Chimpanzees at Chimfunshi: New Lives in Zambia

It feels strange to have chimps sitting all over you! Chimps at the center in Zambia. Rene Bauer photos
It feels strange to have chimps sitting all over you! Chimps at the center in Zambia. Rene Bauer photos.

"Hey, my name is Chimp, nice to meet you!"

By Andrea Kaucka and Rene Bauer

A chimpanzee at the Chimfunshi  center: Sometimes it seems chimps contemplate life without bars...Zambia Chimpanzee refuge
A chimpanzee at the Chimfunshi Center: Sometimes it seems chimps contemplate life without bars...

One of the less visited countries of Africa, but not less interesting or fascinating, is wild Zambia. The ones who go beyond the Victoria Falls will find a vast wilderness, fantastic nature and simply the real Africa.

Our destination this time was Zambia´s north. We took the main road to cross the country. And even here, one could see the Chinese influence, the road network has been enlarged considerably, but the smooth surface is an illusion.

As soon as we got further away from Livingstone, our suspicions were put to the ultimate test - old roads, deep potholes or a completely disintegrated road most of the time.

As we drove along peacefully, dreaming about Africa, suddenly there was a hit and a crunching sound, I stopped the car and we found out that one tire is flat, which isn´t a big problem, the bigger worry was a cracked rim, thanks to that pothole that stretches across the whole width of the road.

Chimfunshi wildlife orphanage

Dominique didn´t fall in love with Andrea, he just wanted her chewing gum!
Dominique didn´t fall in love with Andrea, he just wanted her chewing gum!

From the Victoria Falls, we made our way towards the Congolese border. It is there, far away from any other highlight, that we wanted to go and visit the chimps of Chimfunshi.

In the so-called Copperbelt area, close to the Kafue River, the British couple Sheila and David Siddle established a farm. And when their kids grew up and left the house, both thought they could finally rest and enjoy their retirement.

But in 1983 things took a different turn, when a ranger showed up on the farm, holding in his arms a little chimpanzee, whose mother had been shot by poachers. The poor little thing was so weak, no one knew if it would survive. Sheila and David gave little "Pal" (that's what Sheila named him) all their loving care and made sure, he had a happy and long life.

Billy, the old hippo, came every morning to get a bottle of warm milk before dozing off...Zambia hippo
Billy, the old hippo, came every morning to get a bottle of warm milk before dozing off...

As this is Africa, news spread very quickly and neighbors, rangers, and locals started bringing in wounded or orphaned chimpanzees --the number of chimps on the Siddles´ farm grew and grew.

The chimps mainly came from a poached troop, from markets, zoos and even from circuses overseas.

The orphanage grew big and nowadays, there are more than 120 chimpanzees, divided into different troops and communities, with their own bushland to run around in. The whole orphanage is spread out over 4200 hectares, so there is enough space for all those chimps to enjoy their life.

The Siddles dedicated themselves to every single one of them with love, respect, and a maternal instinct.

The beginning was hard for them, not many locals understand the concept of wildlife conservation, but finally, their caring work paid off, they got awarded, their reputation spread beyond Africa and they sparked the interest of Jane Goodall, who came to visit them and gave them lots of advice and help.

The work of the Siddle family brought them lots of experience, which they nowadays pass on by supporting other conservation and educational projects.

"Furry Brother“

Nobody in the olden days would have guessed that chimpanzees are genetically our closest relatives. Their genes are to 99% exactly the same as ours. Apes are different from monkeys, they are bigger, they walk different, they are more intelligent and they don´t have a tail. On top of it, they actually use tools to facilitate foraging. The whole chimpanzee species is characterized by a very close-knit social structure.

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If one spends time with them, one can see how close they are to us. They show feelings like humans, care about their family, work together but also have those negative streaks like envy, jealousy, laziness or anger - just like humans too. Chimpanzees solve problems together and often, especially for the bonobos (a sub-species of chimps), they solve tensions with sex. And that one is not only for reproduction but also for pleasure.

Chimpanzees are self-conscious, they can recognize themselves in a mirror and that is very different from any other animal. The chimp communication consists of more than 30 different sounds, they have a brilliant memory and recognizing abilities.

Meeting Sylvia and lazy Billy

A canoe in Zambia. A nearby villager on his dugout canoe.
A nearby villager on his dugout canoe.

Through deep mud puddles and a completely wet bush, we make our way to the gate of the orphanage. Zambia has just had its rainy season and the rains this year were extreme. A surprised Silvy greets us. Silvya is Sheila´s daughter and runs the project now. Considering how far the orphanage is away from Lusaka and any other tourist destinations, there are not many visitors coming to the Chingola district. Silvya shows us around and we encounter Billy, a massive hippo-lady and pet, who is lazily coming to the office every morning to get her bottle of warm milk.

Billy was also found abandoned when her mother was killed by poachers. And from a young hippo, Billy became Sheila´s personal bodyguard, just imagine that. Here we go for walkies with dogs, in Africa, it may happen you have a hippo by your side! On top of it, when Billy was young, she would lie on the couch inside the house.

The author:  I absolutely enjoyed getting close to our ancient relatives. a chimpanzee in Zambia
The author: I absolutely enjoyed getting close to our ancient relatives.

It made us smile. Especially when Silvya told us at some point Billy got too big for the couch and had to move out of the house. There are many more animals other than chimps in the orphanage: parrots, monkeys, horses, and dogs.

But we want to know more about chimps and so we wait till the next morning to go on a 2hr bush walk with a group of chimps. It may seem like a tourist attraction and isn´t cheap either with 100 USD per person, but it is a welcome donation which is used to run the orphanage. Imagine feeding 120 chimps every day.

We make camp at the banks of a little river and while watching another romantic, African sunset we cook and listen to the sounds of the bush around us.

Empty your pockets, take an overall and go!

We get up early, the dawn is breaking. In the office we receive a blue overall, we have to empty our pockets, take off all earrings, chains and other jewelry, including Andrea´s hair ribbon. Then we climb through a small door and get run over by 4 chimps.

There were supposed to be 5 on a walk with us, but 1 decided to ignore us, throw a tantrum and go back to his cage. We are absolutely excited, we have never seen a live chimp before, we only knew them from TV or the zoo.

Man and his closest relative.

The carer arrives and we leave for the walk. From the beginning on, those chimps were absolutely lazy. 3-year old Dominique and 4-year-old Deedee don´t want to walk, they rather climb on us and make us carry them around.

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Also, this is much better for "pick-pocketing". Chimps are kleptomaniacs, their hands are searching our pockets and as soon as we take one hand out of one pocket, they try the zippers, buttons, whatever they find!

We are certainly not bored. Only 12-year old Cindy is calm, she takes one of us by the hand and together we stroll along.

5-year old Carla, who is still trying to establish her position in the clan, fell in love with Rene. Cindy chews some grass and tries to share it with Andrea. She can´t understand why Andrea doesn´t eat it. The other 2, Dominique and Deedee, jump around, swing from trees and hop on us. It´s a shame we had to leave all cameras in the office, we would have loved to film our bushwalk.

Then, Carla shows us the strength of these apes. She finds Rene´s tattoo on his chest and tries to scratch it off. But it doesn´t work, she gets grouchy and gives Rene a good smack, throwing him on the floor.

What a smack! Then Carla ignores us for a few minutes but then comes again with open arms, wanting to be carried around.

Obviously, she didn´t like us not talking to her. Dominique keeps being a pickpocket and as he couldn´t find anything he then tries to steal Andrea´s chewing gum. Now, that looked funny. It more looked like a big, wet chimp kiss. And then...2 hours are gone and we don´t really want to leave our chimps.

Before leaving one of our most interesting experiences in Africa, we go to feed the older, more problematic chimps together with Sheila. For some of the older chimps, it is necessary to keep them in single cages, they may have mental problems from their past and would make trouble in a troop. As soon as the older chimps see the basket with fruits, they go crazy.

One of them falls in love with Andrea, he watches her the whole time and starts throwing bananas and other fruits at Andrea - he is actually sharing his food with her. "He likes you! If a chimp throws food at you, it means he likes you!" says Dominic, one of the carers, with a big smile. And the chimp looks at Andrea and forms a kissing mouth. We are lucky he is behind bars.

We left Chimfunshi with a nice feeling. We bid farewell and expressed our admiration for their work, the Siddle family built up a beautiful orphanage for their chimps. Any of you, not only chimp lovers, can either adopt a chimp, donate or physically help them in their orphanage. There is a lot of info on their website www.chimfunshi.com