It all started with a month in Cameroon!

 

It’s February 13th 2002, 6.15am and I’m waiting to board the plane from Heathrow to Paris, then onward to Cameroon. I’ve been up all night but the excitement of going to volunteer for a month in Cameroon was consuming my tired mind. I’m a chartered accountant and my only experience of animals was my cats so there was also some trepidation!

 

My journey to Cameroon started the year before in Bristol Zoo Gardens. I was enjoying a magnum in the summer sun, listening to one of the primate keepers talking about the gorillas. He went on to talk about the reasons why gorillas are critically endangered. At that time, I had no idea that people were hunting and eating gorillas and chimpanzees. The talk was quite graphic and very moving but he talked about a charity that worked in Cameroon, rescuing infant gorillas and chimps who had been orphaned by the illegal bushmeat trade. I left feeling fairly useless and thought the only thing I could do was to donate to CWAF (Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund, now Ape Action Africa).

 

The following week, I received a copy of the zoo’s newsletter and it included an article by Sandra Gray about her work as a volunteer in Cameroon. I applied to volunteer, thinking that I would be based in Bristol, maybe doing some admin to help raise some money, but within 6 months, I was sat at Heathrow, waiting to go to Cameroon!

 

It’s 6.30pm and the plane has stopped in Douala, 3,125 miles from Paris, 135 miles from our destination in Yaoundé. I had my first sight of the rainforest as we flew south over Cameroon and I wondered how many apes and monkeys were hidden by the canopy, hoping they were safe from hunters. It was chaos at the airport in Yaoundé – it was hot, crowded, lots of pushing and shoving to get near to the carousel, and that was before the luggage arrived! Once outside, I was so grateful to hear a couple of English voices and that was the first time that I met Rachel Hogan and Saira Robertson.  They were volunteers and had been in Cameroon for about 10 months.

 

I didn’t know until I walked into the house in Yaoundé that Rachel was hand rearing a baby gorilla, Nkan Daniel. When I arrived, he was sprawled out on the sofa, face down with his arms over his head, gently snoring. In the summer of 2001, possibly when I was enjoying my magnum, Rachel was about to leave Cameroon to return to the UK when Nkan Daniel arrived. He was only 2 weeks old and Rachel stayed to take care of him and has never left! So Nkan was 8 months old when I met him and I will never forget the privilege of spending time with him.  He was like a little whirlwind when he got up on my first day - I sat in a corner, quietly watching him with Rachel and he eventually came towards me, sniffed my knee and ran back to Rachel!

A young Nkan Daniel. Image courtesy of Caroline McLaney. 

I was there to help with the accounts and set up systems that were easy to use and understand. Chris Mitchell, the founder and director of the charity, left the project the week before I arrived so it was imperative that I sorted out the financial reporting and left Rachel with something that was easy to use before I returned home.  I struggled with the heat and humidity but I was determined to help wherever I could.

 

The accounting was my first priority but it’s impossible to go to the project and not be involved with the animals.  I hand reared 3 little kitten civets, which involved a lot of sleepless nights, but it was so rewarding to see them grow and develop.  I also helped with an infant chimp called Karmel – oddly, for someone who has spent quite a bit of time with great apes and monkeys, I can’t stand bananas (smell, taste, texture, all horrible!) but I put it to one side to tempt Karmel to eat. She refused everything until I cut a banana into small pieces and held it for her. She had clamped herself to my neck so I was covered in banana but she took her first step on the road to recovery with my banana offerings!  She is now an adult and lives at Sheri Speede’s Sanaga Yong Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

 

The internet was very intermittent in town, non existent in the forest and there was no such thing as social media so I did feel like we were a million miles away from home. But it was such a privilege to work with such amazing animals, particularly as I never expected to have any time with them – I expected to see them from a distance in an office, calculator in hand!  

 

I returned home on 13th March and found it so hard to leave. I remember saying to Nkan Daniel that he would probably be a silverback before I could see him again. He is now a silverback but I have seen him many times because I couldn’t get the project out of my head when I came home. I went back later in 2002 and I had a request from Bryan Carroll, one of the trustees, to look after the UK bank account. I agreed and I was invited to join the board of trustees in November 2002. The project then took over my life and I was chief executive of the charity for several years. I have had to step back due to ill health but I am still a trustee and I still very privileged to work with wonderful people and amazing animals.

 

There are so many things that I could write about, a plethora of things that I hadn’t experienced before and things that have given me so much pleasure (and not so much pleasure!) but I’m running out of space. I have met many inspiring people as a result of my work with Ape Action Africa and I never cease to be amazed by the intelligence and character of the primates that we care for.  It has been an absolute joy to watch Rachel Hogan blossom from the shy volunteer I met in 2002 to our confident, extremely capable director of today. We are proud to employ local people at Mefou and I look forward to meeting some of our new staff members on my next trip, whenever that might be!

 

As I take a few steps back, it is lovely to see enthusiastic people joining us and working hard either on the ground in Cameroon or as volunteers, raising much needed funds to help us carry on caring for our primate family at Mefou and protect their cousins in the wild. 

Caroline McLaney

We are incredibly grateful to Caroline for so many years of incredible drive and devotion to Ape Action Africa, and we hugely appreciate all those who work so tirelessly for our rescued orphans both in Cameroon and all over the world.

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