Travel to Uganda and Rwanda is usually focused on gorillas. Since I was arriving early, my travel agent Ian suggested a visit to Ngamba Island’s chimpanzees. The Chimpanzee Trust is focused on caring for orphaned and/or confiscated chimpanzees that can’t be returned to the wild, educating citizens on conservation and building partnerships with organizations working on chimpanzee conservation. Ngamba Island is located on Lake Victoria about a 45 minute boat ride from Entebbe, Uganda. The island includes approximately 95 acres of forest area for the chimpanzees with an additional 5 acres dedicated to the staff. I signed up for the Caretaker Experience that included assisting keepers with preparing meals and other duties. It was right up my alley. I was looking forward to seeing how that compared to my volunteer duties preparing meals at the Feline Section of the Denver Zoo.
Note: The Caretaker Experience is hands on and does not allow much time for taking pictures. It does, however, offer the opportunity to get closer to the chimpanzees, which was my goal.
My sister, Wendy, asked me a week before I left if I had any specific hopes for my trip. One that came immediately to mind was touching a chimpanzee. I’m not sure why that was important, but I really wanted a more intimate connection and there was a possibility, not guaranteed, it might occur during this portion of the trip.
Lilly Ajarova, the Executive Director of the Trust, provided an overview of all the outreach efforts occurring across Uganda in schools and communities. They are changing the narrative on conservation and how it can help individuals and their families. It was a privilege to meet her. She was the first of many people I met who are passionately dedicated to the mission of the organization. Lilly and I both climbed aboard the boat that would carry me to the next big adventure on my trip.
Enos, the chimpanzee caregiver I was assigned to, met me at the dock. After getting settled in my tent, I met Enos at the kitchen ready to help prepare meals for the chimps.
In Denver at the zoo, I use a butcher knife similar to those in my kitchen. Here, they use large cleavers. The diet includes fruits and vegetables to supplement what the chimpanzees eat in the forest. I have to admit, I was a little concerned I might chop off a finger. Enos was a pro. When it was my turn, I put one hand behind my back and took the first swing with the other. Once I connected with the fruit, I pushed the blade through with both hands. Before long, I was covered in sticky pulp and the buckets were full.
We headed first to the cages where several male chimpanzees waited for their meals. I looked for direction from Enos and he told me to step right up.
“Do I just hand him his food?”
I picked up an orange, which is actually green, and held it out. The chimpanzee reached through the bars and gently took it from me. His hands were larger, but not so different from mine. In my first few hours, I’d been touched by a chimpanzee and it made me cry. Looking into his eyes and feeling his fingers on my hand even for a moment helped me understand why people like Jane Goodall and the staff members on the island, love them so much.
As I sniffled, I helped feed a couple other males in the cages. Then it was time to head to the electric fence that separated the forest from the public area. The rest of the chimpanzees knew it was feeding time and were waiting, many holding their hands up in the air hoping to catch our attention. I went from tears to laughing. I got into my throwing stance and heaved the food over the fence. Some of those chimps can catch like pro baseball players. It was astonishing and so much fun.
They feed the chimpanzees several times during the day. Those not participating in the caretaker experience watch the feedings but don’t get to help.
In the evening, the chimpanzees from the forest come into the compound to sleep in the cages. They can choose whether to stay out or come in, but those who come in are provided warm porridge and cabbage for dinner. Chimpanzees in the wild build nests each night. The limited forest area on the island cannot recover quick enough to support that level of destruction. The chimps who sleep in the cages are provided hammocks and they seem very comfortable. It requires all hands on deck to safely direct the chimpanzees through the chutes and into the right cages.
Once those that wanted to come in were housed, it was dinner time. The staff was careful to direct me to the chimpanzees that I could help feed. The majority may not be so comfortable with strangers and they wanted to keep both the chimps and I safe. Safety is a high priority on Ngamba Island. I found that out before I even arrived. In order to be in a caretaker role, I needed ten different tests and vaccinations to ensure I wouldn’t be a danger to the chimpanzees.
Just as I was thinking the day couldn’t get any better…
I got to feed 2 1/2 year old Eazy his porridge as he held my hand. That’s his mom beside him. Special thanks to David, from a visiting film crew, who took this photo for me.
The film crew was working on a documentary about chimpanzees and technology. They had iPads with strong plastic cases for the chimps to use. Apparently, the first thing chimps do with something they aren’t familiar with is to bite it. I didn’t get to watch any of the filming, but I did have dinner, laughs and lots of champagne with the filmmakers. I can’t wait to see how the documentary turns out. It may be on Discovery or BBC next year.
After an incredible day, I headed back to my tent, watching thousands of bats heading out for the night from my front porch. Perfect time for me to be inside.
Yes. There is a full bathroom and shower in the back area. Life is good.
In the morning, the chimpanzees were released into the forest and cleaning duties commenced.
Did I tell you I loved every minute? I did, even cleaning up after the chimpanzees.
And, not to overlook my favorite bird lovers, check out the view from my front porch.
There are lots of beautiful birds on Ngamba Island. I wish I could have spent another day photographing them.
The Caretaker Experience on the island is only for 24 hours, but I was able to make the most of every minute. For people who are interested in a more in-depth experience with the staff and chimpanzees, the Trust offers opportunities to volunteer for weeks at a time.
Special thanks to Enos, Joseph and Lilly who made my 24 hours unforgettable. I highly recommend visiting Ngamba Island for those traveling to Uganda. There is no way I can ever take pictures or put into words what this visit meant to me. I still get teary eyed just thinking about it. What a privilege.