It hasn’t taken long to discover the center of the Cameroonian wildlife Universe began at Limbe. Somehow, someway, just about everyone in Cameroon, ex-pat anyway, connected to wildlife can be linked to Limbe Wildlife Center; the Cameroonian Kevin Bacon affect. It’s not necessarily the natural epicenter, but history has chosen it—why exactly is still a mystery, I suspect the British had something to do with it, but over the next few weeks I hope to find out why.
Looking with an eye at the long life of Limbe Wildlife Center, born in 1993 out of the rusted cages of the former Victoria Zoo (Limbe was originally named Victoria in the days of British colonial rule, but then again wasn’t half of everything the Brits touched?) it doesn’t seem a natural place for chimpanzees and gorillas to be found. The coastal tropical rainforest seems more suited for smaller primates—not to worry, LWC has its fair share of those orphans as well.
It was a slow day for gorillas as the two large silverbacks – Benito and Batek – each got their turn at the large enclosure. The big males don’t share nicely, so the large enclosure is occupied by only one of them for half a day, then switch and the other gets the afternoon shift. The downside is the whole of Chella’s group (the other silverback) must stay in. So it’s one day in, one day out for everybody.
In general it’s pretty quiet with just one silverback lazing about all that space. The one disturbingly bizarre moment came when a group of French-speaking Cameroonians, twenty strong, well dressed men and women, maybe in their late 30’s, looking like any zoo-goers, paused to take cell phone pictures. Three couples linger a bit longer, as they departed one woman said something among them which included “gorilles” and “délicieux” in the same brief sentence. My French is just good enough, but even that latter word in this context needed no translation. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Part of my brain went into denial while the other part went, this is why you flew for 28 hours, this is what you came to understand.’
Later Jennifer I told the story to Jennifer and she told me similar stories, some spolen directly to her as she led tours. The drills are apparently a special taste favorite — hence the reason for the birth of LWC’s co-parent the Pandillus Foundation.
Late in the afternoon my earlier assumption about not a natural place for great apes was only half right — gorillas don’t appear in local memories, but chimps do. Chimpanzees did, and may still, reside on the rainforested slopes of Mt Cameroon. I say may, because the reason I know for certain chimps were once up there is a group of former bushmeat hunters in the nearby village of Batoke said they hunted them. (I’m meeting with them Saturday for more details on their former hunting life.) The Hunting Union as its was called, is now defunct and the men have been flipped—they and wives participate in the LWC community project Afromomum Project, named for the Aframomum plant, a species in the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) they sustainably harvest from second growth rainforest on lower slopes of Mt Cameroon. The harvest is in turn sold to LWC for browse to feed to… well, virtually everything in the Center. Gorillas especially favor it. The gorillas benefit, as humans have for centuries, on the Afromomum’s medicinal properties.
I spent the late afternoon sitting with Jennifer and visiting vet Emma watching the chimps living in the large open enclosure that dominates the eastern side of the Center. If you have to be an orphan captive chimp the world is full of worse places. About two-thirds of the Center’s 50 chimps share this 200m x 50m green space. Like humans, chimps share their space through the whole swing of the emotional pendulum: most sit quietly taking in the day, grooming friends, snacking on an avocado, others get inspired by a bit of play, romping, wrestling and chasing in a game of tag, but then there are others who punctuate the day, and the air, with screams and screeches, feeling compelled to mix it up, provoked by some insult, or challenge and the whole loosely knit group breaks into momentary chaos, shoulders rounded, hair on end, sticks thrown. On occasions Jennifer tells me these have ended in violence bloody and brutal, even life threatening.
Chimp life here is difficult to photograph, the enclosure is surround by 5m electrical fence, and in other areas a second chain-link fence adds another camera barrier – great for the chimps and keepers – really bad for photography. But the fences are necessary, and even with double security all staff is vigilant for the work of escape artists. Just look into those eyes, really, can you possibly think this is just a brainless animal?
Of the two great ape specifies in Cameroon chimpanzees are by far under the most attack by the bushmeat trade. Why is one question I will ask the Aframomum club on Saturday (and hunters near Ebo Forest in ten days.) I suspect the sheer greater number of chimps versus gorillas is in large part the reason. (Estimates are, according to GRASP http://www.un-grasp.org/great-apes/chimpanzees/ that between the two subspecies perhaps there is a few tens of thousands, Elliot’s Chimpanzee being the rarer of the two as it only lives in Cameroon and Nigeria and in total less than 9,000.)
Bushmeat is omnipresent here. Not a day goes by that it doesn’t pop up or slip sideways into some conversation. With such a strong survival and cultural connection to eating bushmeat breaking the chain is not as simple as “Just Say No.” The recent Ebola outbreak, which did creep momentarily into the neighboring capitol of Nigeria, Lagos, did get people’s attention here in Cameroon. Staff at LWC said they had folks coming to the gates everyday asking about if the animals in the Center were safe. The bushmeat connection had sunk in, at least temporarily. I’ll find out if that connection found its way up the red clay roads into the villages surrounding wildlife rich rainforests later next week.
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo