Itsaso Vélez del Burgo held the wild baby chimp in her arms. Limp and unconscious, the female ape wasn’t much bigger than a human hand. Her tiny body and lack of teeth revealed that she was only about a month old. She was battling hypothermia and dehydration, and if something wasn’t done in a hurry, her heart would stop.
“She was the youngest chimp we had ever taken in,” says Vélez del Burgo, the technical director of Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Center, a refuge in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was June 16, 2017, and Vélez del Burgo had facilitated a grueling, five-day rescue journey via motorcycle, speedboat, and car to get the baby chimpanzee safely to the village of Lwiro. A contact from an anti-poaching group had found the chimp with several poachers in the dense rainforest near the remote town of Pinga, about 180 miles away. After handing over the baby, the men revealed that her twin sister had died shortly after they shot her mother.
At the sanctuary, the battle for the chimp’s life was just beginning. Vélez del Burgo quickly covered the inert body with warm blankets and administered intravenous fluids. At last, the baby stirred and her eyes opened.
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“I let her sleep in my breast to keep her warm,” says Zawadi Balanda, a quiet, young Congolese assigned to watch Busakara, as they’d named her that night. Vélez del Burgo was worried that with no natural mother to feed her and provide emotional support, the baby chimp would fade away.
Chimpanzees, along with bonobos, are our closest living relatives. Their numbers throughout Africa are estimated at no more than 300,000—down from perhaps a million at the start of the 20th century—because of poaching for bushmeat, smuggling for the pet trade, and habitat loss.
Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Center was founded in 2002 when war in the DRC spurred bushmeat poaching in nearby Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Wildlife authorities confiscated orphaned chimps from poachers and villagers, housing them in old lab rooms at an abandoned Belgian science research center in Lwiro. As the numbers of orphans grew, two institutions—the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature and the National Center for Research in Natural Sciences, also based in the DRC—created the sanctuary. Bernard Masunga, a senior veterinarian who’s been at Lwiro since its inception, has seen the haven grow into a home to chimps and monkeys, more than a hundred each, in forested enclosures. “I am very proud of local efforts to arrive where we have arrived,” he says. But as primates keep coming, he says, the long-term strategy is to release as many as possible back into the wilderness once they’ve regained health and confidence.
Sitting with a group of chimps one day last year, Vélez del Burgo flips her phone’s camera to selfie mode and points at the curious apes. Billi, a six-year-old male, looks with what seems to be amusement at the image on the screen. A few other chimps peer over his shoulder. Billi bares his lips to examine and pick his teeth. Then he squishes his cheeks with his fingers as if popping pimples. Vélez del Burgo chuckles as Billi pokes a forefinger up his nose.
“I’d always dreamed of working in primate conservation,” says the soft-spoken Vélez del Burgo, who arrived at Lwiro in early 2014, when the sanctuary had about 55 chimps. Born in Vitoria, a small town in northern Spain, she felt a call to protect animals.
“Even at school, I would find troubled insects and keep them from harm,” she says. Her mother, an immigrant from Colombia with very little money, helped her through university in Barcelona, where she received a master’s degree in primatology. Vélez del Burgo’s interest in primate behavior drew her to Guinea, in West Africa, to research chimps in the wild.
When a volunteer position came up at Lwiro, she seized the opportunity to get even closer to wild chimps. But nothing had prepared her for the challenges of living in a region torn by previous wars and still undergoing conflict. In her third month, “Mai-Mai rebels came in from the forest to attack the military,” she says. Some nights, Vélez del Burgo would lie in bed shaking as the din of bombs, grenades, and machine-gun fire made sleep impossible.
Then Lwiro’s director was stricken by a mysterious illness, nearly died, and had to be airlifted out of the area. “It was a stressful time,” says Vélez del Burgo, who became the sanctuary’s manager, responsible not only for caring for numerous orphaned primates but also for fundraising, maintaining the facilities, and managing the sanctuary’s then 31 staff members.
When little Busakara arrived in a bundle of rags in mid-2017, the sanctuary held some 75 chimps, and the numbers were growing each month. Vélez del Burgo saw something special about Busakara that gave her strength during a time when the extreme isolation and constant security threats weighed heavily. Busakara was completely helpless, Vélez del Burgo says, but “I was surprised by her resilience. She really wanted to live.”
After Busakara survived her first precarious night, a team of caregivers—surrogate mothers—was assigned to provide the round-the-clock support the baby would have had from her own mother. Balanda was one of the surrogates. She grew up on a subsistence farm and says she never dreamed that one day she’d be looking after orphaned chimps. Throughout her teens and into adulthood, she endured repeated brutal assaults by rebel soldiers that eventually landed her in the hospital, where she underwent reconstructive surgery. That’s when she met someone from Lwiro and was offered the chance to join the sanctuary as a caregiver.
“She arrived at Lwiro destroyed,” Vélez del Burgo says. “She would not talk, would not socialize with humans.” Helping staff with their own traumatic experiences is a part of her job that Vélez del Burgo hadn’t expected. “In Congo there is so much suffering from both animals and humans,” she says. “I am a very sensitive person, so I kind of close myself to the human suffering. I do not think I can deal with everything.”
At first, Balanda was afraid of the chimps, but gradually she learned their subtle communications, how to groom them, how they laugh hysterically when you tickle them—the oh oh oh that’s eerily similar to our laughter—and vocalizations that mean yes and no.
Balanda says the chimp named Busakara had diarrhea in her first days at the sanctuary. “I was cleaning her and sleeping with her to keep her warm,” Balanda says with a fond smile. “She would sometimes cry when I left in the morning.” Human love and attention were vital in the early months of Busakara’s healing, but even more meaningful rehabilitation began when she was well enough to join half a dozen other young chimps in a raucous, rough-and-tumble nursery and develop her own personality.
Balanda’s confidence also was growing, and she began looking after the older orphans too. Her new relationship with the chimps was helping her emerge from a dark depression. “Little by little, you could see her smiling and talking to me more,” Vélez del Burgo says. “She was finally able to tell you more about the experience she had.”
Balanda’s newfound passion for the chimps inspired her to enroll in a veterinary science course at the university in Lwiro. “I always thought I would be a vet with farm animals,” Balanda says. “I never thought I would be working with wild chimps!”
After two years, Busakara was released into one of Lwiro’s natural forested enclosures. She would learn to live with a proxy family of recovering chimps, free to develop a natural hierarchy and family unit. Busakara soon built good relationships with the other chimps. “She became very nurturing,” Vélez del Burgo says. “We put new, very traumatized chimps with her because she was the welcoming one.”
In 2019 there was a surge in arrivals of new chimps—a record nine. Virunga National Park, a partner of Lwiro’s, had donated flight costs and a pilot to assist with aerial transfers of orphans recovered in remote regions in the DRC. Then in December, a bad bout of flu hit the sanctuary. More than 90 percent of the chimps contracted the virus, and two died. Busakara became very ill, but Lwiro’s veterinarians managed to help her pull through.
In March 2020, when the novel coronavirus took hold in the DRC, Vélez del Burgo was fraught with worry about the chimps, the monkeys, and the staff. “Chimpanzees are highly susceptible to respiratory diseases,” she says. “We did not know the effect the coronavirus could have.”
There were reports of numerous orphaned chimps in various parts of the country, but under lockdown, no one could get them to the sanctuary. The uncertainty, coupled with a plunge in donor funding, increased the pressure. But a lifeline came in the form of support from the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance, a partner conservation organization that spearheaded a funding drive to keep the sanctuary going. “There were some days,” says Vélez del Burgo, “when I thought, I cannot do this anymore.”
There were many rewarding days too, often spent in the presence of Busakara, inspiring Vélez del Burgo to persevere. “Busakara is one of the few chimps who will walk up to me on her hind legs,” she says, laughing. “She came to us so young, she learned to walk like a human.”
Vélez del Burgo has come to understand how important Lwiro is to members of the staff, such as Balanda, who in helping chimps recover find that the animals help them in return. That goes for Vélez del Burgo herself. The biggest lesson the chimps have taught her, she says, is how to be strong in the face of struggle. “They never give up.” Life here is not easy, she says, “but I won’t abandon them—the chimps or the team.”
Paul Steyn is a filmmaker and journalist from South Africa who contributes stories to National Geographic about African conservation. Award-winning photojournalist Brent Stirton is a frequent contributor to the magazine.
This story appears in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.