On the Frontline: Saving Liberia’s Forgotten Chimpanzees

by Jenny Desmond

A young chimpanzee drinks freshwater provided by a rescue team member (Photo © Jim and Jenny Desmond)

We received the message in the spring of 2015. There were 66 chimpanzees living on islands off the coast of Liberia needing emergency assistance. They had been left there by an organization called New York Blood Center, that had used them as research subjects, conducting invasive experiments involving hundreds of ‘knock downs,’ biopsies, and painful tests, for over three decades. Though they had given notice of their intentions to pull out of the project, no accommodation had been made to sustain the chimpanzees on an island with no access to natural food or water sources. The local individuals caring for these chimps were desperately trying to keep them alive without pay or support…

I have been working in the field of animal welfare, protection, and conservation for years. During this time, I have been exposed to countless situations of abuse, neglect, and cruelty, but this situation was almost unfathomable. These chimpanzees had given their lives and souls for the benefit of humans for thirty years — humans who did not deem it necessary to offer them even the most basic rights of survival.

We couldn’t say ‘no’ — so the team set off for Liberia for five weeks in July.

We were not prepared for what we would see when we arrived. Day one, we embarked on the boat the former New York Blood Center employees had been using to feed the chimpanzees. The team was welcoming, kind and open, but wary. They had been abandoned as well.

As we approached the first of six islands, where many of the oldest surviving chimpanzees were left, we could hear them well before they came into view. The screams of desperation were unmistakable. As two people who have worked with hundreds of chimpanzees with traumatic histories, I truly believed we were ready to handle what we were about to see.

I was wrong.

Hungry chimpanzees collect emergency food provided by Humane Society USA (Photo © Jim and Jenny Desmond)

Chimpanzees with their skin literally hanging off their bones, ribcages protruding, extensive hair loss, lifeless coats and dull eyes — these sights were only the beginning. As the boat approached, the fight for food was relentless. Chimps were screaming, coming up to the boat even through deep waters. They were fighting over food. Their expressions were filled with fear.

We just sat there and cried. It seemed all we could do at that moment. We felt immobilized, but knew we needed to spring straight into action.

There was much to be done in the short five weeks we had to implement emergency protocols. We didn’t have time to indulge our feelings of shock and sadness — only use them to fuel us during the intense weeks to come.

With the backing of a remarkable coalition of over 35 animal welfare and conservation organizations, led by The Humane Society of the United States, we had all the financial support we needed to get right to work. Perhaps even more remarkable was the team on the ground — a group of people who had been working for no money for months and spending their own time and resources collecting and disbursing what little food they were able to spare for the chimpanzees. They had been bringing water to the chimps, doled out cup by cup, to keep them from dying of dehydration, and even took the initiative to bring visitors and local researchers who had sent out the original alert, asking for donations of food and water.

After five weeks of grueling work, the chimpanzees were receiving food on a daily basis: fruits, vegetables, nuts and supplemental vitamin balls. They also had the freedom to drink water in abundance at any time of day or night, thanks to the repair of the island’s water systems. A birth control regimen was put into place, routine monitoring and basic veterinary procedures were established and a fleet of vehicles and boats was assembled, ensuring regular delivery of food and provisions.

As the boast approaches the shore, chimpanzees desperate for food and water wade out to meet the team (Photo © Jim and Jenny Desmond)

It was a whole new world — for everyone!

Over this short period, the improvements were astounding. The chimpanzees had glossier coats, brighter eyes, greater strength and noticeable weight gain. However, the most poignant change was in the chimpanzees’ behavior. They were acting like chimpanzees: relieved and happy again.

We left Liberia with mixed feelings. There was so much left to do for the chimpanzees, but we were grateful that so much had been accomplished. Returning to our beloved and greatly missed dog Princess and an amazing house on the coast of Kenya, where friends, sun, sea and sand awaited us, but the feeling that we had to go back to Liberia could not be suppressed.

We had a huge choice to make. The beach and sun of the Indian Ocean, wonderful friends, visitors from home ready to make a trip to see us, beachfront property and a chance to manage an established and well run primate rehab operation — or Liberia. For some reason I cannot explain, the choice was crystal clear.

We had to go back.

After a year and half on the ground, the future is looking bright. Great challenges lie ahead, but there are also boundless opportunities. Liberia’s past is scarred with strife, heartbreak, death and disappointment. But the people are still smiling, the government is still hopeful, and the chimpanzees are still standing.

The supplemental vitamin balls provided by HSUS are essential for these chimpanzees to regain their strength. For the infant, they are critical to its development (Photo © Jim and Jenny Desmond)

The journey has really only just begun, and is filled with inspiration at every turn. Team meetings are filled with tears of gratitude. Wildlife authorities have embraced this new future with enthusiasm and dedication. The international community is ready to partner.

However, the greatest inspiration is in the opportunity here to turn a tragic situation lacking integrity, morality and compassion into one that encompasses the opposite. Since arriving full time in Liberia, seven additional chimpanzees have come into our care, confiscated by authorities, victims of the illegal bushmeat and live pet trades. These seizures have required the cooperation and collaboration of local and international partners and exemplify a widespread commitment and optimism in the world of great ape protection and conservation.

Organizations such as GRASP, Liberia Forestry Development Authority, Liberia Institute for Biomedical Research, The Humane Society of the United States, Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, UNMIL, Jane Goodall Institute, Arcus Foundation, as well as thousands of individual supporters from around the world have sent, and will continue to send, a very clear message to New York Blood Center and groups like them — an uphill battle simply drives us to summit!

And without the chimpanzees themselves, this movement would not have been possible. Their willingness to trust, incredible resilience, and the great sacrifices they have made are what drives us, and our partners, onwards to save these precious apes.

Jim and Jenny back on the Kenyan coast with Princess (Photo © Jim and Jenny Desmond)

Dr. Jim Desmond, DVM and Jenny Desmond, are a husband-wife team who are also colleagues at Humane-Society of the United States (HSUS). Jim and Jenny are longtime conservationists, and Jim is a wildlife veterinarian. Their incredible work continues to save the chimpanzees left in Liberia.