The natural home for the chimpanzee ranges from Senegal on the west African coast through the central forested belt and across to Uganda. They are not a native species of Kenya but when a rescue centre in Burundi had to close due to the outbreak of civil war in 1993 the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya opened its doors to the Sweetwaters chimpanzee sanctuary.
Situated just 17km from Nanyuki and 217 km’s from Nairobi on the Laikipia Plains the 24,000 acre game reserve has one of the highest wildlife to area ratios of all the national parks and conservancies in the country. Within the conservancy and straddling the Ewaso Nyiro River the fenced enclosure of the Sweetwaters sanctuary consists of two enclosures where the chimpanzee’s are allowed to roam once they have been nursed back to health.
Then they are introduced into one of the two enclosures to be integrated into the groups of chimpanzees already living there where the hope is that they are able to integrate back into the hierarchical groups to re-learn how to be chimpanzees.
The aim of the sanctuary is to provide lifelong refuge to orphaned and abused chimpanzees who arrive at the centre from west and central Africa. Of the 40 or so apes at the sanctuary many are confiscated from cramped and unnatural living conditions with many arriving with horrific injuries sustained from abuse at human hands. Due to the treatment of the chimps none are able to be released back into the wild but the hope is that this sanctuary will allow them to have as similar a life as possible.
The sanctuary is enclosed with high electric fencing which serves to protect the apes from escaping into the wider conservancy where they would be unable to survive due to the abuse they have suffered and their inability to act as unharmed apes do and it all also protects the chimps from those living in nearby villages who would likely kill them if they came across them.
One chimpanzee at the sanctuary was rescued from a cramped cage where it had been forced to stand upright on its hind legs for many hours. As they naturally walk on all fours this abusive treatment still caused the chimpanzee to stand upright at times and it was expected to take a number of years before the effects of the cruel treatment wore off and the chimp felt fully able to adopt more natural behaviour.
The emphasis on education is strong at the sanctuary with skilled keepers taking visitors around the outside perimeter of the sanctuary to explain and show what they do to help and also to highlight the ill-treatment of the chimpanzees.
The sanctuary is a member of PASA – Pan African Sanctuary Alliance – which consists of 18 sanctuaries covering 12 African countries who together care for over 800 orphaned and rescued chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees are apes not monkeys. The two types of chimp – the ‘Common’ and the ‘Bonobo’ are genetically our closest living relatives sharing 98% of our genetic blueprint meaning that less than 2% of our DNA is different from that of the chimps.
Their numbers are declining in the wild and they remain on the endangered species list. Apart from the mistreatment they are also susceptible to many of the same diseases as humans but they don’t have the resistance that humans have. Humans and Leopards are their two main predators and if they can avoid both they can live up to 40 years in the wild or 60 years in captivity.
They are a powerful ape weighing up to 150 lbs and at around 5ft 8in fully grown they are six times stronger than humans. They are also intelligent and can and do use tools. They also laugh when playing games. Their diet consists of insects, eggs, honey, bark, leaves, fruit and meat.
At the beginning of the 20th Century there was estimated to be between 1 and 2 million chimps on the planet – today there are less than 300,000.
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