In an average day at the office, Dr. Rebeca Atencia may be checking the vital signs of a sick chimpanzee, observing a chimp group’s acclimation to its new island home, or developing an education campaign to decrease the illegal trade of primates. Atencia serves as the Executive Director of the Jane Goodall Institute in the Congo and the Manager and Head Veterinarian at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center.
Atencia, who began as a veterinarian at Tchimpounga, just recently completed defending her Ph.D. thesis in Chimpanzee Physiology, officially making her a doctor. She spent several years expanding her knowledge of chimpanzee cardiology in preparation for her defense.
Atencia has much to show for her time directing JGI’s programs in the Congo. On a daily basis, she oversees the intake and care of chimpanzees and other species at Tchimpounga. She also oversaw the sanctuary’s 7-year expansion to include three nearby islands of dense vegetation on the Kouilou River. The expansion improved the quality of life for JGI’s rehabilitated chimpanzees who cannot be released back into the wild and allowed Tchimpounga – the largest sanctuary in Africa – to take on even more orphaned and injured chimpanzees.
As Executive Director, her work expands beyond the boundaries of Tchimpounga. Atencia uses her knowledge of veterinary medicine and captive primate care to train local veterinary assistants. She coordinates JGI’s support of the larger Tchimpounga Nature Reserve and supports the ecoguards that protect the reserve’s wild chimpanzees. And, as no small feat, she also coordinates JGI’s community-centered conservation practices for the entirety of the Congo.
Community-centered conservation revolves around the concept of promoting conservation in communities affected by the efforts, while simultaneously supporting that community’s access to sustainable livelihoods, health care, education, and clean water and fuel. When a community has access to these key services, their dependency on forest resources decreases, taking pressure off of the environment and bolstering support for conservation.
Atencia develops education campaigns that raise awareness in the community about the importance of chimpanzees to the forest, as well as their protected status. And her efforts are making an impact: in her nine years with JGI, she’s witnessed a large decrease in the number of baby chimpanzees rescued from Congolese markets.
Atencia earned her veterinary degree at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. She is originally from Ferrols, Spain. Since earning her degree, she has served as chief veterinarian at Aitana Safari Zoological Park in Alicante, Spain, as well as an advisory veterinarian for Sanctuary of Primates. Just before joining JGI, she served as a veterinarian and chief of camp for HELP-Congo, an organization that rehabilitates and reintroduces chimpanzees to the wild. She also supervised their noninvasive research on wild chimpanzees in the Congo. Now, at Tchimpounga, she continues her noninvasive research of rehabilitated chimpanzees.
Atencia is one of JGI’s most passionate and dedicated employees, and with her new doctorate in hand, we see her positive impact on the Congo only growing. Congratulations Rebeca!