Central African sanctuary gives hope to chimps—and their rescuers

Saved from the chaos in that region, traumatized chimpanzees have become models of resilience for their human caretakers.

Anthony Caere, a pilot for Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, cradles Felix and Mara as he flies them to Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Center. The babies’ families were killed by poachers. Caere, who survived a plane crash in 2017, says helping to rescue chimps gives him purpose.

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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