We are supine on the leafy forest floor. I stroke Billi’s head and fondle her ears; she runs her leathery black fingers through my hair, and into my pockets. Her silky fur smells clean and earthy; her amber eyes meet mine. But I’m out of peanuts, and I lose her interest. Besides, she’s got trees to climb.
I’ve come to Uganda to be with chimpanzees, both in the wild and here, as a sanctuary volunteer on Ngamba Island.
With human population growing and wildlife habitat shrinking, chimps are in trouble. This hundred-acre island on Lake Victoria is a refuge for just under 50 of them, confiscated from smugglers, hunters, and miserable confinement.
In 1998, an eco-consortium purchased Ngamba from its resident fishing community, and over time installed solar power, water storage tanks, compost toilets, a vet clinic, and accomodations for staff and visitors. Night cages serve as a chimp dorm and holding facility. Thatched open-air dining and welcome pavillions serve guests. My home is one of several raised safari-chic tents at lake’s edge.
An electrified fence separates this human enclave from forest, where rescued chimps roam, forage, and forge a new social order. Several times daily they return to a clearing for treats to supplement their diet. This is when visitors witness behaviors, and perhaps choose favorites among the troop.
Mornings are for cage cleaning. While a white carpet of egrets stabs at the shallows by my tent, I dress hurredly and galumph uphill through a slithering gauntlet of Nile monitor lizards, five feet long and, fortunately, rather shy.
Clad in green worksuits and rubber boots, we push across the soiled cages with poop brooms, gathering used hay, hosing and disinfecting the floors. The heat makes me think I’m working hard.
The boat from Entebbe brings provisions, day visitors and school groups. All pass through the welcome pavillion for Chimpanzee 101, to learn the issues before watching the feedings, birdwatching and exploring. Tourists headed to seek the remaining mountain gorillas in the lush parks of Bwindi or Mgahinda may include Ngamba in their itinerary.
After staffworker Joseph teaches proper kitchen procedure, volunteers Vickie, Scott and I enter Deep Chopping Mode. Mounds of carrots spill from one shelf, cabbages from another. Pineapple and jackfruit juice drips down our aprons. With military precision, we chop and layer chunks into pails, then haul them upstairs to the viewing platform. On the grassy clearing below, the chimps have taken positions, arms raised, to intercept the mango missiles, pineapple projectiles, carrot rockets, and cabbage bombs hurled their way.
Piercing shrieks suddenly disrupt this fun game. Mika, fur bristling and canines bared, confronts Eddy, another huge male, and a chase ensues, round tree trunks and back.
“If there are two chimps, one is boss,” says Stany Nyandwi, senior caregiver. Stany knows these animals like no one else, having cared for some during dangerous times in his native Burundi. Now he enjoys the “safe” physical access and affection that eludes the casual visitor.
Through the fence I spot my pal Billi, scooping lake water with a found jerrycan. From information plaques posted along the walkway, I’ve learned that she’s come a long way since arriving, diseased and malnourished, in 2001.
Before dusk, the chimps amble in from the forest to their holding pens, for porridge, more treats, and an armful of fresh straw to arrange in their sleep hammocks.
Guests, staff, and the occasional resident scientist mix it up at dinner, exchanging tales of adventure and primate gossip. Wine glasses in hand, we traipse out onto the grass, in time for a swirling onslaught of bats on an insect safari.
Returning to my tent, I stop by the small office and library. A photo of Jane Goodall, who I met at the onset of her research, hangs above the shelves of donated books, computers, notices and schedules. Now 81, Dr. Jane is the reason I am here, and also the reason that each of Ngamba’s chimps is named rather than numbered — or that there are any sanctuaries at all.
Finally tucked under my blanket, I try some reading. Lilting music from Myende, the nearby island village where many relocated from Ngamba, drifts across the waves. A mysterious creature scampers back and forth on my roof. And abruptly, there’s a fracas; earsplitting shrieks, escalating in pitch and number, a howling back and forth. The chimps are having a row about some grievance, some secret we may never know.
Ericka Hamburg is a New York-based writer, photographer, and artist.
Editor’s Note: Hanging with the relatives? #RiskWorthTaking. Get Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection for all #RisksWorthTaking. It’s right here.