It was January 19, 2005, when I boarded my first flight to the forest. I was scheduled for a three-month volunteer position, with zero expectations and full heart to help any way I could.  Some people may call this type of trip a “bucket list” item but that would only minimize the experience in my opinion. This became such an incredible trip, full of wonderful memories, all to last a lifetime.

One of my first experiences upon arriving was meeting a young male chimpanzee who had only just arrived also. A rescue from the pet trade who was being cared for by one of the adult chimpanzee group keepers; a young man named Joe. Joe had a great way with the chimps which was evident for all to see. Because he was needed back at the adult group, I was to begin caring for the new arrival named Mahwah. His estimated age was eighteen months old but Mahwah was very malnourished, had a great loss of hair and was traumatized from his ordeal of capture resulting in him appearing so much smaller for his age. Luckily, his time with Joe before my arrival was incredibly positive and Mahwah thrived in his care. It was not long before we were able to introduce him to another young male where they could spend their days and nights in a secure holding space.  

  Mahwah

At that moment my job changed from the intensive 24-hour care of Mahwah to daily keeper help of the adult gorilla group.  This was more than appropriate as I was studying to be a zoologist as the time with hopes of becoming a gorilla keeper. Now my days started at 6:30 meeting keeper Alfred to help with diet preparations, daily husbandry and lots of observations! Needless to say, I was in my glory.  Alfred was a great teacher and knew his troop well. It takes years to cultivate the relationship he had with them. I could see one individual, Gerry, he would call Echo, was extra special to him. Those two had an obvious bond and she would hang around his neck like a long lost friend. The art of collecting aframomum, wild ginger plants, started immediately. This plant is a staple dietary item for all the animals, but gorillas in particular have a strong love of it. I felt very proud not to injure myself slashing away with a machete for the first time. And felt even better when I was able to watch the gorillas strip each piece with such delight. The sound gorillas make when eating is like a song with the humming and grumbles so when six are doing it all at once, a bit of a gorilla symphony takes place.

 

    

Now even though Ape Action Africa is a primate sanctuary there are times other species are brought in for help. We had four African civets arrive suddenly one day. They were exceedingly small and needed feeding every three hours. You also had to stimulate them to help with defecation. With their sudden arrival, my job changed to care for these little beauties. It didn’t take long though for the feeding to decrease to twice a day as they became independent fairly quickly. A few workers built an incredible structure in the forest where we could begin the soft release once the civets became a bit older. Upon moving into the forest holding, they began to grow over night it seemed which freed up my time to help in other areas of the project. 

Cleaning is a big part of a volunteers work and I remember the first impression the African cleaning tools left on me. Using a ballai, which is a handheld stick broom really, and a thin piece of plywood takes more than just patience, it becomes a talent. And being so remote, the access to water is via bucket from a well which you carry to the work area, no hoses here. I did a great amount of cleaning whether it was nursery chimpanzee holding areas, gorilla enclosures or volunteer quarters; it all needed doing. This work did not hold a candle to what the project construction crew accomplishes, however.  A couple of us volunteers helped with the cost of partitioning the nursery gorilla night house. This would help with integrations in the future. Our support got the materials, but the hard work was the manual labor from the construction team. I was in awe of the guys as they dug 6-foot-deep trenches manually, built the cinder cement blocks from scratch in addition to welding pieces of iron together making fence partitions. The improvisation and ingenuity were mind-blowing! 

As the gorilla construction progressed news of another arrival came.  An infant gorilla was found on the body of his deceased mother in the Dja Reserve. Botanical researchers from Germany came upon the scene, noticed the baby was still alive and reached out to the project for help. Luckily, the death wasn’t Ebola as many feared but anthrax poisoning - the first gorilla rescue from such an event.  The infant gorilla caregiver situation was like that of Mahwah. An adult gorilla keeper was pulled to care for the baby until quarantine was complete. It was not long before I was helping and spent the remaining volunteer time with this new arrival named Yeba. We were so grateful the researchers found the project. Yeba was a healthy baby and the first gorilla at the project who wasn’t a victim of the traumatic bushmeat trade. Having the absolute honor of caring for him left a permanent impression on my soul and added motivation to help protect gorillas in any fashion possible.

  Yeba

It is now sixteen years later. I have volunteered many more times since 2005. Mahwah has become a strong adult chimpanzee living in a well-established group with forest surrounding him. The civets have long since been released and live wild once again. And Yeba is now a huge silverback. The number of rescues the project must deal with hasn’t lessened but the outstanding care, devotion and commitment to conservation hasn’t either. To imagine not having Rachel, Appolinaire and all the incredible workers of Ape Action Africa is a heartbreaking thought. Without them, all those gorillas, chimpanzees, primates and other species would not have their second chance at life again, they would have been species lost. Twenty-five years of life saving dedication! Happy Anniversary, and thank you for all you do, and for blessing me with so many precious memories, and an incredible year to remember in 2005! 



Susan Eberth

In the 25 years since our charity was founded, we've been incredibly lucky to receive the help of some amazingly dedicated volunteers. Huge thanks to Susan and her husband Charles for all of the work they do for us both in the forest and from their home in Canada. A sincere thank you also to all of our volunteers who give their time so generously to support our work. We are very, very grateful to have you in our forest family.

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