Words and photos by Villiers Steyn and Tabby Mittins
They say chimpanzees share 98.7% of our DNA, and you only have to watch them for five minutes to see how many human traits we seem to share as well. They’re expressive, intelligent and often cute, especially when they’re young, and as they grow older they develop their own unique personalities – just like us. There are those who are put off by their human-like features and antics, but sadly there are people all over the world who exploit the very same things for profit or pleasure.
Chimps may not be native to South Africa, but Chimp Eden, just outside Nelspruit, is now a sanctuary for over 30 chimpanzees rescued from all kinds of horrors around the globe. Most are the survivors of poaching efforts – chimp meat is almost as sought after as rhino horn – but many of the animals Chimp Eden takes in have been rescued from the grisly clutches of the illegal pet trade.
On the guided tour of the sanctuary, you’ll meet Zacarias, rescued from outside a bar in Mozambique, where he was given drugs, alcohol and cigarettes for amusement until he became a full-blown addict; Jessica, who was found locked and physically abused in a dark room after being abandoned by a circus; Nikki, who was shaved clean, dressed in human clothes and raised in a house as a polite human child in Liberia; and many others whose stories you wouldn’t believe. Chimp Eden, a.k.a. the Jane Goodall Institute South Africa, rescues chimpanzees living under terrible circumstances from countries on every continent, and others that have escaped poachers’ snares, homing any and all they can.
Jessica, Joao, Mary, Mowgli, Tony and many others (they even know their names) live in three separate groups, and it’s easy to see that their personalities differ as much as their appearance. Their intelligence, playfulness, ingenuity and social structure is fascinating to observe, as are their antics, threats and displays for macadamia nut treats.
These chimps can never be returned to the wild, and some have never even seen their homelands in West- and Central Africa, but at Chimp Eden they have the opportunity to live out the rest of their lives in peace and relative comfort, surrounded by their own kind.
Unfortunately it’s not easy to photograph the chimps, because they’re nearly always on the other side of an enclosure fence. Listen carefully to your guide, because he or she may instruct you to duck when certain chimps pick up any convenient projectile they can find. They have a tendency to aim for visitors’ heads and cameras and they have surprisingly good aim.
How to get there: From Nelspruit, drive 11 km south on the R40 towards Barberton.
GPS: S25.56196 E30.97130 (turn-off)
Cost: R160 per adult, R120 per pensioner and R80 per child under 12 (free for kids under 6). Tours at 10am, 12pm and 2pm daily.
Contact: Phone 079 777 1514 or visit www.chimpeden.com