‘At some point this century basically the chimpanzee trust as a charity started with Ngamba Island as a sanctuary. The whole goal of setting up the organisation was not just for the sanctuary but it was to look at chimpanzee conservation in general.
‘ At the beginning most of the rescues were recorded originating from Congo and it seems as if Uganda was just being used as a transit route for trafficking chimps out of Africa to different parts of the world for pets and for use in circuses for entertainment. Five years along the line we realised the trend was changing because the government, after Ngamba was established, realised ‘oh, we can now enforce the law better’. Because at the beginning it was, OK we rescue, but now where do we take them? The facility was so small, the law enforcement was not serious. But once Ngamba was established they were able to enforce the law better, they knew if they rescued any there was a place to take them.
‘Then we realised that they were no longer coming from the neighbouring countries, but they were more from within the country. And we started tracing the trails to see where exactly they were coming from. We didn’t have the authority to arrest so we would always stop by a police station and get any policeman who then does the arrest. The chimpanzee would often in bad health, so for us the priority was to deal with the chimp rather than dealing with all the bigger issues. So we would take the chimp and ask the police to follow the legal prosecution process. In most cases, though, nothing comes out of it.
‘From 2006 we started seeing a trend in a particular area. We tracked the trail and we found that it was private forest areas. Because in unprotected areas individuals would feel burdened with having wild chimpanzees on their land, because they were crop raiding so they would be happy to just get rid of them. So they would lay traps in their gardens and if the mother had a baby, the mothers would definitely get trapped by their hand or feet and then it becomes easy for the owner of the land to just spear the chimp. Then they would take the little baby and try to sell it as a pet.
‘So what we did in 2007 was start a big awareness campaign in the area with the private landowners and try and see how we can help them and also help the chimpanzees survive. So it has been very challenging. But what has been very encouraging is that we were actually able to meet some people who were really very understanding, irrespective of the poverty level they have. They are really poor but still do appreciate the value of the forest.
‘With time, we have recruited some of them as ‘chimp monitors conservation ambassadors’, so for us they are the frontline guys that we are working with in the field now. I have five field staff who are full time in the field in this area, but the area is so big, so we have 24 of the community, young men and women, who are helping us. We don’t pay them a salary but we do look for grants and facilitate them. One, we provide bicycle transport which they are not limited to using when they are going to the forest - they can use it for whatever business they have to do so that helps to motivate them, to help monitor the chimps as well. Secondly, we provide them with field gear, boots etc, and even just having those things puts them a step ahead of the others and they feel proud of that. So just for that, they will want to help us. They feel that this work is also benefiting them directly. So for me, they really are the guys! They are really the guys at the front line.’