Ape Action Africa, 2008.
Rachel Hogan anticipated a long adventure throughout Africa when she packed her bags and left her Birmingham, UK home in 2001 at the age of 25. She probably wouldnt have believed, however, that eight years later, she would call a small patch of jungle in Cameroon, home, and over two hundred primates and 30+ staff, her family.
No sooner had Rachel been offered a three-month volunteership at the primate sanctuary Ape Action Africa (formerly the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund), an orphaned week-old gorilla was placed in her care. She named him Nkan Daniel (nkan means gorilla). As her three month stay turned into a year, more apes were surrendered to or confiscated by the AAA. The need for a larger and well-run sanctuary was great; infant primates, cast-offs from the bush meat trade, were aplenty. In addition to this obvious urgency for a sanctuary, Rachel had grown to love Nkan Daniel, Shai, and the other primates. It was then that she made them a promise: that she would not rest until they were returned to a proper forest with a proper gorilla family. She returned to the UK for two weeks, promptly settled her affairs and then made her permanent move to the Cameroonian sanctuary that she would spend the next eight years building.
My six-week internship at AAA coincided with the fulfillment of Rachels promise to her gorillas. Under her tireless efforts (Rachel is now Project Manager of AAA, running the entire facility with the help of 30+ Cameroonian staff and a bevy of monthly volunteers), AAA has grown into a massive sanctuary which cares for 200+ primates. Weekly rescues, confiscations and surrenders of these animals means there is a constant need for new construction of enclosures, food, and money to pay her staff. Nkan Daniel and a dozen of the other juvenile gorillas have had to wait patiently for the construction of larger enclosure. While their present space was acceptable, its proximity to the village meant for increased risk of human-transmitted illnesses (namely meningitis). Furthermore, gorillas, more than most primates, are extremely private creatures; the presence of pedestrian and vehicle traffic can cause them high levels of stress.
February 21st finally arrives; the big moving day. With the help of gorilla keepers and veterinarians, the gorillas are sedated, health-checked and moved to their new enclosure, a 1km x 1km space in the jungle, full of towering trees and opportunities for foraging and exploration. Rachel is moves quietly and purposefully; shes in command of the day but her heart is fluttering; she can hardly believe her dream is coming true.
One at a time, each gorilla awakes in their new environment, comfortably cradled in Rachels arms. She caresses and speaks to them tenderly, assures them of their safety as their heavy lids open to their new world.
Rachels gorillas spend 48 hours in a satellite cage which is attached to the enclosure. Confident that they have made the transition unscathed, the time has come to release them into their new forest home. No one knows if the gorillas will react with fear, curiosity or joy to their new surroundings. All goes as Rachel has dreamed; they run into the forest with excitement, they explore. Smiling, she follows them along the side of the enclosure and, throwing her arms into the air, says Now the Big Man can take me. Ill go with a smile on my face!
Shai, her second adopted gorilla and the most independent of the group, then spent his night, not in a satellite cage like he had always done, but in the forest and under the stars.