November 18-20, 2008
Chimfunshi is an animal sanctuary in northern Zambia. They mostly focus on chimpanzees, though they also have a few other odd animals, including one hippo. Pnina and I decided to go there because although we saw quite a lot of animals at Kruger National Park, we didn’t see any chimps – they only live around equatorial Africa. It turned out to be a good decision because the other places to see chimps up north (in Uganda, Rwanda, etc) are far more expensive.
One of the main issues with Chimfunshi is that it’s tricky to get there. If you have your own car it’s not so much of an issue, but for the Zambia/Malawi part of our trip Pnina and I decided to go with public transport. Our bus dropped us off on a random junction in the road, about 60 km northwest of Chingola. From there we had to walk about 19 km by foot along a dirt road:
Lucky for us, after we walked only 1.5 km or so, an SUV pulled up behind us. It turned out to be the general manager of Chimfunshi, Tony, with his wife Charlotte. They had just come back from a week long trip to their home in Zimbabwe, where they celebrated their son’s 30th birthday. Their car was packed full of supplies because they were expecting a group of students at Chimfunshi in just a couple of days, but they were nice enough to rearrange the boxes enough for Pnina and I to squeeze in, so we didn’t have to walk the majority of that dirt road.
We also lucked out on the way out – Tony made his weekly trip to Chingola to do internet, so he gave us a ride out as well.
How It All Started
Chimfunshi was founded by the Siddle family, Sheila and David. They didn’t intend to set up an animal sanctuary – they just set up a farm out in the bush and focused on typical farming things like raising cattle. One day their son-in-law brought home a chimp that was rescued from a game park. Sheila has a real soft spot for animals so she couldn’t turn it away. It also turned out that she has a talent for taking care of them. With time people heard about Sheila’s chimp, so more chimps arrived at the Siddle’s farm, which is how the orphanage was started. The Siddles set up some cages and they took the chimps for daily walks, and basically taught themselves how to take care of chimps. Pretty soon the orphanage grew very large so the Siddles turned to the Zambian government and the international community, and together they purchased a large piece of land next door, an area that was already known as Chimfunshi (a name that coincidentally sounds like chimpanzee but has nothing to do with chimps). They set up a trust such that the land was owned by the chimps, and they started setting up larger enclosures for their growing chimp community. Today they still have the orphanage by the Siddle home and it serves as a kind of intake center – that’s where new chimps come in order to spend time learning to get along with the other recently arrived chimps. But they also have larger enclosures some 12 km away where four groups of chimps that already “graduated” from the orphanage reside.
When we arrived at the orphanage we were shocked to see a giant hippo, RIGHT THERE…
This is Billy. She was brought to Chimfunshi as an orphan, and Sheila just couldn’t turn her away. So while Chimfunshi mostly focuses on chimps, they also have a few other odd animals.
We met Sheila at the orphanage and she showed us a photo album of Billy:
It’s a pretty amazing story. When Billy arrived she was 32 kg. Now she’s somewhere between 1.5 and 2 tons, nobody is quite sure. Billy views the area around the orphanage as her home and she sees Sheila as her mother. She still comes to Sheila once a day for milk, served from two bottles with very large nipples (we were hoping to see this feeding but, as Sheila says, “Billy dictates the schedule”, and Billy was in no mood for milk while we were there). When Billy was young she would suck on Sheila’s foot like a bottle. The first time that Sheila took Billy to the nearby river, Billy tried to get on the boat with Sheila, which nearly capsized the boat. The stories were great, and we loved the photos, especially the one with Billy plopped on the Siddles leather couch (a couch she eventually broke, no surprise). I still couldn’t get over the fact that we were standing just meters from a hippo, especially after all the stories we’d heard about how aggressive hippos can be.
Aside from Billy, the orphanage also has an assortment of parrots and peacocks, and there was even one owl when we arrived. But of course the main attraction is the chimps. When we got there in the morning we saw the workers giving the chimps their breakfast – balls of Nsyma (corn meal) fortified with proteins that give the food a pink color. The chimps made a huge ruccus. One of them tossed his pink ball at us and splashed some water too. Luckily the ball got wedged in a fence and the water missed our cameras 🙂
Sheila’s daughter, Sylvia, gave us a ride back from the orphanage. We paused by the enclosures. More on those below, but we had to include one photo – apparently one of the apes has honest-to-god boot fetish. He got a hard on, literally, when Sylvia let him rub her boot.
Each enclosure is 100+ acres, surrounded by an electrically charged fence. At one end of the enclosure there’s a building with cages. Once a day the chimps gather here to get their food. They rest of the time they roam around inside the enclosure.
Feeding time is at 11:30 AM, so that’s the time to visit the enclosures. The chimps show up like clock work, making a noise, anxious for the meal. When the workers open the doors to the cages the chimps enter in a more or less orderly fashion. Each chimp knows which cage is theirs. What they get is a mix of vegetables – corn, tomatos, cucumbers, avocados, lettuce, etc. They also get those pink Nsyma balls, plus they get some oranges. The food is handed to them across the bars:
After their meal, which is about 7 kg each, the chimps pass out and have their nap. About an hour later they wake up and start to make noise. The workers go into the enclosure and dump a bunch of musuku (wild fruit) to attract them back out. While they do this the enclosure has a bunch of mother chimps with young babies, but this is OK – they are generally harmless (though the workers would never enter an enclosure if there was an adult male around – they are freaking strong and very protective of their land). Once all the fruit is out, the workers open the doors and let the chimps back out to have their dessert.
We came to the enclosures twice. The first time we saw the feeding at #2, which was a pretty large and roudy group. The second time we went to enclosure #4, which was much smaller and where the chimps were calmer. One of the workers there (Patrick) and one of the volunteers (Annaleis) invited us to the inner fence to have a closer look. It was amazing. We were maybe 1 meter away from these chimps, but the electric fence between us allows us both to remain calm. The chimps had their food and we watched and took photos.
About 4 km from the enclosures there’s a small campsite – just a few buildings with simple beds and cold showers. This is where we stayed. It wasn’t cheap – $30 per night each. But it was quiet and fun, and at least we knew that the money is going towards a good cause.
At the campsite we met a couple of the workers, Innocent and Albert. And we met a couple of volunteers, Joanna and Annaleis. They were very cool to us. Pnina and I didn’t bring a ton of food with us to Chimfunshi, which was a miscalculation – there’s no restaurant there and nothing to buy except for small snacks at the orphanage shop. But this group really welcomed us. The first night there Annleis cooked a big meal – pasta and veggies with yogurt and fruit for desert, and coke with brandy. What a meal!
One thing that surprised us is that the volunteers also pay their $30/night to stay there, just like we did. I always imagined that when you volunteer somewhere, at least you get your room and board for free, but Joanna said that Chimfunshi is relatively cheap compared to some places. So Joanna and Annaleis had to save up to be able to volunteer, in the same way that Pnina and I had to save up in order to go on this trip. Joanna, who is Zambian, worked a couple of years as an environmental consultant, mostly on asbestos issues. And Annaleis has her cat hotel business back in Holland, and it sounds like it’s doing well (she said they once housed over 200 cats simultaneously!).
Food-wise, the next days were just as good. Remember the group of school kids I mentioned above? Well, Tony and Charlotte set up big meals for them, and they invited Pnina and I to join. So, even though we were kind of unprepared for Chimfunshi, we ended up eating like kings. In return we offered ourselves for dish duty one time:
And we coordinated a game of pictionary for the kids one night, which went over really well:
Mushrooms and Ant Hills
Going around Zambia and Malawi we saw people eating some really giant mushrooms. They weren’t portabella. They were white and even bigger. We’re not really sure what they were. Anyhow, we knew that the area in Chimfunshi has some mushrooms so one day we set out to pick them (we wanted some variety from eating, sleeping, and observing chimps). We just kind of headed into the woods, which if you’ve been reading this blog you can guess is a bad idea. Naturally we got lost for a while, but we did find our way back eventually. We only found a few mushrooms but they were the wrong kind so we threw them away. We did learn a good tip – if you’re unsure about a mushroom just look under the cap and if you see insects eating it then it’s probably safe for you to eat.
One thing that was impossible to miss was the really giant ant hills:
Charlotte said that it takes about 100 years for an ant hill to reach this size. We saw lots of them.
And we also saw some colorful insects…
Drama at Chimfunshi
One thing that was impossible to miss was the drama that was happening at Chimfunshi. The Siddles started the farm and they did the best they could for many years, but it grew a little bit out of their control. The sanctuary basically ran out of money and they started losing faith in the Siddles that the money was being applied as it should (Sheila is incredible with animals, but keeping books is not her thing). So the trustees who help raise money for Chimfunshi eventually decided to bring in a new person to clean up the mess, which is how Tony became general manager one year ago. Tony is an ass kicker and he came by to crack the whip. He and Sheila are total yin-yang opposites. Innitially they didn’t get along, and even now you can tell that things are kind of tense.
One of the main issues is that Tony wants to move the orphanage from its original location (which is on private Siddle land right next to Sheila’s home) over to the trust land, next to the enclosures, but of course Sheila can’t imagine seeing the orphan chimps move. Tony doesn’t just want to move the chimps because it would be more convenient. The issue is that Sheila’s home sits like an island in the middle of 4000 acres of farm land that are most likely going to be sold soon; and when they sell, who knows whether the new owners will be happy about all these chimps and supplies being shipped back and forth across their land?
Another issue – birth control. The Siddles believed in letting the chimps multiply in their enclosures. They only received about 50 chimps altogether (including a couple from an Israeli zoo: shoko and leben), but in a relatively short time they multiplied to over 120. More chimps cost more money – to build new enclosures, to buy food, and to pay the workers who take care of them. So the Siddles turned to the international community for support, and eventually they were turned down. Why? Because the international community has policies they want all sanctuaries to follow, and one of those policies is that all mother chimps need to have a “chip” implanted to suppress pregnancies. Why? Pnina and I don’t really know; it seems counter-productive if your aim is to keep the chimp population from disappearing. I guess there’s only so much money to go around so you need to limit the number of chimps or else the money runs out. Anyhow, Tony came in and eventually convinced Chimfunshi to follow these policies in order to get the funds, but it wasn’t an easy fight.
By the way, Tony and Charlotte also told us some interesting stories about how they lost large chunks of their farm in Zimbabwe to Mugabe. They don’t view him favorably at all. Who does?
I don’t know if this story is true, but it’s too awesome not to tell. We heard it from Innocent.
One time he and a few other workers were at the orphanage. The chimps were locked inside the building having their lunch, so the workers wandered into the enclosure to clean up a bit. Except that they didn’t fully lock the chimps inside, so the dominant male pulled open the gate and entered the enclosure with them. The workers quickly decided that it’s no use running – chimps can run faster than humans, and if they see you run then they charge. Instead, they did what a typical male chimp would do in that situation to appease the alpha chimp: they crouched down with one knee to the ground and bowed their head. The alpha chimp then played his part to show them that he accepts them into his group: he walked behind each worker and patted him on the back with one arm while he grabbed the worker’s balls with the other. He went down the line just like that, grabbing balls and patting backs, until all the workers were accepted into the group.