Is successful reintroduction possible?

March 18th, 2014 by Debbie

In her previous post, Dr. Gwendy Reyes-Illg introduced us to her work with the story of Margot. Here she talks about reintroductions from Afican sanctuaries back into the wild, and some information on how we can help. The sad reality is that many of these chimpanzees simply cannot be reintroduced to the wild because they have suffered too much trauma. No captive chimpanzee in the US has been successfully integrated into African forests—it is nothing like what they are used to. The same can be said for any chimpanzee who begins life in captivity, even if they live in Africa.

Have you witnessed apes experience successful reintroduction and rehabilitation?

Each chimpanzee is a unique individual, and their responses to trauma vary widely. Chimpanzees who were only in captivity for a short while before they were rescued are very different from those who were subjected to years of life as a “pet.” The former seem to have an easier time integrating with the other chimpanzees once in a sanctuary, while the latter are sometimes abnormally bonded to humans and may have a harder time finding their place in the group. Despite their gradual psychological recovery, they may still exhibit stereotypical behaviors, such as rocking or over-grooming.

Sanctuary life is much better than being in the hands of poachers or “owners.” Solitary confinement, the norm for most illegally-held primates, is one of the most miserable situations in which a social animal can find herself. In sanctuaries, primates have others of their own kind with whom to bond and interact. They are given a variety of healthy foods and fresh water. Oftentimes, they also form close relationships with caring staff members.

The sanctuaries I have volunteered for and visited in Africa differ greatly in the conditions in which the apes live. Some sanctuaries provide large tracts of forest where the apes can explore, play, build nests, etc. They are rarely seen during the day, coming near the cages only for feeding time. Other sanctuaries are much smaller, and caregivers must enrich the smaller area they have available to keep the primates stimulated and prevent boredom. Because most African sanctuaries rely on solar power for their electric fences, the apes must come inside at night so they will not escape when the power to the fence gets too low. Aggression can be a problem, especially in close inside quarters.

I have always been enamored with the idea of reintroducing chimpanzees to the wild. In theory, it seems to be one way to right all the wrongs our species has inflicted on these creatures. Reintroduction is liberation, emancipation. Unfortunately, the reality of chimpanzee reintroduction is much more muddled, both logistically and ethically.

The African sanctuaries I have worked closely with are still struggling to find a suitable release site—an area where reintroduced chimpanzees could find the resources they need to survive, without being killed by hunters, or by a well-established group of wild chimpanzees. This is a common challenge for sanctuaries hoping to reintroduce apes to the wild. In addition, apes who have been in captivity for any length of time may harbor infectious diseases that could endanger wild populations.

The actual “release” is just the beginning—not the end—of a life-long commitment to the animals: reintroduced apes must be fitted with tracking devices and constantly monitored for the rest of their lives. This is because they are inevitably habituated to people and areas uninhabited by people are almost impossible to find; to prevent human-ape conflict, crop-raiding, etc., releasers must ensure the reintroduced animals are not moving toward villages or farmland.

A fairly high percentage of chimpanzees die shortly after they are released, even with all the measures in place to prevent this. And after many years in a sanctuary environment, reintroduction may be a stress- and distress-causing event, at least initially, for the individuals involved. Finally, the financial costs of reintroduction project can be very high, and some might argue that limited resources would be better spent on individuals remaining in sanctuaries and on efforts to protect animals still in the wild, for example, by protecting forests or educating people.

Still, reintroduction may be the right option in certain situations. Successfully released apes have many options and freedoms not available to those in sanctuaries. They can roam where they choose, and are free to spend time with individuals they prefer and avoid those they don’t get along with. They do not have to depend on people for food, water, and other necessities. Chimpanzees reintroduced to the wild avoid the sometimes unpleasant husbandry and medical procedures that are an almost universal part of sanctuary chimpanzee life.

Another freedom that comes with reintroduction is the freedom to reproduce and raise offspring. Contraception is used in most sanctuaries because they do not wish to subject more animals to a life of captivity; in addition, every “vacancy” occupied by captive-born animal is not available for one who needs to be rescued. Once in the wild, reproduction not only enriches the lives of the mother and other group members, it also pulls the species a little further away from extinction in the wild—predicted by some to occur for chimpanzees in as little 15 years.

Finally, because reintroduction projects capture the hearts and imagination of many people, they can help draw attention of the plight of apes in general. Local people living in a proposed reintroduction site are “sensitized” to the idea of protecting the apes being released and this may have a ripple effect that gradually helps foster positive attitudes in the larger population.

What can we do to help?

Limited resources are one of the biggest challenges for sanctuaries, especially those in developing countries. People who want to help can donate equipment, supplies, time or money to help meet sanctuaries’ daily needs and help expand education and outreach programs. Many sanctuaries accept volunteers for extended periods, even individuals who have never worked with primates before. Since my work has a veterinary focus, I approach distributors, manufacturers, and practitioners in the hopes that they will donate medications, equipment (such as anesthesia monitors, ultrasound machines, and fracture repair instruments), and medical supplies to bring to the sanctuaries where I work.

In addition, it is important to examine how we might unintentionally be contributing to the tragedy of orphaned chimpanzees. When considering buying wood products, it may be worth looking into the source; logging companies seeking wood for Western markets contribute to the problem both by cutting roads into remote, formerly inaccessible areas of forest and by transporting illegal bushmeat out of the forest. In addition, they sometimes do not provide enough food to their workers, leading some individuals to resort to hunting primates and other wild species.

Finally, taking action on issues that harm primates in the U.S., such as medical research and use in the entertainment and pet industries, has a ripple effect for chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates still in their native regions. These campaigns always need supporters and even people with limited time to contribute can help raise the profile and the moral status of primates in our society.

These pictures were taken at three of the sanctuaries Gwendy has worked for: Limbe Wildlife Centre (in Cameroon), In Defense of Animals—Africa’s Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center (in Cameroon), and the Jane Goodall Institute South Africa (Chimp Eden).

gorillas in africa sanctuary

chimps in africa sanctuary4

chimps in africa sanctuary3

mandrill in africa sanctuary

3 Responses to “Is successful reintroduction possible?”

  1. Wanda Trotta says:

    It’s wonderful that there are sanctuaries but isn’t it sad when looking at the photos to see the wiring to keep them from escaping. The best that can be done now but bittersweet as are all sanctuaries. Would be fantastic if there were no need for them.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Thank you Dr. Gwendy Reyes-Illg and Debbie for this enlightening and informative post. I hope I live to see a day when chimpanzees no longer exist in captivity and instead will thrive in their wild and natural habitats.

  3. Nicole says:

    You also have a picture from Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya, I recognize the chimps I worked with there. 🙂