:20 am for a five km drive down a dirt road to the dock. After running the outboard boat engines for five minutes and loading the boats with supplies, the team departs for the islands by 7:45 am. Ours is unlike any other sanctuary in Africa or anywhere else, as our chimps are located on six separate islands that are between 10 minutes and over 60 minutes from each other on a motorized boat.
One team of caregivers travels upriver to the chimps on the island furthest away. This “Long Trip” team goes out for the whole day. This reduces gas costs and minimizes risks for staff, as lengthy water travel comes with unique challenges. Team members carry a whole day’s worth of personal and chimp supplies, including ingredients for the afternoon feeding.
In contrast, the “Short Trip” team supplies and feeds chimps on the closest three islands, returning to the mainland after breakfast is delivered. The caregivers then begin to identify, sort and prepare ingredients for the next day. In the afternoon, the Short Trip team returns to the dock to make the afternoon feeding excursion.
In the dry season, our caregivers endure scorching heat. In the wet season, they trek out in heavy downpours. Every single day, the teams show unwavering commitment to the care and wellbeing of the chimps.
Our refuge offers a wonderful diversity of natural habitats for chimpanzees. However, when we first took over the care for the chimps, there was very little infrastructure, which complicated veterinary care and even the most basic maintenance. The chimps were also hungry, having only been fed every other day before we took over operations. Moreover, our chimp population faced more complicated issues than a group of wild chimps: Several chimps were experiencing physical and emotional trauma from their time at the research laboratory. Many suffer long-term health effects from being inoculated with biological agents, including Samantha and David, two of the oldest chimps who are closely monitored due to their advanced age and associated health conditions.
Liberia’s political situation also posed challenges for our refuge. Liberia is still recovering from protracted civil wars from 1989 to 2003, causing social uncertainty and instability. The farming culture remains broken down, and the food for the chimps is predominantly imported from the neighboring countries, which makes obtaining fresh vegetables and fruits a tall order. A local supplier delivers the food three days per week, and a designated caregiver weighs and secures the food in storage to guarantee a reliable daily supply of fresh fruits to the over 60 chimpanzees fortunate to be under our care.
Liberia offers some of West Africa’s most important habitat for chimpanzees. This provides the perfect opportunity for the country to position itself as an important conservation leader, but Liberia’s wildlife protection legislation is not as strong as it should be for it to be effective.
But there is reason to hope: There has been a drastic change in the way chimpanzees are viewed now with the National Public Health Institute of Liberia replacing its predecessor, the Liberia Institute of Biomedical Research, which once hosted the field laboratory where our chimps were test subjects.
Having stabilized the sanctuary’s situation, we are now planning for the future. Kickstarting the infrastructure plan has been an arduous and daunting task due to local challenges and the remote location of our site. Now, the first phase of implementation is almost completed; it has mainly involved structures not meant to house chimpanzees, like buildings for administration, food storage, maintenance, and communications. This month, we’re in the process of moving into these new facilities. (You can follow the latest news and updates from the refuge on social media.)
We also have plans to build new chimp buildings on five islands, as well as a mainland chimp enclosure and veterinary clinic. We expect to start in early 2024 and to complete this in about three years. Since the second phase of the chimp development plan provides unique challenges owing to the aquatic environment where the islands are situated, the project will require special engineering technologies like piling and deep river dredging while minimizing environmental impact.
When we first took on the challenge of helping Liberia’s forgotten chimpanzees, the work ahead of us seemed unimaginable. But in just eight years we have improved the lives of these animals immensely, providing food, stability and veterinary care. And just as importantly, we have pulled together a dedicated team of caregivers, who are the very embodiment of our mission, committed to giving our chimps the lives they always deserved. The success of our refuge in light of so many challenges has brought hope to our people and stands as a testament to the motivating power of compassion.