Champions and Chimpanzees

The excited and anxious screeching grew louder and louder as we approached the island. It was known as Marshall or Chimp island by the locals.

With haste, the chimpanzees headed towards the boat.   Their caregivers cautioned us that we were not familiar faces – so we should wait in the boat while they got out to feed the chimps and to give them water.

It would have been a bucket list sighting had these chimps spent their entire lives in the wild, but that was not their history.  Their previous home was a Biomedical research lab – owned by the New York Blood Center.  The research began in the mid 1970’s.  Their test subjects stolen from the wild in Liberia.  For, approximately  thirty years their fate was being test subjects for various diseases mostly hepatitis. About 400 chimps died during that time.


The exploitation and cruelty caught the attention of animal activists questioning how they could subject such intelligent sentient beings to such cruelty and exploitation.   In 2016 their horror came to an end.   The decision was to send them to the six islands spread across a river estuary.   Because chimpanzees cannot swim, it seemed like their best solution. They were divided into groups of about 8/10 chimps on each island.  These chimpanzees would never be able to go back to the wild because they had diseases inflicted on them for the research.

Chimpanzees are humans closest relative – sharing 98.6% DNA.  Chimpanzees have complex social lives and share our emotions too.  Young chimpanzees even love to be tickled, just like human youngsters.

The memory of the sound of a baby chimpanzee’s ticklish laugh is close to my heart.  Mark and I had rescued a baby chimpanzee a few months earlier.  Two days before our visit to Chimp island the orphaned chimpanzee that we rescued was on a journey to a wonderful chimpanzee sanctuary.    She was a victim of the bush meat trade; she was one of the “lucky” victims.  Others aren’t so lucky, their captives don’t feed them or give them milk, they often get injured or killed when captured because their families are killed while trying to protect the baby.  On average 8 to 10 chimps are killed for every orphaned chimpanzee.


The island that we stopped at was one of 3 islands for the day.  Their caregivers went by boat every day to feed them. At the time their food and care, was financed by The New York Blood Center.  A cost of approximately 20 000 dollars a month.  Three of their caregivers took us to the islands by boat packed with food and water for the chimps.  Each of them very caring and devoted caregivers.  Each of them with their own sad history having witnessed the worst of humanity during a brutal civil war. The primary caregiver for the chimpanzees was Joseph Thomas. Joseph had been caring for the chimps for over 30 years.



 It was such a privilege to meet Joseph a couple of weeks earlier.  Joseph cared for the chimps during the Civil war and the Ebola pandemic which was escalating at that time. Because of the Ebola pandemic, we were due to leave Liberia to go back to South Africa.  With the number of Ebola patients increasing, flights were due to be cancelled so most expats were due to leave if they had not already.

It was a bitter, sweet experience watching the chimps being fed by the caregivers. A couple of chimps had babies on their backs.  The cutest of babies.  Those babies were never meant to have been born.  The females were given contraceptives, I am not sure whether it is was improper birth control, but some babies were born on the islands.  I remember thinking at least they would never be subjected to being test subjects for humans, spending their lives in cages. Little did I know that the chimpanzees had another challenging time ahead of them from the very same organization that exploited them.

A few months after we arrived back in South Africa,we heard that the New York Blood Center (NYBC) had terminated their care for the chimps.  Their abandonment meant that the chimps were left to die of starvation. There was no fresh, drinkable water or food on the island.  They put the responsibility on the Liberian government.  A country that was economically crippled and in the middle of an Ebola pandemic crisis that had escalated.  Word came in that Joseph and his team were scrambling with what little funds they had to buy fresh food from the locals.  Joseph then got hold of some expats to help him, the Humane Society of United States were contacted and they got involved.

Animal activists around the world heard about the desertion of the chimpanzees by the NYBC and took action.  An NGO that profited millions of Dollars piloted by wealthy directors living in opulence stood firm on their decision to renege their responsibility. Blinded by their greed they didn’t see the defiance of their decision brewing.  For two years animal activists relentlessly picketed outside their New York Building, and their personal homes.  Social media put major pressure on the NYBC to reinstate funding, as well as the NYBC’s sponsors.   That did the trick. Companies like IBM didn’t approve of their desertion of the chimps and their association could have caused their reputation harm.  It took two years for VICTORY.

The visit to the island that day is a true reflection of our world and humans.  One that I hope will encourage some humans to make better, kinder decisions in life. To leave the world a better place, to leave a legacy of giving back instead of accumulating things.  The wealthy individuals that financially benefitted from the exploitation of the chimpanzees will leave behind fancy cars and houses.  But those who devoted their lives for the wellbeing of the chimps with little material gain will leave behind a legacy of love forever.  


Joseph Thomas vowed to take care of the chimps until he was no longer able to.  He honored that vow. Joseph sadly passed away recently, but what he left behind was a legacy that is difficult to match – compassion, kindness, devotion, generosity and being humble.  A champion for chimps. 

Chimpanzees are not indigenous to South Africa, but like so many animals they are critically endangered.  With deforestation, disease and the bushmeat trade chimpanzees could be gone from the wild in as little as ten years.  We all need to care for our planet.  We need to support the selfless champions on the ground rescuing and rehabilitating animals. 

There have been victories – an incredible couple from America started a chimpanzee sanctuary in Liberia called Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue.  Together with the Liberian Forestry Development authorities they are making a huge, positive difference.

Missy the chimpanzee we rescued is thriving in the wonderful chimp sanctuary – Chimpanzee Conservation Center/Project Primates in Guinea.

You can read about Missy’s story in my book – “Her name is Missy”

For more info on wonderful champions of chimpanzees – follow my facebook page – For Missy and her chimp friends.

To Parfuri & Back


The open safari looked like a UNICEF cargo vehicle almost, not many clothes packed, but lots of beverages and snacks packed, not for survival but to ensure that we would be able to spend every minute of the opening times of the Kruger without having to stop. The beverages weren’t enough – the wonderful hot sunny days required us to quench our thirst with many litres of water and beverages.

Cameras were ready and our excitement remained from the entrance from Crocodile bridge gate… and only subsided when we drove out again when we left after our 6 nights in the Kruger.