In Cameroon, Central Africa it is illegal to kill, capture, sell, buy and eat chimpanzees and gorillas, but the rapid rise in bushmeat trade (the illegal killing of wildlife for profit by poachers) is endangering chimpanzees and gorillas living free in the forest. Since these species of great apes are becoming more rare, their meat is considered an expensive delicacy and symbol of social status for the regional wealthy elite. In Defense of Animals – Africa (IDA-Africa), a non-profit organization operating in Cameroon, is waging a campaign to protect chimpanzees and gorillas within their natural habitat, while providing a safe haven for adults and orphans at their 220 acre Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center.
The increase in deforestation from logging and mining in Cameroon limits the chimpanzees range and food supply, while simultaneously giving poachers and hunters easier access to them. Coupled with the fact that chimps and gorillas reproduce only one baby every four to five years, highly increases their risk of extinction.
In collaboration with the Cameroon government, IDA-Africa passionately promotes an extensive education and sensitization campaign, including radio and television to raise awareness of the great apes’ plight. Animal Fair met with IDA-Africa and Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center founder, U.S. veterinarian and animal-welfare activist Sheri Speede to find out more about her rescue organization.
AF: What was your inspiration for founding IDA-Africa and the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center?
SS: In 1995, I sold my interest in my veterinary practice in Portland, Oregon so that I could devote my time to working for non-profit animal advocacy. I went to work for In Defense of Animals (IDA), US non-profit organization, which sponsored my vete
rinary work for primates in sanctuaries under a program called Project Mercy.
While working as a veterinarian at a wildlife center in Cameroon, Central Africa in January 1997, two experiences altered the course of my life dramatically. First, I met three inspirational friends with whom I fell in love. Chimpanzees Jacky, Pepe and Becky were languishing behind a resort hotel where they had been caged as tourist attractions for decades. They had endured so many miserable years on end, wasted in mind-numbing boredom and had every reason to be despondent and hopeless. But they stared at me from behind the bars and I saw that they were somehow surviving emotionally. They jumped into my heart and changed me forever.
My second impactful experience was learning first hand about the toll of the illegal, commercial bushmeat trade on chimpanzees and gorillas in Central Africa. I learned how so many die violent, painful deaths from poachers’ shotguns and machetes and how perhaps the saddest fates befall the infants taken captive by these poachers. I learned about the devastating impact of this wholesale slaughter on dwindling great ape populat
ions and the high price of chimpanzee and gorilla meat in urban markets – great apes were dying to feed the taste preferences of the wealthy. We established In Defense of Animals-Africa as the legal entity for my work in Cameroon, and in collaboration with the Cameroon government, chose the Mbargue Forest as the site for a new chimpanzee sanctuary. In August 1999, Jacky, Pepe and Becky became the first residents of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center.
AF: How long have chimpanzees and gorillas been edging towards extinction because of the bushmeat trade and why the spike?
SS: During the last fifty years, two forces have contributed to the dramatic decline of great ape populations in Central Africa. The first is habitat destruction, and the second is the commercial bushmeat trade. At the same time, the human population is increasing and becoming urbanized. Traditionally, people in Central Africa lived close to the forest and ate animals that came from the forest. As they have congregated in cities, they have taken their traditional taste for forest animals with them. The meat of any non-domesticated animals from the forests, including chimpanzees and gorillas has come to be known as bushmeat. So these increased numbers of people living in cities have created the demand that has led to the commercial bushmeat trade, which is lucrative for hunters.
AF: What can be done to protect the great apes?
SS: If we can stop the killing and eating of chimpanzees and gorillas, the commercial trade in particular, it would be a huge first step in saving these species from extinction. We need to change the way people think about great apes so that it becomes socially unacceptable to kill and eat them. At the same time, we need to protect large tracts of habitat from commercial logging and mining, and from agriculture. We need l
aw enforcement and strong laws on the books.
AF: Share your future goals for your non-profit organization?
SS: Our precedent setting media education campaign will continue and expand. Our goal is to stop the killing, and the orphaning, while we continue to provide second chances for orphans at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center. We have also formed a partnership with two other organizations and the government of Cameroon to eventually reintroduce some of our chimpanzees to forest habitats where they will be truly free again. Our reintroduction projects will incorporate protection for the forests that will benefit the entire forest ecosystem.
Through awareness, education and media, including an Animal Planet–UK “reality soap” called Going Ape, IDA-Africa is bringing an entirely new meaning to the old saying “monkey see – monkey do”. For more information on donating, volunteering, upcoming events or becoming a Chimpanzee Sponsor which includes an 8×10 photo, biography and updates, visit: www.ida-africa.org.