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Ex-Aspenite takes orphaned chimpanzees under her wing

Jeremy Heiman

A former Aspenite is trying to relocate two orphaned baby chimpanzees from Burundi to a sanctuary in Uganda.

Aly Wood, a former forestry technician with U.S. Forest Service in the Aspen Ranger District, now works for Catholic Relief Services in Bujumbura, Burundi. Wood has taken responsibility for the two chimps, whose mothers were killed by poachers in Congo.

Wood is asking for contributions to help support the chimps until she can clear bureaucratic hurdles that stand in the way of taking them to a safer place.

“She’s caring for the chimps until she can get a permit to ship them over the border,” said Scarlett Adams, president of Aspen-based Friends of Africa.

Wood has worked with chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute in Burundi. That group was able to transplant 17 other chimps from Congo, where they were threatened by war and poaching, to a sanctuary in Kenya.

A friend, aware of Wood’s experience with chimps, bought the two babies on the black market and brought them to her, hoping she’d find a way to protect them. They were orphaned, as primates often are, by meat hunters, who commonly kill any animal that can provide food, endangered or not.

“Chimpanzees are food,” Adams said. “They kill the adults and the babies become barter.” Baby chimpanzees, as well as other wild animals, are often sold to foreigners for whatever money the poachers can get, she said.

Buying the orphaned animals in an effort to save them is not encouraged, because it supports the illegal trade. But sometimes, it’s the only way to save them, Adams said.

Wood said she hopes to relocate the animals to the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, on Lake Victoria, near the city of Entebbe. The chimps can’t simply be released in the forest in Burundi, for three reasons, she said.

First, they were taken away from their social group at a young age, and they don’t have the skills necessary to survive in the forest. “They just wouldn’t survive,” Wood said.

Second, the chimps would likely refuse to be set free. “They would run after you,” she said.

And third, they couldn’t join an existing band of chimps. Chimpanzee social groups don’t allow others into their territory.

Ngamba Island is about 100 acres, and about 97 acres are chimpanzee habitat. On the remaining three acres are scientific buildings, housing for the staff and tourist facilities. A group of 26 chimps live there, Wood said, more or less integrated into a society.

“That’s where we’re hoping these two babies will fit in,” she said. The staff at Ngamba Island work to integrate newcomers into the group, allowing each one to relate first one-on-one, then two-on-one, and so on.

“It can take up to five years for an individual to be integrated,” she said. The two orphans have a good chance of successfully joining this group, Wood said, because they are young.

One of the chimps, Umugenzi, is about three and one half years old; the other, Umutama, is four, she said.

Wood said she keeps the chimps in her back yard, and she has hired two full-time people to care for them. The chimps are very active and very strong, she said, and can get into trouble if unattended for a short time.

Wood is finding it difficult to send the animals to the reserve in Uganda, however, due a bureaucratic problem.

Chimpanzees are on the list of animals regulated by the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. To transfer a listed animal across national borders, one must have permits from both the country the animal is leaving and the country to which the animal is going.

A government minister in charge of such permits in Burundi is holding up the shipment of the animals to Uganda, Wood said. Though he knows the chimps were brought into Burundi illegally with no documentation, he is insisting on documents attesting to their origin before he will allow them to be taken out of the country, Wood said.

“It could be a bribe that he’s looking for,” she said. “But it may be just a stumbling block to keep the chimps in Burundi.”

Chimps are thought to have some value in attracting tourists, Wood said. But these two traumatized male babies aren’t likely to contribute to the economy in that way, she said.

“Two males aren’t going to bring in tourist dollars,” She said.

Wood is working with chimp specialists with nongovernmental organizations from the U.S. and other countries to try to get permits to get the animals out of Burundi to the island in Uganda, or some other sanctuary.

“Some place has to be better than my back yard,” she said. “I’m hoping that influential conservation organizations can pull their weight to help me help them.”

It costs Wood more than $200 per month to keep the chimps at her home, she said, for caretaker wages, medical care and six meals a day. FOA has offered to make a contribution to help support them.

“It’s greatly appreciated, I must say,” Wood said. But time and money are lost because Wood is not registered as a nonprofit, and FOA must carefully document its expenditures.

Contributions may be sent to Aly Wood, in care of Catholic Relief Services, 209 W. Fayette St., Baltimore, MD 21201-3443.


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