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The Chimpanzee and Me: Ben Garrod on Amazing Apes

Posted on 24th December 2019 by Mark Skinner

On Thursday 9 January, Baby Chimp Rescue hits the nation's television screens, featuring chimp specialist, broadcaster and author Ben Garrod looking after some ape oprhans in Liberia. In this exclusive essay for Waterstones, Ben, the author of The Chimpanzee and Me, reveals his love and friendship with chimps and how he got his first big break courtesy of one of his childhood idols. 

You know that feeling when you meet someone for the first time and you just click? When you know that you have so much in common and that spending even a small amount of time with this person will enrich your life immeasurably? Well, that person doesn’t necessarily have to be human. In fact, some of my closest friends are different species. One is my dog, Jack, another is a chimpanzee called Pasa.

I’m lucky enough to be one of the few people on the planet to have worked with chimpanzees and one of even fewer who can say they have lived among a wild population of our nearest living relatives. After working with chimps for over fifteen years, it’s clear not only how like us they are, but how vulnerable they are in our drastically changing world.

I got to work with chimpanzees by a slightly less than conventional route but it’s a story I share with budding young biologists to show the importance of being able to chat to people, as you never know when your lucky break might come. I was in the third year of my Animal Behaviour degree. I had a job as a waiter during my time at university and as my degree was nearing an end and I was thinking ‘what next?’, I found myself serving Dr Jane Goodall at a dinner. The Jane Goodall. I’d never idolised pop stars or Hollywood actors as I grew up, but explorers and scientists.  And Jane Goodall was at the top of the list. Having gone out to East Africa in 1960, she was the first person to successfully study wild chimpanzees in their natural habitat and to scientifically describe that our great ape cousins hunted other species, and also made tools, something so fundamental, it made us rethink our own position within the animal kingdom. That Jane Goodall. I ended up waiting on my science hero that evening and we got chatting. I must obviously serve soup pretty well because within a few months, I was in Uganda working for Jane, running one of her projects in the wild, where I was responsible for the lives and safety of over one hundred and fifty wild chimpanzees. My days were long and tough, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. As I left my thatched mud hut each morning, I’d call out to the friendly (well, I assumed it was friendly) cobra living close to my door and would wonder whether we’d see the lions which had taken up residence in the forest, which made for an interesting encounter every so often. All being well, I would join my team of trackers and field assistants to locate the chimps and follow them, to see what they did and try to get them more comfortable in our presence.  This allowed a limited amount of ecotourism, and in return, a large amount of protection, to take place. I loved my time in the forest and learned more about chimpanzees, and us, than I ever dared hope to. I also saw that, in my forest at least, their future was bright.

When I visited chimpanzees in Western Africa, I saw a different story and witnessed first-hand how much trouble some animals are in around the world. There are two species of chimp; the chimpanzee we’re all familiar with, and the less well known, but equally wonderful, bonobo. Within the chimpanzee species are four further splits, into what we call subspecies. For the western subspecies, numbers have dropped by as much as eighty per cent in the last few years. That means four out of every five chimpanzees in Western Africa are gone, and they’re gone because of us. Habitat destruction, the illegal pet trade and the international bushmeat trade are bringing these amazing beings close to the edge of existence and once they drop into extinction, that’s it.  They're gone. People have always cut down forests and have always had wild animals as pets.  They have always hunted and eaten wild meat, but the level of destruction and death now is greater than at any point in the history of the chimpanzee’s existence. Rich companies around the world are razing entire forests either for the beautiful wood or to clear ground so they can grow rubber trees or oil palm for palm oil production. Whole families of wild chimpanzees are being killed so that someone can show off their new ‘pet’ baby chimp, only to realise their illegally caught $20,000 pet will grow into a terrifyingly strong, emotionally damaged, wild adult. Airports around the world, including the UK, European countries, as well as the USA, are tackling a rise in the amount of illegal wild meat coming out of Africa to provide fancy meals to people far removed from the necessity to survive off whatever meals they can source. In London, New York and Paris, there’s demand for wild meat, including chimpanzee, which fuels their killing in the wild. Let’s hope we can stop it before it’s too late.

There is good news though. I went to visit friends I met years ago in Eastern Africa who found themselves setting up a much-needed chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia, on the opposite side of the continent. Expert caregiver, Jenny Desmond, and her veterinarian husband, Jimmy, have settled in this lush coastal country, and are saving orphaned chimpanzees day after day. Picking them up from police roadblocks, confiscating them from city streets and gratefully receiving them from members of the public who can no longer cope with their pet baby chimp, the Desmonds work tirelessly to turn the fate of chimpanzees around in this important part of the western chimpanzee’s range. Through educating school children, engaging with the public and working directly with the police and judiciary to strengthen laws and secure prosecutions, Jenny and Jimmy offer a lifeline to our forest cousins. Stretched to breaking point, Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection now has more than fifty orphans and desperately needs to build a dedicated sanctuary, where every orphan is safe and every baby ape can receive the time, resources and care he or she needs. I was fortunate enough to spend time with the Desmonds for an eighteen-month period and it changed my life. I witnessed the harsh reality for those chimpanzees not lucky enough to be saved and saw how much needs to be done to save the lucky ones.

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