The peaceful waters of Lake Victoria surround Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. The Island is home to 49 orphaned chimpanzees that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Uganda and other parts of East Africa. Ngamba Island is part of the Koome group of islands in Lake Victoria. It’s approximately 23 km southeast of Entebbe, and takes about 40 minutes to get there by speedboat.
The Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSCWT) is an NGO responsible for the daily operations of the sanctuary. The Trust was established in 1998 with the goal of developing and implementing a long-term strategy for conservation of chimpanzees, their wild habitats, and to establish the sanctuary on Lake Victoria. CSCWT works in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre. The Jane Goodall Institute is one of the founding trustees.
I had the opportunity to meet with Lilly Ajarova, the Executive Director of Ngamba Island, and Dr. Joshua Rukundo, veterinarian for the Sanctuary. Being in the wildlife conservation field, I told her that I was interested in assisting them with social media marketing, and grant research. They offered me the opportunity to live on Ngamba Island for a month. This would give me a chance to have an in depth understanding of the operations at the sanctuary as well as the chimpanzees. I would also be assisting the caregivers with feeding, cleaning, behavioral enrichment, and daily observations. I was around a lot of primates during my time working with wild animals at zoos and wildlife parks in the U.S. Chimpanzees. Their behaviors always fascinated me, especially considering that they share 98.7% of our genetic blueprint.
As soon as I arrived on the Island, I was struck by how scenic and beautiful it was there. The blue waters of Lake Victoria are gorgeous. Snow white colored egrets were perched at the top of trees, and also standing in groups by the shore. There were also hundreds of bright yellow weaver birds inside the trees, and an abundance of nests hanging from the branches. We were met by the staff, and they informed us about the history of Ngamba Island and the work that the Trust is involved in.
After having a tour of the facility, we were taken to the chimpanzee feeding platform which is elevated above the ground. This gives the guests a great view of the feeding area. In front of us was an expansive grassy area, and behind it, a beautiful green forest where the chimps spend the day. The caregivers had 3 large buckets of fruit that were served to the chimps for lunch. In a cacophony of screams, vocalizations, and loud calls, the 47 chimpanzees suddenly exploded out of the forest in a highly dramatic display, like out of the movie Planet Of The Apes. As they emerged, some of the males displayed their dominance by charging other chimps, stomping on the ground, grabbing sticks and throwing them.
It was an outstanding and unique experience to watch the chimpanzees during feeding. Their behaviors are fascinating to observe. Some of the chimpanzees stood on two legs, and raised their hands up to request more fruit. Others clapped loudly in order to get the attention of the caregivers. I also was able to experience the chimpanzee’s use of tools. There was some leftover fruit located beyond the wire fence area. A few of the chimps took a long stick, and used it to pull the pieces of fruit closer to them. Another piece of fruit was stuck high up in the fence. I was amazed to see one of the chimps take a long stick, stand up on two legs, and hitting the piece of fruit so he could eat it.
During the day, the chimpanzees on Ngamba Island spend their time on 95 acres of forest. They live in a fusion-fission- society, which means that during the day, the chimpanzee community separates into small groups, and at night, they all come together. The motivation to come into their evening enclosures is a porridge made of water, millet, and soy protein. It is always an exciting experience to watch their evening feeding. The caregivers hand them bowls of the porridge, which they drink with great pleasure. It’s like chimpanzee Happy Hour on Ngamba Island. As soon as they are finished with their porridge, they graciously hand the bowl back to their caregivers for a refill. When they are done, each one of them climbs up to the top of the enclosure to lie down on their hammocks where they sleep. Life is good for the chimps here on Ngamba Island.
During my month on the island, I was involved with all activities with the caregivers, which included diet preparation, feeding, cleaning, behavioral observations, photography, videography, and talking with guests. I was also astounded to see the wide variety of birds at the Island. There are approximately 120 species of which include the Little Egret, Great Egret, Great commerants, long tailed commerants, There are also Nile Monitors that can be seen basking in the sun. One morning, we went on a nature walk through the forest. The canopy of trees was very scenic as the sun shone through the leaves, and twisted braches. During our walk, Nakuu, one of the female chimpanzees had stayed in the forest overnight. She was following us closely as we hiked in the forest. This does not always occur so we were fortunate to have her accompany us the whole way.
I was so impressed with the tremendous dedication all the caregivers have for the chimpanzees. They work tirelessly for their well being, assuring that every individual has a good life. It’s inspiring to see how much they care for the animals at the Sanctuary. Each individual has a distinct personality, and I was amazed how well all the caregivers know each and everyone of them as if they were family. The chimpanzees have been rescued from Uganda, the Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Russia. They were living in deplorable conditions by wildlife traffickers who kept them with the intention of selling them on the illegal black market. Some of the chimps were confiscated from people who were exploiting them in circuses, or trying to keep them as pets. It’s a great feeling to know that these chimpanzees are healthy, happy, and have a beautiful home where they are so well cared for. The work that they do here is so vital and important.
Ngamba Island also offers overnight stays for guests, which takes full advantage of the Island experience. When staying overnight, guests are able to experience the chimpanzees drinking their porridge, which is extraordinary. The Island has spacious and luxurious tents with comfortable beds and showers. They are located on the edge of the water, which provides beautiful scenery. The restaurant serves delicious food, and the fish is freshly caught from the lake. Ngamba Island feels like paradise, and the place is stunning at night. Sitting under a canopy of stars with the sound of the waves lightly crashing against the shore is a magical experience.