The Chimpanzees of Gabon (Part I): A Friendly “Bonjour!”
Los Angeles Zoo Senior Animal Keeper Candace Sclimenti set off to Africa for four weeks, beginning in January 2016, to consult with staff at the International Center for Medical Research in Franceville, Gabon (CIRMF). The lab at this facility phased out its medical research work with chimpanzees 15 years ago, leaving some 40-plus resident chimps in need of a new home and life. With no sanctuary in place to send them, the primates, who are by nature a social species, have lived and been cared for at the Gabon facility pending their relocation. Sclimenti traveled more than 8,000 miles to lend her expertise and experience in the process of introducing these chimps to their new, large social groups, before they are moved to sanctuaries on island habitats in Gabon. A primatologist, steering committee member for the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan, and long-time collaborator of the Jane Goodall Institute, Sclimenti often consults on chimpanzee behavior, specific to socialization and integration, making her an expert contributor for this project. This is her story from the field.
A Friendly “Bonjour!”
It’s hard to believe it has already been one week since I, along with my colleague from Lowry Park Zoo, Lee Ann Rottman, arrived here at the Centre International de Recherches de Medicales de Franceville, Gabon (CIRMF). It has been a busy week of settling in, meeting staff, getting our bearings, and starting with chimpanzee introductions.
Let me begin by saying how absolutely beautiful Gabon is! The country is tropical and lush with heavily forested rolling hills. With a population of just over one million people, Gabon is mostly undeveloped. Oil and wood are the country’s primary source of income, so tourism is virtually nonexistent here. As such, modern communication has been a little challenging for us this week with no Wi-Fi and the Internet is frequently down. But alas, these are not worthy complaints! Just reasons as to why I have been a little out of touch.
The people are warm and friendly and shopping in the marketplace is a pleasant experience, since no one heckles or hassles us to buy their goods. We simply get a smile, a wave, and a friendly “Bonjour” as we pass by. I love going to the marketplace! It’s alive and vibrant with lots of noise, colors, smells, and activity. I’ve been dying to take photos, but that would be rude and disrespectful, so I’ve restrained myself.
The national language of Gabon is French, and, as Lee Ann and I do not speak it, we have been challenged by the communication barrier. I am pleasantly surprised, however, at how quickly we are learning words and phrases, and in just one week we are much better at following conversations than we were when we first arrived.
Every morning, the staff at the Centre de Primatologie begin their day with a meeting. At first, we were lost and simply tried to follow along based on body language and intonation. Now, we can pick out many words and loosely follow the conversations.
CIRMF is quite large and the 50-plus chimpanzees here are well cared for. There are also more than 156 mandrills who live in two groups in a fenced-in section of the forest along with 20-plus solatus monkeys (a species of Cercopithecus who are found only here in Gabon).
Fifteen years ago CIRMF stopped using chimpanzees in biomedical studies and in 2013 CIRMF’s board of directors voted to cease all biomedical research involving any primates. That year, three gorillas who had been used in research at CIRMF were released to a sanctuary, Projet Gorille Fernan VAZ, and discussions began to find a place to relocate the 40-plus chimpanzees. (Some chimpanzees will not be relocating, due to medical reasons.)
In 2015, a set of islands in the western part of Gabon were identified and acquired for the development of the first major chimpanzee sanctuary in Gabon. The islands will allow the chimpanzees to live in a more natural forested environment with room to explore and climb trees. Dr. Michel Halbwax was hired to oversee the project along with Dr. Barthelemy Ngoubangoye, who manages the Centre de Primatologie here at CIRMF. Michel has not only been instrumental in the chimpanzee relocation project, but has also been integral in my and Lee Ann’s acclimation to life here in Gabon. He is an excellent translator and is very patient with us as we butcher his beautiful language! His passion for this project is evident in the way he works and interacts with both the chimpanzees and their care staff. Members of the chimpanzee care staff are a huge asset to this project! Their knowledge and love of these apes is why we have been able to move quickly and accomplish so much this week. We have already created a group of 18 chimpanzees and moved three chimpanzees in order to begin the next round of introductions.
This coming week brings bigger challenges as we move forward, creating another large group out of several smaller groups; members of who have never met one another. It’s going to be a bit of “musical chimps” as we manipulate groupings in order to build larger groups.
Au revoir for now,
All photos, by L.A. Zoo Senior Animal Keeper Candace Sclimenti
Read more on Candace Sclimenti’s work in Gabon: