The primary focus of the CRP today remains the welfare of its chimps, but it also oversees tourism to RGNP, and runs an environmental education programme to raise general awareness about conservation in the surrounding villages.
The Gambia’s Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project (CRP) has its roots in the animal orphanage established by Eddie Brewer, then the Director of Forestry, and his daughter Stella at Abuko Nature Reserve in 1968. The first orphaned chimpanzee was taken in there in 1969, and by 1974 they had several, most of them illegally captured and/or orphaned individuals confiscated from traffickers for the international pet trade.
These chimps probably originated from Guinea, as there was no trade in these charismatic apes out of Senegal at the time, and they had long been extinct in the wild in The Gambia. In 1974, Stella decided to release the orphaned chimps into a valley fed by a perennial natural spring in Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park.
Unfortunately, however, a conflict developed between chimps released by Stella and a wild community living in the same territory. As a result, the survivors, numbering around seven individuals, were relocated to an island in RGNP in early 1979. At around the same time, another group of five orphaned chimps, under the care of the American primatologist Janis Carter, was relocated from Abuko to Baboon Island, followed by a small group from Holland. In all, over a 25-year period, some 51 chimps were released onto the islands, in many cases after having undergone a retraining course to teach them to forage for wild food, build nests, etc.
A baby chimpanzee in the River Gambia National Park © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, www.africaimagelibrary.com
Only 15 of the chimps released originally survive, but many have gone on to breed successfully, so that there is now a total population of 104 individuals, split between four communities across three of the islands. At the time of writing, the oldest is estimated to be 48 years in age, and the youngest five months.
The rehabilitated animals are quite well adapted to wild living, though the shortage of suitable foraging on the confines of the islands means that their diet needs to be supplemented by fruits and other food sourced from nearby villages. The primary focus of the CRP today remains the welfare of its chimps, but it also oversees tourism to RGNP, and runs an environmental education programme to raise general awareness about conservation in the surrounding villages.
CRP founder Stella Brewer Marsden, awarded an OBE for her work for animal welfare, died in January 2008, aged only 56, and is buried at the CRP Camp, close to the base of the trail up the cliff to the standing tents. Her long-time co-director Janis Carter remains CRP project manager, and is also very active in chimpanzee conservation in neighbouring Senegal and Guinea.