April 5, 2008
Estelle Raballand: Helping Wild and Captive Chimps
Estelle Raballand says that her first meeting with Robert changed her life forever. She had been told that Robert was aggressive, but when she approached him he leapt into her arms with a loving embrace.
Robert, a chimpanzee chained by the neck in his owner's backyard, was Raballand's first real glimpse at the problems that faced wild primates in captivity.
Ten years after meeting Robert, Raballand is still caring for him and 35 other chimps at the Centre de Conservation pour Chimpanzés (also known as the Chimpanzee Conservation Center or CCC) in Guinea, West Africa. The CCC, and its legal entity Project Primate, Inc., care for and rehabilitate orphaned chimpanzees, but also work to educate the public about preservation and protection of wild chimpanzees.
For these, and many other efforts, Raballand was presented with the inaugural HSI Award for Extraordinary Commitment and Achievement during the 2004 Animal Care Expo in Dallas.
Filling the void between the law and reality
Although apes are supposed to be protected in Guinea because of their endangered status, the reality is quite different. While it is illegal to kill chimps or keep them as pets in Guinea, enforcement of the law is a problem, as it is in other African countries. Adult chimpanzees are frequently killed and sold for their meat (known as bushmeat) and infants are captured and sold as pets.
In fact, the bushmeat trade is the primary threat to wild ape populations (chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas) in Africa—even greater than the threat of habitat destruction. Killing apes for bushmeat has a disproportionate effect on their populations, because of the species' slow rate of reproduction. The destruction of habitat for logging roads in West Africa has only increased hunters' access to wild chimpanzee populations.
Bushmeat is considered a major source of dietary protein in West and Central Africa, and while subsistence hunting was once sustainable, it has increased with logging and mining, in order to feed laborers and colonists, and because modern transport systems enable access to distant urban markets. African expatriates in Europe contribute to the problem by paying high prices for bushmeat at restaurants.
Nowadays adult chimpanzees killed for bushmeat often leave babies behind, and orphaned chimps are easy prey for the pet trade, though many die in the process of being captured and transported. Europeans in Africa sometimes buy the young chimpanzees as pets, but fail to make plans to look after the animals for the duration of their lives. As they grow up and become more difficult to handle, these captive chimpanzees may also be killed for bushmeat.
And those who survive often suffer from poor nutrition and care, like Robert. Many of the CCC residents were confiscated from such poor conditions.
"They're all orphans," Raballand says of the chimpanzees she cares for at the CCC. "Either products of the bushmeat trade, or ex-pets." Sanctuaries like Raballand's CCC are often filled to capacity due to the large number of chimpanzees orphaned each year by bushmeat poachers.
The ABCs of CCC
As Raballand, who was raised in France, became more aware of the issues surrounding Robert and other chimps, she approached Guniea's Ministry of Agriculture in 1994 to find out what they were doing about the chimpanzee pet trade. She learned from the ministry that there were no facilities to provide sanctuary for orphaned chimps, but the government told Raballand that she could create one herself.
While she wasn't able to do so at the time, Raballand volunteered with Veterinarians Without Borders (VWB) to help care for 14 chimpanzees left in Guinea by a Swiss woman. When some of the chimps at VWB died, she again approached the government to find out what could be done to develop better facilities. She was informed that the European Union (EU) had provided funds to create a conservation project, to include chimpanzee rehabilitation, a survey of wild chimpanzee populations, and an education program. The government asked for Raballand's help, and she agreed to become involved in the project.
While chimpanzee facilities were being built in the National Park du Haut Niger in Guinea as part of the EU project, Raballand cared for eight chimpanzees in her home and at a local botanical garden. After those animals and the chimpanzees from VWB were moved to the park in 1998, Raballand moved to the United States to work in an emergency animal clinic in order to get more training. While she was in the U.S. she also formed the nonprofit Project Primate. Eight months later, she was back in Africa for a tour of sanctuary facilities and to assist in creating a new chimpanzee orphanage in Cameroon.
In May 1999, when EU funding for the chimpanzee project in Guinea ended, Raballand was asked to head the project by Guinea's government, and what is now known as the Chimpanzee Conservation Center was born.
Grace under pressure
Today Raballand continues to work under difficult conditions, dealing with social isolation (including from her husband and son) and the presence of disease. Working conditions present major challenges, such as getting needed materials into the forest. It's also a 15-hour journey by bush taxi to the capital of Guinea, where she needs to go to contact the outside world by means such as e-mail.
Despite these difficulties, Raballand and her staff and volunteers remain dedicated to the chimpanzees and their future. Her astute management has transformed the CCC from a single large cage in the wild into a camp for the management team, a veterinary room, and a large enclosure with an electrified fence for the chimps' daily "play time."
Her work transcends day-to-day care of the chimps, though. Eager to spread information about logging, habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade, Raballand helped create a radio spot, in four different languages, about the need to protect wild chimpanzees.
It's a step on the way to realizing her ultimate dream, which is to end the need for sanctuaries such as the CCC. "My goal for the sanctuary is to not need a sanctuary anymore," Raballand says. "Meaning there would be no more pet chimpanzees, there'd be no more trade of chimpanzees, no more bushmeat... no orphans coming in. And all the ones that could be released would be released, and the ones that are not releasable will stay with the best captivity possible."
She also takes chimpanzees on walks into the forest every day—working toward the goal of being able to release the orphans back into the wild.
And that's what Raballand would like more than anything else, to "give them back the life they never should have left."