98.7 % Human

Rescued chimpanzee, Eddy, is one of the many chimps I photographed for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Refuge in Uganda recently. Eddy was confiscated from Akefs Egyptian Circus in 1998 and arrived at the sanctuary very depressed. He has since done much better although he still sometimes shows signs of trauma and acts up.
Rescued chimpanzee, Eddy, is one of the many chimps I photographed for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda recently. Eddy was confiscated from Akefs Egyptian Circus in Kampala, Uganda in 1998 and arrived at the sanctuary very depressed. He has since done much better although he still sometimes shows signs of trauma and acts up.

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.

A chimpanzee sits in the crook of a tree in Ngamba Island's dense forest. The island is about 100 acres, 98 of which are forested.
A chimpanzee sits in the crook of a tree in Ngamba Island’s dense forest. The island is about 100 acres, 98 of which are forested.
Female 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. After some time at the sanctuary, she happily integrated into the group and loves being in the trees while in the forest.
Female 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. After some time at the sanctuary, she happily integrated into the group and loves being in the trees while in the forest.
Female chimps Surprise (above) and Mini (below) climb a tree at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Incidentally, Surprise was unexpectedly born in the sanctuary despite the fact that all female chimps are on contraception to prevent them from conceiving because pace and resources are limited. As with humans, contraception is not 100%.
Female chimps Surprise (above) and Mini (below) climb a tree in the sanctuary. Incidentally, Surprise was unexpectedly born in the sanctuary despite the fact that all female chimps are on contraception to prevent them from conceiving because space and resources are limited. As in humans, contraception does not work 100% of the time.
Male chimp, Baron, is photographed with his "security blanket" --a rag he found in the forest at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. As a baby, he was taken from his mother and kept in a wooden cage for a year along with sibling who died.
Male chimp, Baron, is photographed with his “security blanket” –a rag he found in the forest at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. As a baby, he was taken from his mother and kept in a wooden cage for a year along with a sibling who died.
A few of the sanctuary's 48 chimpanzees hangs out at the forest's edge.
A few of the sanctuary’s 48 chimpanzees hang out at the forest’s edge.
Female chimp, Medina, reaches out a hand requesting food. The hand reaching gesture among chimps is also used to beg for support from a friend or as a reconciliatory gesture after fights.
Female chimp, Medina, reaches out a hand requesting food. The hand reaching gesture among chimps is also used to beg for support from a friend or as a reconciliatory gesture after fights.
Care givers feed chimpanzees at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. While the chimps forage for food in the forest during the day, their food is also supplemented by the sanctuary's staff since the island's natural resources are not enough to feed such a large population of chimps.
Caregivers feed chimpanzees at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. While the chimps forage for food in the forest during the day, their food is also supplemented by the sanctuary since the island’s natural resources are not enough to feed such a large population of chimps.
Six year-old chimp, Sara, stares at the reflection of herself in my camera's lens. Sara was the island's youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in a bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful--very much like a human child.
Six year-old chimp, Sara, stares at the reflection of herself in my camera’s lens. Sara was the island’s youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful.
Female chimp, Medina, scrunches up her face as she tries to catch a piece of carrot in her mouth. When Medina arrived at Ngamba Island, her canine teeth had been removed and her front teeth smashed. She was malnourished with a big and hard stomach which was believed to have worms. She was treated and recovered steadily and now is a friendly and generous chimp.
Female chimp, Medina, scrunches up her face as she tries to catch a piece of carrot in her mouth. When 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 now is a friendly and generous chimp.
 Chimpanzees voluntarily file into their enclosure through a corridor after spending the day in the forest to eat their evening meal and sleep in enclosures where they use straw to make a bed on their own personal hammocks.
Chimpanzees voluntarily file into their enclosure through a corridor to eat their evening meal after spending the day in the forest. Afterwards they sleep in enclosures where they use straw to make a bed on their own personal hammocks.

 

 

Female chimp, Medina, eats her evening meal of porridge in one of the chimp enclosures at the end of the day. I found myself completely fascinated with chimpanzee hands which are so much like our own.
Female chimp, Medina, eats her evening meal of porridge in one of the chimp enclosures at the end of the day. I found myself completely fascinated with chimpanzee hands which are so much like our own.
Chimps enjoy their evening meal of porridge in one of the enclosures at the end of the day. While the chimps forage for food all day in the forest, their food is supplemented with fruit and vegetables at the sanctuary's feeding station during the day and they voluntarily come into their enclosures in the evening for dinner and sleep
Chimps enjoy their evening meal of porridge in one of the enclosures at the end of the day. While the chimps forage for food all day in the forest, their food is supplemented with fruit and vegetables at the sanctuary’s feeding station during the day and with porridge in the evening.
A chimpanzee reaches to take some cabbage from one of the care takers at the end of the day after returning from the forest. Because chimps can be very aggressive, the sanctuary's safety precautions include bars on the enclosures and a fence between the forest and the human camp.
A chimpanzee reaches to take some cabbage from one of the caregivers at the end of the day after returning from the forest. Because chimps can be very aggressive, the sanctuary’s safety precautions include bars on the enclosures and a fence between the forest and the human camp.
Caretaker, Joseph Masereka, washes the outside of the chimp enclosures after the chimps have left for the forest for the day.
Caregiver, Joseph Masereka, washes the outside of the chimp enclosures after the chimps have left for the forest for the day.
Male chimp, Kalema, is photographed at the edge of the island's forest.  Kalema is a happy and playful chimp. Athough he is one of the bigger chimps, he doesn’t enjoy the rough and tumble play of the older males. He can be quite shy and is often seen sitting and observing the activity around him from a distance.
Male chimp, Kalema, is photographed at the edge of the island’s forest. Kalema is a happy and playful chimp. Athough he is one of the bigger chimps, he doesn’t enjoy the rough and tumble play of the older males. He can be quite shy and is often seen sitting and observing the activity around him from a distance.
A small group of chimps communicate with each other at the forest's edge on Ngamba Island. While chimps don't use language per se, they communicate with one another through a complex system of vocalizations, facial expressions, body postures and gestures.
A small group of chimps communicate with each other at the forest’s edge. While chimps don’t use language per se, they communicate with one another through a complex system of vocalizations, facial expressions, body postures and gestures.
Kalema eats the leaves off a plant at the sanctuary. Like humans, eat a variety of vegetables, leaves, fruit and animal protein. 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!
Kalema eats the leaves off a plant at the sanctuary. Like humans, chimps eat a variety of vegetables, leaves, fruit and animal protein. As Jane Goodall discovered during her well-known study of chimps in the 1960’s, chimps also use tools such as stones to crack nuts, twigs to probe for honey or ants and even spears to hunt small animals!
Male chimp, Rambo, scratches his chin. Chimp gestures and facial expressions are, unsurprisingly, so similar to humans'.
Male chimp, Rambo, scratches his chin. Chimp gestures and facial expressions are, unsurprisingly, so similar to humans’.
Female infant chimp, Sara, is carried by care givers after being sedated so Ngamba's veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, could examine and treat pox in her mouth at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.
Female infant chimp, Sara, is carried by caregivers after being sedated so Ngamba’s veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, could examine and treat pox in her mouth at the sanctuary’s clinic.
Ngamba's veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, examines female infant, Sara, after care givers noticed she had pox in her mouth that needed to be treated.
Ngamba’s veterinarian, Dr Joshua Rukundo, examines female infant, Sara, after caregivers noticed she had pox in her mouth that needed to be treated.
Six year-old Sara, is photographed with her mouth slightly open which is how care givers very noticed the pox in her mouth. Sara was the island's youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in a bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful.
Six year-old Sara, is photographed with her mouth slightly open which is how caregivers first noticed the pox in her mouth. Sara was the island’s youngest chimp until the recent unexpected birth of an infant on March 27th of this year. She was confiscated from a trader in Southern Sudan and at the time of her arrival, was in a bad condition. She has since become one of the sweetest and most beloved chimps on the island and is very expressive and playful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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