Lonely Planet Writer

No monkeying around: rehabilitating chimpanzees is a labour of love for volunteers in Guinea

A dedicated group of volunteers from all over the world work at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre (Centre de Conservation des Chimpanzés), a unique chimpanzee sanctuary and rehabilitation project in Somoria, Guinea, West Africa.

French volunteer Audrey Lenormand, 27, attempts to learn 'Malinke' with one of the keepers while the baby chimpanzees take an interest at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
French volunteer Audrey Lenormand, 27, attempts to learn ‘Malinke’ with one of the keepers while the baby chimpanzees take an interest at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The sanctuary was established in 1997 and is located on the banks of the River Niger in the Haut-Niger National Park. Its rescued chimpanzees are orphans confiscated by the Guinean government, having been captured by illegal traffickers to be sold as pets after their mothers were killed for bushmeat.

French volunteer Audrey Lenormand, 27, relaxes with one of the three baby chimpanzees at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
French volunteer Audrey Lenormand, 27, relaxes with one of the three baby chimpanzees at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The centre rehabilitates and cares for these orphaned chimps, many of whom suffer from malnutrition and skin and respiratory diseases. They also exhibit psychological disorders related to abuse and captivity.

Spanish veterinary volunteer Christina Collell performs a health check on new arrival Kandar at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Guinea, who will spend three months with his surrogate mother Anissa Aidat, 23, from France. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Spanish veterinary volunteer Christina Collell performs a health check on new arrival Kandar at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Guinea, Kandar will spend three months with his surrogate mother Anissa Aidat, 23, from France. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

According to the Great Apes Survival Partnership, (GRASP), for every young chimpanzee that is rescued, around ten of its family members are likely to have been killed. The sanctuary’s ultimate goal is releasing the animals back into the wild, a process that takes over ten years.

Ten-month-old Soumba is left alone momentarily for the first time since her arrival at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Ten-month-old Soumba is left alone momentarily for the first time since her arrival at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When a baby chimp is rescued, it is cared for 24 hours a day for the first three months by a volunteer, quarantined away from other chimpanzees and staff. With care, attention and compassion from the keepers and volunteers, the chimps begin to overcome the physical and psychological damage they’ve suffered, and begin the long process of gaining independence and learning how to survive in the wild.

French volunteer Audrey Lenormand, 27, holds ten-month-old Soumba at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
French volunteer Audrey Lenormand, 27, holds ten-month-old Soumba at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As they develop, they are slowly integrated back into larger family groups until they are ready for their eventual release, where possible. The sanctuary currently looks after approximately 50 West African chimpanzees, one of the most endangered subspecies of chimpanzee.

Douda Keita, 38. gives a piggyback to chimpanzee Noel during a daily bushwalk at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Douda Keita, 38. gives a piggyback to chimpanzee Noel during a daily bushwalk at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Volunteers, including volunteer veterinarians, come from various backgrounds from all over the world. They provide assistance to the staff and Guinean animal caretakers at the sanctuary, helping with caring for the chimps, general infrastructure, maintenance and various camp tasks. This includes preparation and distribution of meals to chimpanzees and outings in the bush with various chimpanzee groups.

Volunteer Camille Le Maire, 27 from Nice in France and keeper Fayer Kourouma enjoy duties with the nursery group in the forest during a bushwalk at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Volunteer Camille Le Maire, 27, from Nice in France and keeper Fayer enjoy duties with the nursery group in the forest during a bushwalk at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The volunteers also assist with radio tracking of the released chimpanzees. Sometimes, visual checks are needed and occur during feedings of the group by the Niger River. They also try to promote education in the local communities, and to help the Guinean government to protect the park where the sanctuary is located.

Keeper Albert Wamouno interacts with chimpanzee Hawa during a bushwalk, at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Keeper Albert Wamouno interacts with chimpanzee Hawa during a bushwalk at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While the work is extremely rewarding, life in the bush is not the easiest and living conditions are precarious, as there is no electricity or continuous running water. Cooking is done over a wood fire, and shelter is provided in huts where volunteers sleep on beds of straw.

One of the eight-strong nursery group making their way along a mud track with keeper Fayer Kourouma during a forest bushwalk at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
One of the eight-strong nursery group making their way along a mud track with keeper Fayer Kourouma during a forest bushwalk at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The volunteers are so dedicated, they work twelve-hour-days without a day off. The camps are far from villages, and communication with the outside world is limited as there is no phone or internet. The bush environment also includes biting insects, snakes and spiders! Volunteers usually spend a minimum of six months working at the sanctuary, and find it a wonderful, enriching experience.

Keeper Sekou Kourouma listens to music on his phone as some of the nursery group play during a bushwalk in the savannah at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Keeper Sekou Kourouma listens to music on his phone as some of the nursery group play during a bushwalk in the savannah at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Somoria, Guinea. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Two non-profit organisations help to raise funds for the CCC: Project Primates Inc. and Projet Primates France. A third organisation, Projet Primates Guinee, serves as the local legal entity. For further information on how to support this amazing project, see here.