Gorillas in Our Midst (Part I): Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Reintroduction
Animal Keeper Tania Prebble took leave of her post caring for great apes at the L.A. Zoo to spend February at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon, Africa, to work with orphaned lowland gorillas. She had applied for this year’s Sloan Grant, but decided to go on her own time and expense to exchange knowledge and experience with field biologists working with primates. Limbe Wildlife Centre is a rescue, rehab, and reintroduction project founded in 1993 as a collaborative effort between the Government of Cameroon and Pandrillus Foundation, which the Zoo supports through the GLAZA Conservation Fund. By providing a long-term solution for confiscated wildlife and working with the local and international community, the project aims to secure the survival of the endangered species of Cameroon.
Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Reintroduction
After 19 hours of airtime and a two-and-a-half hour car ride, I finally arrive at Limbe, Cameroon.
Traveling out of the city from Douala (one of Cameroon’s two airports) is quite a challenge with all of the traffic and commotion in town. It’s late on a Saturday evening, and lots of people are out. Personal vehicles, taxicabs, and taxi motorbikes crowd the streets. Many of the old roads are being upgraded, and construction trucks are parked off to the side, waiting to go to work. Once we clear town and start toward Limbe, lush trees are feet away from our path and little villages appear and disappear in the blink of an eye.
Limbe City is in the southwest province of Cameroon. Lucky for me, English is the official language. French and pidgin English are also spoken.
Upon arrival at the Limbe Wildlife Centre (LWC), I, along with the lady who shared the car ride with me, am greeted by four additional volunteers who had already been calling Limbe home. We learn that the house will soon be filled with seven, as another volunteer is expected to arrive in two days.
The Centre offers volunteers a house to stay in, so I opted for the accommodation. Plus, it’s only a ten-minute walk to the Centre. Thanks to my late night arrival the previous day, I got to sleep in, relax, and meet up with the managers so I knew where to report for my month-long volunteer duties.
Founded in 1993 as a collaborative effort between Pandrillus Foundation and the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife of the Government of Cameroon, the Centre focuses on conservation and rehabilitation of wild animals, many of which are seized by anti-poaching, surveillance, and law enforcement services. With nowhere for orphaned primates to go, the goal was to create a sanctuary for chimpanzees. The Victoria Zoo in Limbe seemed like an ideal location with good land, a viable water supply, and plenty of visitors who would be given the opportunity to learn about wildlife. Initially, one chimpanzee lived there, as well as three drills, guenons, and an adult male mandrill.
Today, LWC is home to 16 primate species native to Cameroon, including western lowland gorillas, a Cross River gorilla, chimpanzees, drills, mandrills, baboons, three mangabey species, and seven guenon species. The Centre has also taken in small carnivores, duikers, birds, and reptiles that have been orphaned and brought in for rehabilitation.
Each animal at the Centre comes with a horrifying story in which they were taken from their families in environments that should have been their safe haven. Taken by poachers for bushmeat or illegal sale in the black market, many animals come in malnourished from abandonment, while others who managed to escape need treatment from gunshot wounds. LWC is committed to the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintroduction of wildlife, with its end goal being the eventual release of these animals back into safe, natural habitats. Working with the local and international community, the project aims to secure the survival of the endangered species of Cameroon.
My first three days consist of kitchen work. Food is sorted, weighed, and placed in wheelbarrows for all the animals for the entire day. A variety of food is given based on what is available throughout the week. Some food is donated, but the Centre relies on monetary donations and paid admissions for daily food items and supplies. Aframomum (a tropical plant genus related to ginger) is given daily, as well as enrichment by keepers.
Volunteers help the keepers with their daily duties. Once volunteers go through a brief quarantine period, we are assigned to work a few days in each section.
On day four, I am able to work with the drills, baboons, and mandrills. Cages are cleaned first thing, and then everyone has time for observing the animals. We feed out morning fruit and cassava leaves. Lunch is given to the animals and a few hours later dinner. Elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) is also a main staple in their diet.
Tomorrow is my first day off.
Stay tuned for more adventures!
All photos, courtesy of L.A. Zoo Animal Keeper Tania Prebble
Read more about western lowland gorillas: