Nani, one of the lowest-ranking chimps at Uganda’s Ngamba Island Sanctuary, waddles towards me with her arms stretched to the sky in a child’s ‘pick-me-up’ gesture.
She climbs me as if I were a tree, securing her short muscular legs around my waist and her long arms around my neck. I stroke her coarse black fur, breathing in her musky baby smell. Twenty-one countries (all in Africa) still have wild chimpanzee populations, but their numbers are dwindling due to poaching, the trade in bushmeat and wild animals, and habitat destruction.
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is one of the few places in the world where you can have an up-close experience with almost-wild chimps. I’ve taken an hour-long boat ride from Entebbe to the island for the opportunity to walk and play with the sanctuary’s youngest residents.
Chimpanzees share 98.4% of our DNA
Chimpanzees are biologically so similar to humans that they are vulnerable to our diseases and viruses. Visitors to Ngamba are required to have a series of vaccinations against hepatitis B, meningitis and tuberculosis, and to prove immunisation against mumps, measles and polio before being allowed to get close to Nani and the other orphaned chimps that live here.
Into the forest
With the 18-kg (39-pound) Nani on my hip, I follow the caretakers, three other tourists and nine chimpanzees into the 40.5-hectare (100-acre) forest the orphans share with fruit bats and monitor lizards. Surrounded by Lake Victoria, this island sanctuary is an ideal place for water-fearing chimps to roam uncaged.
At a resting spot, Nani lies on the ground next to me, staring at the clouds. Her head follows the path of an African fish eagle flying above, and then a butterfly, until her golden eyes are centimetres from my face. I touch her leathery palm, looking back at her, careful not to stare. Our connection feels different to those I have with people or with my pets. It is quiet, more spiritual. When our group is ready to continue walking, Nani resumes her place in my arms.
‘Nani was confiscated as an infant by a soldier in war-torn Congo,’ the caretaker tells me. ‘She loves being held.’
Later, I sit next to a long-limbed chimp named Sunday who rocks back and forth like a mentally ill person. ‘He worked with a circus act in Italy, Hungary and Austria before being rescued,’ his caretaker tells me. ‘When he wasn’t performing he was kept in a small cage.’
Each of the 40 chimps at Ngamba has its own horrific history. Can sanctuary life compensate in some small way for the killing of their families for bushmeat and the pet trade? Can this island forest offer the same resources their natural homes did? My only solace lies in knowing that, as sanctuaries go, Ngamba Island is among the best in the world.
Returning to the field where we had started our walk one hour earlier, Nani jumps off me to share a banana with her best friend Nakuu and I join my human tribe to share stories about one of the most special experiences of our lives.
To arrange a visit to Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary contact Wild Frontiers firstname.lastname@example.org