The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Saving The Chimpanzees

Debbie Cox says that chimps watch humans as much as we watch them.
Photo: Penny Tweedie

Chimpanzees are the closest cousins to humans, yet human activity could send our primate kin to extinction. One ANU graduate has made it her life’s mission to conserve chimps for the future.

by Penny Cox

Debby Cox says chimpanzees are just short, hairy people that are like our own children — extremely tactile and very emotional. She should know.

“They see and understand a lot and recognise human actions and interactions,” she says. “They’re watching us as much as we’re watching them. It made me realise how much they were like children — incredibly vulnerable.

“They give unconditional love and are very responsive, like a child that’s been in a very loving family.”

For the past 15 years’ Cox has made protecting and conserving chimpanzees in Africa her life’s goal. That work has now been recognised back home.

In January this year Cox became a Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia for her work in conservation, protection, research and care of primates through the Jane Goodall Institute in Uganda.

The award also recognised her work to establish the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), a network of 19 sanctuaries in 12 African countries that protect chimps.

A Masters in Science graduate from ANU, Cox spent 12 years setting up and running the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda.

The sanctuary was established through a combined national and international initiative to develop and implement a long-term strategy for conservation of chimpanzees and their habitat. It is currently home to 45 rescued chimpanzee orphans.

Stuck in the middle of troubled countries like Rwanda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, present-day Uganda has managed to find its way out of civil unrest and its economy is prospering.

Peace and security in the country make it a safe haven for chimps as well as an exciting alternative tourist destination.

Cox says that tourism is the only practical way to generate enough income to support the development of a permanent sanctuary for the chimpanzees of East Africa.

“We worked out a revenue stream based around tourism,” says Cox. “By about the third year, tourism was pretty much covering our costs.

Cox says that turning the chimps into a tourist attraction was the only solution to raising the funds to rescue them and give them security from loss of habitat.

“To me, they are their own ambassadors and particularly in Uganda. They promote their own plight much better than we ever could. But apart from that, the sad reality is that there is no possible way for us to put them back.

“We have no forest space left, where they are far enough away from human communities that you wouldn’t get conflict.

“The reality is they had to pay their own way if they were going to survive. Our job was to try to make it work somehow.

“We needed to find a source of income that was, and will continue to be reliable. Tourism was a logical choice — particularly in a country where tourism is already developed.”

While a tourism-centric model works well in Uganda, it would not be possible in other African countries, particularly those currently engaged in conflicts. However, in those places there is more natural habitat available.

“We wouldn’t for example, be able to set up something like this in the Congo — where there’s basically no tourism.

“But in the Congo we have the opportunity of putting chimps back in the wild. It’s important to remember though, that the cost of returning chimps to the wild is also high. It almost costs as much to put them back as it does to set up a sanctuary.

“Of course, returning the chimps to the wild is worth the investment whenever possible.”

Eighty-five per cent of sanctuaries across Africa concentrate their activities in conservation education, habitat protection and law enforcement. Cox has now left the hands-on operation of the sanctuary in Uganda to focus on habitat destruction issues and conservation education in other communities.

“We are working with a range of groups, including protected-area managers, local communities, private land owners, farmers and government bodies. Each group has a differing need from the land so we have to address each situation on a case-by-case basis.

“There are 4,000 schools in districts where chimpanzees or gorillas are found.

From these we have identified three hundred frontline schools that are within five kilometres of forests that are homes to chimps and gorillas.

“In these schools we take the kids on visits into the forests. We also spend a lot of time training their teachers and providing them with educational material.

“We’re trying to turn around generations of negative attitudes towards chimps and gorillas. We are having success but it’s a long road.”

Cox and the staff from the Jane Goodall Institute regularly evaluate the effectiveness of their field education centres by measuring levels of awareness, knowledge and understanding within the school communities.

“We go back one month, six months, one year and two years after the training and ask similar questions. Across the board we are seeing a vast improvement in knowledge retention and a more positive attitude toward primates.

“Often when we start measuring attitudes we get some fairly negative responses, but through the course of the program we are seeing those attitudes change.

“We’re also seeing a flow-on effect occurring where the kids are talking about what they’re learning at school when they go home and talk with their families. Next year’s school intake will have a higher level of understanding than kids from the previous year. We know that they’re talking to each other in and outside school and sharing what they have learnt from the field education programs.

“I am positive and optimistic that by changing attitudes and beliefs, particularly for young people, then we have real chance,” Cox says.

In the early days, Cox worked at the RSPCA and as a vet nurse before she secured a job at Taronga Zoo. She says that primates always interested her, chimps in particular, but the experience of working with them inspired her to her true calling.

While working at the zoo she met Professor Colin Groves, a widely respected primate expert based at ANU. Groves recalls when Cox came to the University to study for her Master’s, and took a course he was offering in human evolution.

“Debby was very bright and way ahead of the other students, full of ideas and right up there in the course, even though it was on human evolution.”

Groves says that Cox has done an enormous amount for the conservation of chimpanzees — work that he describes as “absolutely crucial.”

The primate expert makes particular mention of his former student’s community education work in Uganda and other African countries, which he believes is vital in getting local communities to mitigate activities that have been harming chimpanzee populations.

So why does Cox keep going? Ask her, and she’ll relate her first encounter with the chimpanzees at Taronga Zoo. Other trainee keepers didn’t want to be allocated the chimps for observation, as the task would require developing the ability to recognise each animal individually. But Cox was up to the challenge and more.

“Within two weeks of just sitting and watching them, I felt overwhelmed by the defencelessness of the chimps. They are so incredibly intelligent, so much more aware of things going on around them than any other animal.

“More than anything, it made me realise what a huge responsibility we have to care and look after them.” "


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