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Sierra Leone News: Tacugama Sanctuary educates local people to help save chimpanzees

It all started with a single baby chimp. Bala Amarasekaren, a Sierra Leonean of Sri Lankan background, then working as an accountant, rescued a baby chimp and named it Bruno. It was the close bond he formed with Bruno, he said, that inspired him to open the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in 1995.
“I thought, he was not just a monkey, he was a lot more than that, and we humans have to do more for them,” he recounted, sitting inside the sanctuary visitor’s center as heavy rains poured down on the forest outside. “They deserve something better from humans.”
Twenty-one years later, Tacugama mission has expanded beyond just providing safe rehabilitation for the 75 rescued chimps who live there. The focus is now on protecting the almost 6,000 chimps who live in the Western Area Peninsula National Park from extinction.
Inside an enclosure in the sanctuary, a dozen chimps screeched, played and fought over food. In a room overlooking them, filled with informational posters, Moses Kappia gave a whirlwind rundown of all the threats facing chimps in Sierra Leone. Kappia has worked at Tacugama ever since it started, and is now head of care staff for the sanctuary.
On the wall was a poster with the words “Stop eating bush meat” above a picture of a chimp’s severed hand. When he came to a board showing photos of chimps killed and butchered for meat, Kappia exclaimed, “Awful, awful pictures, hate to talk about it.”
The bush meat trade is still a problem, Kappia said, and the reason why many chimps like the ones at Tacugama are orphaned. Kappia pointed to snares and bullet casings on display, and explained that it’s pretty easy to hunt chimps, whether by trapping, shooting or killing them with poisoned food. “Habitat loss has squeezed them or gathered them into small pockets of forest,” he said.
Some of the adults killed for food leave babies behind, which villagers sometimes try to raise as pets. Tacugama works hard to find these pets and bring them to the sanctuary where they can be rehabilitated and hopefully return to the wild. According to Amarasekaren, for every chimp that makes it to the sanctuary, around ten others died.
Thirty years ago, Kappia said, a census of the chimp population in Sierra Leone counted 20 thousand. A recent count revealed less than 6 thousand.
A bigger problem than bush meat is habitat destruction. “There’s so much pressure, so much encroachment,” Amarasekaren said. “If not for Tacugama, this place would become a desert by now.”
According to David Momoh, leader of research and outreach officer at Tacugama, local people are constantly clearing the forest to find fertile ground for farming, destroying chimp habitat in the process. Animals like chimps sometimes destroy villagers’ crops, flaming tensions between them and the humans.
“The villagers we are working with, they are purely subsistence farmers,” Momoh explained. “They farm only for their own basic livelihoods, and they have a lot of problems with these chimps and other wildlife. We tell them to protect the forest, not to cut the forest. Animals are coming from the forest into farms. The more the forest develops, the more the animal population increases, the more destruction to their crops.”
Tacugama successfully lobbied to have the Western Area declared a national forest. Crucially, this provides protection to the chimps Tacugama releases back into the wild. But as Amarasekaren sees it, this brings even more responsibility.
“Before I had to protect 100 acres here. But now I have to protect 17,000 hectares, which is the national park,” he said. “It’s not a matter of looking after 80 chimps in Tacugama  there are nearly 6,000 chimps in Tacugama forest.”
This larger goal requires working closely with local communities to halt habitat destruction and the bush meat trade. Tacugama holds educational workshops on how to minimize harm to the environment, and helps people transition from hunting bush meat to raising sheep for food. If there are problems Tacugama can’t help the villagers with, they partner them with other organizations that can.
“Instead of just waiting for people to bring in chimps, we go to the people and talk to them so that they protect the environment,” Momoh said. “It’s a matter of continuous environmental education….The future of these chimps and the future of this forest depends on the next generation, which are the children.”
Educating children can also lead to more rescued chimps. When children from the surrounding area visit for a workshop, Kappia explained, they might whisper to the staff at the end, “Dad has a chimpanzee.”
“It’s a matter of serving as referee in between the humans and the animals to address the animal human conflict,” Kappia said, describing Tacugama’s work. “We started it, and we have to find a way how to reverse the situation.”
By Chetanya Robinson
Tuesday August 02, 2016

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