My name is Jenny Brown and I am a dog behavioural trainer from Western Australia and I want to share with you a story which is so very close to my heart.

In 2010 I watched a series on Animal Planet called Going Ape. This series was about primate sanctuaries operating in Cameroon, West Africa. Watching this I learnt the sad and awful truth that our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas are being hunted to extinction. I had not been aware of how dire this situation was and exactly why it is happening. As I learnt more, I felt so helpless and devastated. Chimpanzees and gorillas cannot sustain the current level of hunting, they reproduce slowly, maybe a baby every 5 years. As the ancient rainforests are being decimated by logging companies, roads create access to the deepest parts of the rainforests to allow poachers to hunt animals that were previously protected by their inaccessibility. Now their habitat is diminishing these animals are running out of places to hide from humans.

I looked at the website of Ape Action Africa and saw they allow volunteers to work at the sanctuary and I made plans to visit Cameroon the following year. I did not know then this would change my life forever.

After an in-depth interview, I was accepted for the volunteer program and first visited in July 2011. I was nervous and excited, I had only ever seen one chimpanzee as a child, the poor male that lived at Perth Zoo alone for many years, what a sad existence for such a social animal. After a long and eventful journey (and that is a whole other story!) I arrived along with another volunteer, Nina from the UK. There were two babies needing care, I was entrusted with Ayisha, a tiny baby chimp. She was thin and had a lingering cough at nights left from the pneumonia that she arrived with; sometimes she would cough so much, she would pass out or vomit, leaving her exhausted. She also was no doubt traumatized by the loss of her family, no doubt witnessing the killing of her mother. Ayisha never wanted to be put on the ground, she clung tightly to me, and I would think of how traumatising it must have been for her when she was taken from her mother’s body. She was a lovely girl, funny and bossy, she knew her own mind. Nina cared for the little boy chimpanzee baby named Mac. This newly arrived boy was quiet and sad with healing gunshot wounds. Once Mac settled in, he soon showed us the joyous boy he was and still is…a fun loving, sweet and goofy boy. We cared for them together, it was a privilege to do so, but I always had Ayisha’s and Mac’s mothers in my mind and I was determined in their memory to give the best care to their babies I could. Even though it was a rewarding experience, I always wished I never had to care for these babies, I wished they were safe in their mothers’ arms, safe with their extended family group and safe deep in an endless forest away from humans, living the life they had evolved for millions of years to live.

A month flew by, during which time Ayisha had been up and down with illness. As I was preparing to leave, Ayisha became very sick with high temperatures. I was so upset to leave her like this; as I travelled home, I received messages from Nina, Ayisha had lost her sight, had become immobile, she had contracted meningitis. Ayisha went into a coma and was on a drip, her health was precarious. I cried the whole way home, I was worried and frightened, and after all Ayisha had already been through, she was just a tiny baby, this was not fair. As I'd already built a strong bond with her, I knew I had to go back to Cameroon to help the team care for Ayisha. So, my very understanding and supportive husband, Craig, waved goodbye to me 3 weeks after I had arrived home.

A very sick Aisha. Photo courtesy of Jenny Brown.

Ayisha had started to improve a couple of days before I arrived, but when I got there my heart sank, she was skeletal and floppy, I thought there was a good chance she might still die. I stayed a month, with Controller Appolinaire checking in each day and always on hand for support.

Jenny and Mr Appolinaire in 2011

I watched day by day as Ayisha thankfully grew stronger and drank more milk. I massaged her thin limbs, moved them for her to get the muscles going again and gradually she started moving again, standing on shaky legs whilst she held my hands. Each morning when I would take Ayisha into the sunshine and fresh air, Big Joe, a kind-hearted caregiver would be walking past, offering us a cheery good morning and big smile, asking after Ayisha, everyone at Ape Action Africa was hoping for her recovery. We all rejoiced when her eyesight returned and improved day by day and thankfully it is now fine. Mac was always in our presence too, worried for his friend, even though she had not felt well enough for a long while to be playful, it was enough to sit together on the grass outside, listening to the sounds of chimp life around us. By the time it was time for me to go home, Ayisha was strong, happy, and healthy. It broke my heart all over again to leave a month later, but that was just me, Ayisha was doing great, I was immensely relieved that she had recovered so well.

Ayisha and Mac. Photo courtesy of Lisa Ridley.

I volunteered again in 2012, Ayisha and Mac were in an enclosure with other young chimps and slept with them in a satellite cage. It was wonderful to see her playing and swinging, revelling in what her strong little chimp body could do. To see her with her own kind, living in a family group with all the comfort that provides and just being a chimp was everything I had hoped for.

Every year from 2011 I have travelled to Cameroon to volunteer at Ape Action Africa until the pandemic stopped me last year. I have a lifelong commitment to the project, I want to do everything to help the staff continue their work of rescue, rehabilitation and providing sanctuary. I have such respect and admiration for the dedicated caregivers, staff, and volunteers of Ape Action Africa. I have been fortunate to meet and become friends with some special people, who will now always be in my life.

On her most recent trip to the forest in 2019, Jenny was joined by husband Craig.

Photo courtesy of Amy Hanes

In 2018 I took over managing the Adopt an Ape program and am glad that I can do this from home to continue to help the project whilst I can’t actually get back to the forest. I am also hugely grateful to the people that adopt an ape, helping raise valuable funds for the project.

Before I went to Cameroon for the first time, I read all the suggested reading list; one was a book called Eating Apes by Dale Peterson and as you can imagine it was grim reading. There is a quote from this book I would like to finish with because I feel it captures the whole situation.

”The decimation of one of the world’s richest ecosystems, tens of millions of years in the making, the casual eating to extinction of humankind’s three closest relatives*. It is hard to imagine a comparable act of cataclysmic vandalism”.

*Chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos

Jenny Brown

We’re incredibly grateful to Jenny for all of her hard work for Ape Action Africa, whether it’s caring for Ayisha, scrubbing sleeping platforms in the forest, running our adoptions programme with daughter Caitlin, fundraising or any of the other myriad of things she has done for us. To Jenny and every other volunteer who has, over our 25-year history, given their time and energy to help our cause – a heartfelt thank you from all of us for your compassion and kindness!

Banner image courtesy of Lisa Ridley

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