Sierra Leone Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Programme
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Chimpanzee numbers have declined dramatically in Sierra Leone in the last three decades; in the early 1970's an estimated 20,000 wild chimps were living in the west African country --today there are less than 3,000.

As with most countries in Africa, habitat destruction, human encroachment and the bushmeat crisis have been major contributing factors, but international demand for chimps both for research laboratories and as pets have also been to blame. Thankfully, this is now strictly illegal in Sierra Leone. Together with your help, Tacugama hopes to put an end to the great harm that has been subjected upon our closest genetic relatives.

How We Began

Sharmila with baby bruno.

Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila were travelling through a village about 150 miles north of Freetown, when they saw a baby chimpanzee being offered for sale. The chimp looked weak and sick, which prompted Bala and Sharmila to pay $30 for him, suspecting that if he was left without care any longer, he would die. Like most people, Bala and Sharmila knew very little about chimpanzees in general, nevermind how to care for a tiny infant. With care and attention, the little chimp started to recover and he was given the name Bruno. The reason was that on the day the chimp was bought, Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson were fighting for the boxing world heavyweight title and Bala wanted Bruno to win.

For one year, Bruno lived inside their house, free to roam and get into mischief. As he grew, he became more destructive and so Bala built him a cage located in their garden. As their knowledge about chimps grew, so did their realisation that there were many more chimps in Freetown, most of which were kept in appalling conditions.

Bala & Sharmila with young Bruno & Julie

Bala teamed with Rosalind Alp, who was studying wild chimps in Sierra Leone and they completed an investigation into pet chimp numbers. They found 55 captive chimps in Freetown alone.

Bala heard that one of the chimps seen in Freetown had been abandoned by her Scottish expatriate owner. Bala went to the address where he found Julie alone in her cage. He took Julie to his house where she was gradually introduced to Bruno. After a few weeks the two chimps were inseparable and have been together ever since.

Soon, as news spread that there was a couple of people in Freetown who were helping chimps, so Bala was offered more chimps to look after and he also continued to rescue other chimps suffering varying degrees of neglect.

Suzie being set free from her life in a basket.

By 1993, more than half of the 55 chimps seen in Freetown in 1989 had disappeared or been killed, and Bala had 2 chimps (Bruno & Julie) at his home. As there was no prospect of returning these chimps to the wild, a more permanent and suitable home would have to be found for them.

Bala then contacted Dr. Jane Goodall for advice about the future of the 2 chimps and eventually arrangements were made for the chimps to be relocated to the Chimfungsi Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Zambia. But before this occurred, Bala was driving along a road one day when he saw another two chimps being offered for sale in Freetown. It suddenly struck him that the solution was not to send chimps to another country to be looked after, the problem had to be solved within Sierra Leone itself. Within little time Bala's chimp family grew to 7.

If he sent these chimps to Zambia, what would he do with the next few that needed to be rescued in Freetown? He realised that the chimp situation had two aspects that had to be stressed. One would be to stop the selling and keeping of chimps, by educating people about the law and to punish offenders. The other aspect would be to build a sanctuary near Freetown, where already captive chimps could live in a semi-wild environment within a forest. Thus, the seeds for the idea of a sanctuary in Sierra Leone for chimps were sown!

Philip oversees the construction of the main building

Bala liased with the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) and produced a detailed project proposal, including an environmental educational programme. This year the proposals for a chimp sanctuary were approved. The Wildlife Conservation Branch of the Ministry of Forestry (WCB) allocated 100 acres of prime rain forest for the chimp project and so the work of creating a sanctuary began. The area assigned to the project is just a 20 minutes drive from Freetown in the Western Are Forest Reserve.

Financial support was required for the project, therefore a number of concerned parties were invited to form a committee; its mandate was to initiate fund raising initiatives and to steer the project ahead. All the spending would be approved by the committee, which was chaired by Mr. Prince Palmer. This year the European Union (EU) awarded a conditional grant of $34,000 to the sanctuary premised on Bala becoming Project Director as his commitment to the cause was clear. These funds were made available on the condition that there was a full time project manager for the programme. Bala accepted this and made a major commitment to the chimps, he since gave up his 15- year career as an accountant to work full time for the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

In November 1995, the sanctuary was officially opened. The chimps were gradually moved to the new site and placed in their new cages. The Wildlife Conservation Branch deployed three members of staff to care for the chimps, and the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone employed an education officer for the environmental education programme.

Willie with young Ezme

As news of the chimp programme spread, so did the reports of more captive chimps in Freetown. Some chimps were handed over to the sanctuary and others were confiscated under the provisions of the Wildlife Conservation Act of 1972. For the next two years, chimps continued to be rescued from desperate situations and by 1997, there were 24 chimps at the sanctuary.

The next objective was to build electrified enclosures to enable the chimps to be integrated together as a family unit in part of the forest. however, funds were short, but WSPA became aware of the needs of the project and arranged to visit the sanctuary in June 1997. the aim of the trip was to assess the rehabilitation programme and to consider support for the building of the chimp enclosures.


In May 1997, a month before WSPA was due to visit the sanctuary, a coup occurred in Sierra Leone. It soon became clear that rebel forces had seized power of the capital Freetown and were running a campaign of terror and looting, causing the President to flea. The Nigerian led West African Intervention Force, ECOMOG, was brought in to oust the rebels from Freetown and reinstate the President.

Heavy fighting ensued and eventually Bala was forced to take refuge, with other civilians, in a hotel under the protection of ECOMOG soldiers. The hotel came under attack for two days, until the Red Cross successfully negotiated a 1-hour cease-fire allowing the civilians to be evacuated.

Bala travelled to London, where he approached several animal welfare organisations to request emergency assistance to help the sanctuary. As the coup continued, all the sanctuary’s money was frozen in a closed bank in Freetown, but food and medicine for the chimps still had to be purchased every day. Bala managed to channel funds to Freetown through various means to keep the Sanctuary alive and running. WSPA and other organisations offered financial assistance, which Bala took back to SL as soon as he was allowed. It took him five days travelling before he reached the sanctuary in November 1997, and was relieved to see that the sanctuary staff had survived.

Rebels had passed through camp twice, each time looting all chimp food, medicine and the staff’s personal belongings. The staff had risked their lives to creep around the forest and find enough food to keep the chimps alive. They had little money and so often had to take loans from the local people while awaiting funds from Bala. The local community was very generous and understanding, considering that they too were suffering from a lack of food themselves. This has created a permanent bond between Tacugama and the local community.

Sadly however, five chimps had died during these tragic months, due to stress of the shooting, the bombing and the unavailability of medical supplies. The remaining chimps had lost weight and were traumatised by the events of the war – the sounds of gunfire, the looting soldiers and the disruption of their family routine. When the coup ended, most of the chimps reverted to their old characters, but one chimp named Little Boy was mentally scared. He started pulling his hair out, rocking back and forth and carrying a comfort blanket everywhere. This behaviour was aggravated by seizures that led to his death months later.

Continue to 1998-2007 >

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Thank You John Lydon!


Chimp Facts

Born near Kenema, Sierra Leone, Pinkie was the world's only known albino chimpanzee. Unlike most albino animals Pinkie had one blue eye & one brown eye. More about Pinkie.

More Facts

Last Updated: January 20, 2007 at 16:20 EST