Ebola Fears Endanger Sierra Leone Chimpanzee Sanctuary

The Tacugama refuge has issued an emergency appeal for donations to keep feeding the apes in its care.

(Photo: Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary/Facebook)

Oct 23, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

One of the most important chimpanzee sanctuaries in West Africa has issued an emergency appeal for financial aid amid Sierra Leone’s Ebola crisis. The staff and animals at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary outside of Freetown are healthy—they do not directly face any threats from the disease—but the turmoil has cut off at least half of their funding.

“The crisis has caused a deficit of $7,500 a month for the past four months,” said Bala Amarasekaran, the sanctuary’s program director and founder, who said he does not expect things to improve anytime soon. “We are deeply worried, as we may be in for the long haul.”

Tacugama has a monthly budget of $15,000, which includes food for the animals, staff salaries, and educational outreach.

The 100-acre sanctuary is home to more than 100 chimpanzees. Tacugama normally receives about 30 percent of its operating budget from the 1,500 tourists who visit annually to see the chimpanzees, stay overnight in the sanctuary’s four lodges, attend yoga weekends, or take birding trips through the surrounding Western Area Peninsula Forest Reserve.

“These visitors have completely vanished in the last months due to the Ebola outbreak,” Amarasekaran said over Skype while several chimps hooted from outside his office window.

The sanctuary receives an additional 20 percent of its income from providing services to other conservation and research organizations that come to the region to study local wildlife. The threat of Ebola has kept those visitors away, too.

While its funding disappeared, the sanctuary also worried that it would no longer be able to locate the right foods for its chimps. So far, though, most of the same food is still available, if more difficult to acquire.

“We can still get supplies for the chimpanzees and staff, but the variety is less and prices are higher than before, due to travel restrictions both within Sierra Leone and in the bordering countries,” Amarasekaran said. The sanctuary also has less buying power because the country has experienced 15 percent inflation in recent months.

The international community has started to take notice of Tacugama’s plight. Several past visitors have held small fund-raisers, including a soup sale at an Australian zoo and a music night in Germany. This week Humane Society International announced two $6,000 donations to help the sanctuary and another Sierra Leone animal welfare organization.

HSI senior policy advisor Bernard Unti, who visited Tacugama in 2005, called the staff there heroes. “The primate sanctuaries in Africa are the greatest hope for chimpanzee preservation we have,” he said. “They educate the public, they bear witness to the threats, they bring pressure on governments, and they provide the safety net for primates in need of care and sanctuary.” He said he hopes HSI’s donation will inspire others to donate as well.

Even as the sanctuary appeals for additional donations and funding, staff members continue their regular outreach to educate local communities about the value of chimpanzees as well as the risks of Ebola and eating bush meat. Even though they have been warning people about eating wild meat for 20 years, Amarasekaran said the message may finally be hitting home: “People say, ‘Oh yeah, we are staying safe because you have been talking about it. We never believed it, but now we are staying safe.’ ”

Amarasekaran said this means his staff has a rare opportunity to enhance their outreach. “We need to keep sending that message out in the terms of the risk of eating bush meat,” he said. “We cannot lose this window while people are afraid of Ebola. It’s the best time when people will listen to you.”

Still, the Ebola crisis does mean the Tacugama staff can’t visit as many places as they once did. They travel to and from the sanctuary in official vehicles rather than using public transportation, and their temperature is tested when they arrive at work. “Everyone is desperate here but determined to carry on,” Amarasekaran said. “The infection rate is doubling every other week. Two staff members recently lost relatives to Ebola. It is getting scary.”

But they continue on. “For us, we don’t have any option,” Amarasekaran said. “These chimps are not chimps, they are individuals. We have known them for a very long time. We’re responsible for them to their very last breath. There’s no option for us even to think in terms of abandoning them. We just need to find ways to continue.”