In another life I would probably working in a sanctuary taking care of bonobos/chimpanzees/orangutans or in the middle of a jungle right now observing apes in the wild in order to help the world understand them better.
I’m not able to do that right now so I settled for the chance to visit the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Chimpanzees are obviously not native to Kenya, their natural home range spans from the farthest tip of West Africa in Senegal, through the West and Central forested belt of Africa, to as far east as Tanzania and Uganda. Today however, not more than 5 – Gabon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, and potentially Cameroon – have significant numbers of chimpanzees.
Ol Pejeta opened its doors in 1993 after a rescue center in Burundi had to shut down as a result of civil war in the country.
Since its inception, Sweetwaters has continued to accept rescued chimps, giving them a chance to start over. There are currently 39 chimps at the sanctuary, however not all of them have been rescued, the chimps are not encouraged to breed therefore the females are sterilized however accidents do happen. As a result there are chimps that have been born in the sanctuary.
The chimpanzees live are a 250 acre enclosure which is divided in half by the Ewaso Nyiro river. Each enclosure hosts a troop of chimps.
The chimpanzees are able to run free which is a big change from how most of them were used to living.
One of the saddest stories is of Poco, a chimp who had been kept in what could be described as solitary confinement for 9 years. A cruel workshop owner had Poko displayed in his shop in a cage so small that Poco was only able to stand or sit on two legs. To date Poco still mostly stands on 2 legs, especially when he is showing off to visitors.
New chimps are introduced to each member of the troop individually in the holding area. Once they become acclimatized they are then allowed to join them in the enclosure.
I was fortunate enough to get to visit Oscar’s (the alpha male) troop during feeding time. It was really interesting observing the troop’s dynamics, their personalities really shone through.
As our guide Yego fed the chimps he would give us more information about the chimps.
We had all been wondering if any of the chimps had ever escaped ( yes but not for long) and he told us about Alley ‘the escape artist’. She would use sticks to short the electric fence then not content to escape alone she would mobilize the other chimps so that they escape together.
Other methods devised by Alley and her cronies would be to use logs as a ladder. They would get logs long enough to go over the fence. Not all the chimps are longing to get into the big bad world so they’re content in thwarting the attempts of those interested in escape. The keepers would reward the chimps that would bring back logs to them with 5 bananas.
Even before we found out that Oscar was the alpha male he had definitely stood out to us already. He came off as a bully and would take away food from the other chimps if they were unfortunate enough not to get away fast enough once they got their share. Not even his mother, Judy was able to escape this treatment.
Oscar was born at Sweetwaters to Judy and the then alpha male of the troop Ndaronse. Oscar ousted his father to get to his current position, I suppose you have to be ruthless to become an alpha male. I am not able to write about all the chimps so you can read their bios here
The next day of the trip we went to see the chimps again, this time to a different side of their enclosure. There was a short walk this time, if you visit during the rainy season do wear practical footwear as the path gets very muddy.
This time I did not see much of the troop, only a few individuals were near the fence.
For a better view there is an observation platform or from the chimp walk.
Visitors to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy have free access to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which is open daily from 10am and 4:30pm. In my opinion the best time to visit is during feeding time, that way you will be able to view all if not most of the chimps.
If you want to support the cause you can stop by the gift shop, give a one time donation or even adopt a chimp.
In case you are wondering where to stay, the Sweet Waters Serena Camp offers ample and luxury accommodation while at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Disclaimer: My trip to Ol Pejeta was facilitated by the Conservancy’s management however all opinions are mine.