When it comes to chimpanzee toddlers, girls rule. Skippy climbs with her hands and feet into the forest canopy, swinging through the spindly vines. The boys: they prefer to cuddle with their human carer.
They are all orphans, rescued from across Sierra Leone and raised at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
“I want them to get used to the forest. So, when they join a new group, they will be ready,” says Mamma Posseh, who everyone calls Mamma P. She is the surrogate mother to the baby chimps.
The three chimps at forest school are some of the newer arrivals to the sanctuary, an oasis for more than 100 of our closest relatives inside Sierra Leone’s Western Area Peninsula National Park.
The sanctuary not only shelters orphaned chimpanzees but serves as a conservation leader in Sierra Leone, managing several national parks, and battling against rapid deforestation that threatens the entire region.
“Chimps are so much like us, we need to care for them” says Bala Amarasekaran, the founder of Tacugama.
He has become something of a legend in Sierra Leone. An immigrant from Sri Lanka who arrived with his family as a teenager, Amarasekaran and his wife rescued their first chimp in 1988 on a trip north, around 150 miles from Freetown. He was tied to a tree in a village, like many orphaned chimps, being kept as a pet. They called him Bruno.
“Once I met that first chimp, he started showing us the way. It’s not about just that chimp, it is about the species,” Amarasekaran says.
That one chimp soon became seven - and the sanctuary was born in 1995.
Amarasekaran has managed Tacugama through Sierra Leone’s brutal civil wars and heart-stopping Ebola outbreaks. Along the way he’s pushed chimps into the national consciousness, lobbying for the primate to become the national animal in 2019. Bruno’s picture is now on the national passport.
But sometimes publicity isn’t enough and the park faces an ominous threat. The once almost 18,000-hectare Western Area Peninsula National Park is on a wedge of forest hemmed in by the country’s capital, Freetown.
The wedge is shrinking fast.
Regular satellite analysis funded by the World Food Program shows that the park has lost a quarter of its forest since just 2016. The canopy decimation is replicated throughout Sierra Leone and much of West Africa. Recent analysis of long-term losses show that more than 80% of the region’s forests have vanished.