Becci Crowe’s Journey to the Congo with Dr. Jane Goodall

Becci Crowe - AFC
August 4, 2015 share
Artists for Conservation

Dr. Jane Goodall, the Republic of Congo, a place called Tchimpounga and orphan chimpanzees... I've just experienced it all and returned with a new understanding of the gravity of challenges to this wild place and the animals struggling to survive. As an artist active in conservation it's as important for me to be in the field as it is in my studio. Observing wildlife in the wild and bearing witness to their challenges not only inspires the art I create but enables me to tell the story through my presentations as well as my images. Networking with experts working on the front lines has created opportunities for me to join them in the remote places they work... and just two weeks ago I was with Dr. Jane Goodall in Tchimpounga to bear witness to the plight of the chimpanzees and the efforts to save them.

Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo was established by Dr. Jane Goodall in 1992 and is currently the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa. It was created to provide care for orphans of the bushmeat trade. In addition to habitat loss, the illegal commercial bushmeat trade is now one of the most serious threats to chimpanzees. It is the large-scale killing of chimpanzees for meat. Poachers kill the adults for meat and then take the babies to sell on the black market as pets. There are over 160 orphans at Tchimpounga - victims of the bushmeat and exotic pet trade. Many of them have lived here for years and are now adults. Chimpanzees can live as long as 60 years.

My first chimpanzee sighting was driving into the Tchimpounga compound and seeing Group 4, the younger orphans, in their outdoor enclosure. As we stood facing the chimpanzees on the other side of the fence, they were as curious about us as we were about them. Chimpanzees share 98% of our DNA. I've always heard how intelligent they are, but the depth and intensity of their gaze as they looked into my eyes took me by surprise. Chimpanzees are highly social and develop lifelong family bonds. Observing their interactions with each other, the staff providing their care, and the greater world around them as they went on their daily walks into the forest was profound. Chimpanzees communicate in many ways and one afternoon we even heard the raucous calls of wild chimpanzees moving through the forest around us.

My 10 days at Tchimpounga with Dr. Goodall were full of 4-wheel driving through rough roads hacked through the jungle, camping in the forest, and boat trips up the Ngongo and Kouilou Rivers to see the new mandrill and orphan chimpanzee release sites. The Jane Goodall Institute is expanding Tchimpounga by building supplementary facilities on three islands in the nearby Kouilou River. The islands offer the chimpanzees a much larger, natural setting where monitoring and care can still be provided.

Two years ago Dr. Goodall was present for a heart wrenching release of one of the orphans onto an island and subsequently voiced an appeal to the world, a birthday wish, that by her 80th birthday enough funds could be raised to move over 100 more orphans to the forest islands awaiting them. She was now back to see the fruition of her birthday wish and I had the rare privilege of participating in a release with Dr. Goodall and the JGI staff during my stay. As I helped lift the door, watching the orphans bound into their new world, I was humbled to be standing there. I was given the key I used to unlock the door to the crate during the release to bring home as a symbol of hope for all chimpanzees. Ultimately, this is what it's all about... ensuring a secure home in a natural environment where wildlife can co-exist in peace with humans. It reinforces to me that no matter where we are in the world - as wildlife supporters - we are one and we are making a difference.

Chimpanzees are listed as endangered by the IUCN. The United States has recognized wild chimpanzees as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but has not provided the same level of protection for chimpanzees held captive in this country. This has enabled the exploitation of chimpanzees in the United States as pets and for entertainment, advertising and medical research-a situation that also has hampered efforts to promote protection of wild chimpanzees. Now, just as I'm writing this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced breaking news that all chimpanzees, whether captive or wild, will have the same endangered status and receive the same level of protection under the Endangered Species Act. This is a landmark milestone for chimpanzee conservation.

Back home in my studio, newly inspired, my work continues - raising awareness and funds for wildlife through my writing, art, presentations, and active participation in AFC. The next several months will be spent creating a new series from this incredible experience with Dr. Jane Goodall and planning future expeditions. A heartfelt thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall, the Jane Goodall Institute, and the Wildlife Conservation Network.

Disclaimer: Please note, that Dr. Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute do not endorse handling or interfering with wild chimpanzees.

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