Dare we admit that as trained professionals, scientists, and wildlife biologists, we sometimes allow ourselves the freedom to anthropomorphize? A recent experience in northern Gabon presented me with an opportunity to experience the dangers and delights of this indulgence.
Part of my job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Africa Regional Program involves working closely with our partners from Gabon’s Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (National Parks Agency). Our effort to help build the capacity of this newly formed agency and their 13 magnificent national parks often has me collaborating with wardens in the field. In April, I was working with Joseph Okouyi, the warden of Ivindo National Parkand an exceptional conservationist. While traveling on a road to the west of the park with two colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society, I spotted a young man holding an infant chimpanzee on his hip. When he saw our vehicle and realized we were from the park, he quickly turned away. Joseph immediately stopped the car, threw it into reverse in a cloud of dust, got out, and confronted the young man.
Although the person holding the chimp had a machete and his companion had an ax, Joseph was unfazed. He pulled the chimp away, which caused the animal to let out loud, panicked screams. I immediately held the chimp close to my chest, which seemed to calm him. After a brief shouting match, Joseph arrested the man, who appeared to be involved in illegal wildlife trafficking and was hoping to sell the chimp. We drove the man to his village a few kilometers down the road. He provided a few details of the situation, claiming that he had had the animal for about two weeks, that he loves animals, and that he did not know it was against the law to hold or sell them (a statement that seemed like a lie as he avoided eye contact with us). We gave him a summons to appear in the regional capital of Makokou the following week, and let him go home. The confiscated infant chimp was now our responsibility.
We had two days and one night of travel ahead of us, including a visit to a remote anti-poaching camp on the Ogooue River in central Gabon. As Joseph drove, I volunteered to hold and comfort the little ape, while reflecting on this all-too-common phenomenon: the confiscation of young apes — orphans of the bushmeat trade — which are then sold as pets. Maybe my thoughts were prompted by more than 30 years’ witness to the cruelty and greed of some people toward wildlife. Perhaps it was the dozens of orphaned apes I have interacted with in numerous overcrowded sanctuaries in Central Africa. Equally possible is the fatigue caused by decades of a problem that, despite often heroic efforts by dedicated conservationists, continues to affront the senses.
Over the next couple of days, this six-month-old male chimpanzee clung to me in desperate fear that gradually lessened as his trust grew. He would fall asleep for a few minutes, then wake up and look up into my eyes, holding the gaze in way that felt reminiscent of the gazes of my children at a similar age. So here comes the anthropomorphism. Although this wasn’t the first time I had come in close contact with an orphaned ape, this time I allowed myself the luxury of feeling, rather than just thinking and rationalizing the situation as a wildlife manager should. I’ll admit that over the years I’ve also felt the urge to make an emotional connection with elephants, another extraordinarily intelligent, sentient, and social creature. But this little guy was something else — so vulnerable and yet trusting, wild yet capable of a calmness and intimacy that I can best describe as affection, perhaps even gratitude. This is dangerous territory for a professional.
I recently discussed my feelings with another conservationist who has also had close contact with orphaned apes, and we agreed that when you look into the eyes of an ape, you realize that this is not just another wildlife specimen. You sense a sort of deep and real connection that’s tangible and ineluctable, and necessitates taking responsibility for the fate of these poor individuals and their at-large kin.
Our little victim was named Tonique by the veterinarian who is taking care of him until he can be placed in a sanctuary with other young chimps. What we can offer is no substitute for his mother, their family group, and the forest, but it is certainly a better fate than being maltreated and malnourished and suffering a slow, agonizing end. Can we still be good conservationists and admit having a broken heart? Can we really be good conservationists and not have one?