Tacugama gives sanctuary to chimpanzees - through war and peace

Even an 11-year civil war couldn't stop Bala Amarasekaran from rescuing and rehabilitating chimps in Sierra Leone.

Paige McClanahan
After Bala Amarasekaran rescued a chimp tied to a tree by side of the road, he founded Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary near Freetown, Sierra Leone, where about 100 chimps are saved from exploitation.

Bala Amarasekaran hasn’t gotten a paycheck in 16 years, but this middle-aged husband and father – who regularly clocks 60-hour workweeks – isn’t complaining.

Quite the opposite, in fact: He says he has his dream job.

Amarasekaran is the founder and director of Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a “halfway house,” as he puts it, for chimps that have been abandoned or abused and can’t make it on their own in the wild.

Far too many chimps fall into that category here in Sierra Leone, the small West African country that Mr. Amarasekaran has called home since he was a teenager. Habitat destruction, the pet trade, and bushmeat hunting have left scores of chimps orphaned or stranded. Amarasekaran is doing what he can to rehabilitate them and – he hopes, someday – help them move back into the wild.

“This all happened by accident, basically,” Amarasekaran says, sitting in a plastic chair on Tacugama’s jungle-covered grounds, with chimps hooting in the background.

It all started in 1988, when Amarasekaran, who was then working as an accountant in Freetown, the capital city, happened to come across a chimp tied to a tree on the side of the road in rural Sierra Leone. The chimp, a young male, was dehydrated and sick, and he clearly wasn’t going to last long much longer tied to the tree.

So Amarasekaran brought him home and started nursing him back to health. Word spread, and soon other orphaned chimps started showing up at his door. Within a few years, Amarasekaran and his wife, Sharmila, were taking care of seven of the rambunctious little animals at their home in Freetown.

But the chimps were getting big and needed space, and Amarasekaran knew he couldn’t take care of them at home forever. So with the help of animal activist Jane Goodall, who paid him a visit in 1992, he located a chimp sanctuary in Zambia that was willing to take the animals in. They made the necessary phone calls, and even obtain permits for the chimps to travel. But he wasn’t sure he was ready to say good-bye.

“It occurred to me that sending these chimps that I had rescued to a project in Zambia, that was really passing the problem to someone else rather than trying to do something here,” he says. “So that’s the time when I turned around and thought, ‘Maybe we should do something in Sierra Leone.’ ”

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which sits on 100 acres just a few miles outside of Freetown, opened in 1995. It endured some rough times early on, thanks to Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002. Rebels attacked the sanctuary three times, looting medical supplies, food, and equipment.

Amarasekaran and a small clutch of Sierra Leonean staff kept working as the conflict raged around them. If they left, he says, they knew they would have lost the chimps.
Today, Sierra Leone is at peace, and the sanctuary is now home to nearly 100 chimps, looked after by about two-dozen Sierra Leonean staff members and a handful of volunteers from overseas.

The Arcus Foundation, based in Kalamazoo, Mich., helps cover the sanctuary’s operating costs. Several other donors have funded individual projects, but raising money is always a challenge, Amarasekaran says. Tacugama has built a few eco-lodges on the sanctuary grounds to make money from tourists, and it's looking to expand its adopt-a-chimp program.

But whatever happens with funding, one thing’s for sure: Amarasekaran is going to keep showing up at work every day, weekends included. A Sri Lankan native, he recently applied for Sierra Leonean citizenship; he expects his new passport to arrive sometime this year.

“If they looked for someone with the right capacity [to run a chimp sanctuary], probably I would be in the back of the line,” says Amarasekaran, who admits that his background in finance is not especially relevant to rehabilitating chimps. “But if you look for someone who’s prepared to stay for the long haul and try to do something, then probably I would be at the front of the line.”

• For more information about Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, visit tacugama.com.

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