2014 was certainly a year to remember for me, it was August when I exited the plane and headed into the muggy terminal, the skies were threatening rain. As I made my way to the overcrowded baggage claim in Nsimalen Airport, I was excited to be back in Cameroun and I was overwhelmed with the possibilities that were in store for me as I began my journey as Ape Action Africa’s Deputy Director. Even my notoriously wild imagination couldn’t scratch the surface of the life changing experiences, memories and relationships that would form over the next 4 years of my life. Anybody that makes the mistake of letting me talk about chimps knows I will go on for hours about the animals that left an imprint on me, this list goes on forever but includes some such as Little Larry, Avi, Nona, Raul, Paula and Bertie, but I want to take this opportunity to talk about Ape Action Africa’s 13th species of primate….the humans.

Orphaned chimp Paula was rescued in 2016. Image courtesy of Ian Bickerstaff.

They say that a catastrophe brings out the best in people; just weeks after my arrival a unique catastrophe gave me a glimpse into the immense capabilities of the Mefou staff. This all-hands-on-deck event threw me right into the deep end and later was coined by the Director, Rachel Hogan as my “birth by fire”. Even as one of the oldest memories I have of the sanctuary, it is imbedded in my head with so much clarity.

Ape Action Africa employs over 50 local staff and it was nearing the end of the workday for them, just after 4:00, caregivers across the park were preparing to feed their respective groups, their “allez allez allez” calls were answered by pant hoots and chest beats that echoed off the trees and into my office as hundreds of excited primates throughout the sanctuary prepared for dinner time. Mr. Appolinaire quietly knocked on the office door as I tried to make sense of a giant pile of receipts from that day’s market. He didn’t waste any time, “c’est grave” a term I didn’t know yet but would soon become too familiar with. He then calmly says, “all the chimps in Mbeme are out”; with me still adjusting to his accent and him still perfecting his English, I thought something was lost in translation. I asked him to repeat himself, sure enough his English was perfect, all 32 chimps in the Mbeme section were out, the sanctuary’s largest escape had just occurred.

We drove down to investigate and a massive tree had fallen from inside Bertie’s enclosure and destroyed their electric fence; if that wasn’t enough, the tree was just tall enough to also break the fence of their neighbors, McCongo’s group. With the fences down it was an open invitation for all chimps, curious by nature, to leave their enclosure and explore the forests surrounding their home. With the sun setting quickly the chimps started spreading further away, the cautious chimps like Bertie stuck to the roads which lead to the nearby villages. Some of the braver chimps like Wendy went deep into the forest. Thankfully, a few of the timid chimps decided to go back into their enclosure for the night.

Some of the damage caused by the fallen tree at Mbeme

With chimps on the loose it gave concern for human-wildlife conflict and forced them to rely on survival skills they may not have developed yet. Since the chimpanzees are rescues, most made orphans by illegal bushmeat hunting and wildlife trafficking, some may not have the skills to survive in the wild.

The staff immediately sprang into action like a well-oiled machine, Tommy, our chief of construction led his team down to Mbeme and was able to get the fence temporarily fixed for the night; they would have both fences completely repaired, wires up, cement dried and posts welded in just a matter of days, an impressive feat. Rachel, Babs and I took staff out in shifts 3-5 times per day, searching for the chimps and following up on leads. The village farms were a popular destination for the chimps and the community played a vital role by calling us whenever one was sighted. Our Controller, Mr. Appolinaire, helped lead the recovery missions utilizing the caregivers that the chimps trusted the most and darting animals when needed. Mbarga and Big Joe were the Mbeme caregivers and had cared for them since they were very young, I was always amazed by the trust the chimps had in their caregivers. Nixon, having experience with chimps, often accompanied the searches and was a savior for me during that time, his patience seemed infinite as I leaned on him for explanations and translations as I struggled to pick up French. Some of the local staff were key in tracking down the chimps that didn’t stick to the roads, caregivers such as Elkast and Abida, who worked with the small monkeys and gorillas, had grown up in those very forests and fearlessly guided us through the thick and unrelenting brush without getting lost once.

Mr Abida Gregoire, our Deputy Controller, helped guide the team through the forest

These searches made for early mornings and late evenings and went on for weeks as we slowly started recovering the chimps; they had managed to spread out in all directions like a ripple in a pond, making finding them extremely difficult. Caregivers all over the park were stepping up and helping out in different ways, learning new sections with different primates to help cover each other’s posts, often working long days and shorthanded as search parties came and went in and out of the forest; everybody was tired but the staff never complained about the long days and often volunteered after work to follow up on the latest tip. They all knew the importance of getting them back as quickly and safely as possible.

Some chimps managed to find their way back to their enclosures, though many of them traveled extremely long distances and once found had often lost a noticeable amount of weight and had to be sedated and driven back to the sanctuary; Babs and his vet techs did a great job caring for the chimps during the transportation, utilizing the opportunity to perform health checks and always being there when the chimp woke up so they would see a familiar face before being reunited with their chimp family.

Just 4 weeks after the tree fell, we had all but 3 chimps back in their enclosures, Fredo and two females stayed out for a few months living off village farms and retreating into the deep forest whenever they heard our truck coming. Eventually they returned on their own, 1 jumped right into the enclosure from an outside tree and embraced with her fellow family members, the other female just sat calmly at the door of her night enclosure and patiently waited for her caregivers to let her in. Fredo of course had to make things difficult but we were able to safely reunite him with his family. Smiles were bigger and laughs were louder that night around dinner in the village as the staff celebrated the end of what we would eventually call the big escape. I learned more that month from the people who called Mefou Park their home than I would learn in any other month there.

Fredo, one of the chimps who stayed out longest. Image courtesy of Ian Bickerstaff

I had volunteered with chimps for about 2 ½ years before I moved to Cameroun to work with Ape Action Africa, and while the animals were the reason I got on that plane, it is the people that made my time with Ape Action Africa so special for me, they truly care about the animals they have rescued, and they are the reason that I will forever support Ape Action Africa and the work they do.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that forest and the primates, human and non-human alike, and I will be back the first opportunity I get.

Larry Taylor

Huge thanks to Larry for all that he accomplished during his four years as our Deputy Director. His calm leadership, positivity, warmth and humour have been missed, and we're looking forward to seeing him back in the forest as soon as he can make it.

Banner image - Larry with Controller Mr Appolinaire

Please select a donation amount (required)
Set up a regular payment Donate