For a long time, chimpanzees rescued and sent to sanctuaries had no chance of returning to the wild. The odds were against them the longer they grew accustomed to personalized care at the hands of humans. And upon reintroduction into the wild, any wild populations would likely attack and possibly kill the strange, introduced foreigners.
But this is changing. Researchers at JGI’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo are researching methods and places to reintroduce rescued chimpanzees into the wild, in part by studying the successful reintroductions of other primates such as mandrills. In the meantime, Tchimpounga is moving many of its rehabilitated chimpanzees, fit to one day potentially be reintroduced into the wild, onto its new island sanctuary sites to allow them to begin to relearn what it is like to live in a virtually wild, natural habitat.
Ulengue is now one of those chimps relearning how to be free, foraging for wild fruit and constructing nests at night to sleep under the treetops. Tchimpounga released Ulengue onto Tchindzoulou Island this year. On the island sanctuary site, he is closely monitored by staff: he and his peers still receive supplementary food from staff because they cannot roam off the island looking for new food sources; veterinary staff are on hand to provide medical attention when needed; and the chimpanzees do have the option of still sleeping indoors, in their specially built dormitory. But Tchindzoulou gives Ulengue so many new opportunities. He now has choices about how to spend his days and decide which companions to travel with. He has space to display as he pleases. And he has the opportunity to practice foraging in the wild. He is on his way to learning how to live on his own, with only his chimpanzee peers as companions and caretakers.
Ulengue first arrived at Tchimpounga in 2006. He came from Brazzaville Zoo in the Republic of Congo and was extremely dehydrated, malnourished and depressed upon arrival, completely infested with parasites. But with time and special care from Tchimpounga staff, Ulengue’s depression and timidity gave way as his body and spirit strengthened. Over the past nine years, he has grown into a dominant adult male with a gentle disposition. And Tchimpounga has grown overcrowded, as the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa with over 150 rescued chimpanzees – many orphans or victims of the illegal pet and entertainment trade. Ulengue’s and his peers’ releases onto Tchimpounga’s three new island sanctuary sites in the Kouilou River take pressure off the sanctuary’s limited space and offers all primates at the center improved well-beings.
Ulengue’s release onto Tchindzoulou Island was momentous. Dr. Jane Goodall was present for the occasion. When Ulengue exited his transport crate, he ran straight to his preferred human, Tchimpounga’s communications coordinator, Fernando Turmo. Then he hugged Tchimpounga’s manager Dr. Rebeca Atencia as if to say thank you – a hug that reminded Jane of a very similar experience she had with Wounda when she helped release the female onto Tchindzoulou in 2013.
Ulengue is now roaming through the forest of Tchindzoulou, spending time with his large social group and exploring his new home.