Ape Action Africa, Cameroon

November 2013 – Primate Handshake

I joined Primate Handshake for two weeks at Ape Action Africa with a purpose of creating a number of short documentary films about the sanctuary, namely the local staff caring for the animals and the background of some of the resident apes themselves.

Ape Action Africa is located in Mefou National Park, not too far from the capital of Yaounde. Rescuing predominantly apes from the bushmeat and pet trades, AAA has built a stable and comfortable home for these animals in the heart of the forest where they can live in the company of their own kind. These apes have been given a second chance through rehabilitation and now spend their days as part of secure social groups in large enclosures full of trees and vegetation to climb or hide within.

It was incredible to be able to spend two weeks among these apes. They each have their own troubled backgrounds and personalities, and two of those characters had the most impact on me: Chris, an infant gorilla, and Cazza, an infant chimpanzee. They were both brought in not long before we arrived, and watching them develop each day and play on the porch in front of us was truly delightful. However, they had both lost their entire family’s and their dependency on their human carers was utterly heartbreaking. Cazza, so agile and inquisitive even at her very young age, was always looking for something to climb or put into her mouth. And Chris, much more reserved and cautious than Cazza, never strayed too far from his carers but grew stronger and more confident by the day. Both were orphaned and victims of the pet trade. In order to obtain an infant ape it is estimated that up to 20 family members are killed in the process, as apes are extremely protective of their young, defending them to no end.

It was an amazing and intense couple of weeks filled with plenty of hard work and a real learning curve. Ape Action Africa is an incredibly worthwhile project and some day I would love to revisit it, especially to see how Chris and Cazza are getting on!

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Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

September 2012

Seeing the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was nothing short of a dream come true. Starting before sunrise our group set off from camp (Lake Bunyonyi) to get to the park itself. As our vehicle climbed the mountain dawn began to break and the views below finally become visible. We stopped at a view point for pictures with a backdrop of extraordinarily stunning mist filled valleys where I couldn’t help but think of Dian Fossey and her ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, and the reality of what was ahead of me started to sink in.

After a short briefing we began our trek up the mountain to find our assigned group of mountain gorillas, not knowing how long it may take before we found them: some groups are within half an hour of base camp and some can take up to five hours. The climb itself was extremely steep at times, having to hold on the the ferns to keep steady, but the guides were super helpful and made sure everyone was keeping up ok. With my concentration solely focused on not falling over I had to keep remembering to look up every so often to take in the views over the forest filled mountains.

After almost two hours of ups and downs we caught our first glimpse of an infant gorilla swinging from a tree on the slope below and excitement took over any struggles from the trek. Our encounter was imminent! We had one last safety talk from the guides and then they took us to where the gorillas were resting.

Our hour with them was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Rather than taking photos I spent most of the time just absorbing the events occurring in front of me – the juveniles play fighting and rolling around in the vegetation, and the adults, including the dominant silverback, eating, grooming and watching us just as much as we were watching them. Their similarities in behaviour and expression to humans was astounding and I was completely in awe of their overwhelming presence.

The hour came to an end all too quickly, but it felt right that our intrusion was over. The few photos I got do not do justice to the experience in full, but I don’t think they ever can. It was the most incredible and inspirational day of my life and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I still pinch myself when thinking of that time I spent with them and feel so fortunate to have been able to witness these majestic beings in their natural habitat.