Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is located on a magical little island in Lake Victoria, Uganda, and is home to 48 orphaned chimps rescued from Uganda and neighboring African countries. At the end of a month teaching photography to kids in Rwanda, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend four days on the island. I was there on assignment to document the chimpanzee sanctuary for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), one of the sanctuary’s founders and continuing supporters.
When I first stepped off the small boat that brought me the 45 mins from Entebbe, I was struck by the intense chirping of birds. I soon discovered that the island is not only home to the chimps but to literally thousand of weaver birds as well as egrets, monitor lizards, fruit bats, otters, fish eagles and a variety of other small creatures. The island also houses an exceptionally caring staff who feed the chimps, clean the compound, educate visitors about the sanctuary’s work and generally ensure the chimps’ wellbeing. Innocent Ampeire, one of Ngamba’s most experienced caregivers, was the first staff member to welcome me and, wearing a shirt that read “98.7 % chimp”, proceeded to introduce me to the extraordinary microcosm that is Ngamba Island. With the birds singing, the chimps calling and hooting in the distance and the beauty of Lake Victoria all around me, I felt like I’d stumbled upon a little piece of paradise.
The Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary was founded in 1998 with the idea that it could serve as a home for confiscated chimps who could not be returned to the wild. The island is about 100 acres, 98 of which are forested. Of the remaining two acres, one acre is used as camp quarters for staff and researchers and the remaining area, located between the forest and the viewing platform, is where the chimpanzees are fed during the day. While the chimpanzees spend the majority of their day in the forest, they do voluntarily return to the feeding area several times a day to eat as the forest’s natural food resources are not enough to sustain a group of that many chimps. Most of the chimpanzees also return at night through a long caged corridor to eat their evening meal and sleep in enclosures where they use straw to make a bed on their own personal hammocks.
In advance of my arrival on Ngamba, I did a little research about chimps to better understand what I would be photographing. I was immediately struck by the fact that we share 98.7 percent of our genetic material with chimpanzees. Like us, they have complex emotional and social worlds and even have different cultures depending on the region they live in. They experience joy, anger, grief, sorrow, pleasure, boredom and depression and also comfort one another by kissing and embracing. As Jane Goodall discovered during her well-known study of chimps in the 1960’s, chimps use tools such as stones to crack nuts, twigs to probe for honey or ants and even spears to hunt small animals! Their gestation period is very similar to humans, their body temperature is the same, they have opposable thumbs on their hands (and on their feet!) and, like humans, eat a variety of vegetables, leaves, fruit and animal protein. They enter adulthood at around 13 years old and, like us, share life-long bonds with their children. The primary difference between chimps and humans is that they don’t have language although they do communicate using a complex system of of sounds, facial expressions, gestures and body language.
As I spent time observing and photographing Ngamba’s chimps and learning about their personal histories over the days that followed, I became fascinated with how different they all were from each other, not just physically but emotionally. Innocent and the other caregivers know the chimps intimately and speak of them almost as familiar friends. They’d say things like “Medina seems depressed today” or “did you see how one of the others tried to steal Baron’s security blanket?” and then a discussion of the given chimp would ensue. They also make detailed notes in logs books about the chimps’ behavior and activity at the end of each day. I found these snippets of conversation about the chimps compelling and began to read and ask questions about each chimp’s personal story.
As I mentioned earlier, like humans, chimpanzees have close familial relationships so early separation from a mother–as most of the Ngamba chimps experienced–leaves deep emotional scars. Some of the stories I heard simply broke my heart. For example, Baron, who found a rag in the forest and holds onto it as a security blanket, was taken from his mother and kept in a wooden cage for a year along with sibling who died. Another chimp, Ndyakira, was confiscated as an infant from illegal wildlife traders in Uganda. She had been sent first to Russia and then to Uganda where the dealers were intercepted and she was found malnourished and traumatized. When female chimp, Medina, arrived at Ngamba Island, her canine teeth had been removed and her front teeth smashed. She was malnourished with a bloated stomach and was believed to have worms. She was treated and recovered steadily and is now a friendly and generous chimp. These are just a few of the painful stories I learned about during my stay.
While many of Ngamba’s chimps struggled to integrate, showed signs of depression or had behavior issues when they first came to the island, almost all have since managed to adapt and seem to be thriving. Hearing their stories and seeing what a rich and full life they now have on the island made me realize how special the sanctuary is and how important it is to have places like it in the world. With chimpanzee populations threatened by habitat loss, hunting and disease, there are few places where our closest relative can live peacefully and I feel honored to have spent time capturing this exceptional little spot on earth.