After about a 45-minute boat ride from Entebbe along Lake Victoria we arrive at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. As our speedboat pulls up at the dock of our destination, we’re greeted by Joseph Masereka, a caregiver and staff member who briefs us about how this nature reserve came about.
Established in 1996 with its partners, including the Jane Goodall Institute, Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary has 51 chimpanzees living here permanently. For more than 20 years Dr. Jane Goodall has continued to support the sanctuary and in a pre-pandemic world, made yearly visits there.
Taking us first inside a thatched roof visitor’s center with educational displays on chimpanzees, Joseph told our group more about these animals’ backstories and behaviors. The sanctuary contains 31 females and 20 males from different parts of Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and Uganda. The majority of them were orphaned.
“In their natural habitat, chimpanzees live in tight-knit communities, and as such, they protect their young in the same way we humans do,” Joseph informs us.
He further explains that when poachers come to try to take away a young chimpanzee, the mother puts up a defensive fight and could risk losing not only her child but also her life.
Although chimpanzees are protected under governmental and international trade laws, they are still subject to being hunted illegally as a source of food or for the wildlife pet market. One recent rescue was removed from a circus.
At the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a collective staff of caretakers and veterinarians oversee the daily feeding and medical care of the chimpanzees. The sanctuary also maintains what’s known as a non-breeding policy, in that female chimpanzees are given birth control to prevent overcrowding and ensure that the level of care for the sanctuary’s population is maintained.
However, while the females have received surgical implants, there have still been surprise pregnancies and births. They’ve resulted from the females figuring out how to remove the implants or finding ways to spit up the pill in between the changing out of their implants.
The first time a pregnancy happened at the sanctuary was in 2002. It was discovered that a resident female chimpanzee named Katie was expecting after she had figured out how to remove the implant. “And then we named that baby, Surprise,” says Joseph. “It was a girl, and the first baby to be born [at the sanctuary].”
Other related occurring births have included another female, named Afrika, born at the sanctuary in 2007; the most recent birth happened there in 2020.
However, the sanctuary’s staff also celebrate, care for and see these new additions as teachable moments. They also study how the introduction and raising of these young ones correlate to the chimpanzees’ group behaviors.
Staff observations also center on other behavioral characteristics in chimpanzees such as the roles of hierarchy. Within their communities, female chimpanzees look after the younger set. As for the males, one of them emerges as the leader of the community based upon his best alliances and tactfulness with others, as well as his strength when competing with other male chimpanzees.
“It’s about the leadership they see in you and support you have from high-ranking individuals in the community,” Joseph tells us.
After our briefing, Joseph takes us to a fenced area to observe chimpanzees during their feeding times. As with other visitors, there is an adjacent raised platform area where we could stand in viewing distance of the chimpanzees as they eat. While they are secured during mealtimes and in their sleeping quarters, the sanctuary’s chimpanzees can roam and forage freely throughout the 95 acres of forest on Ngamba Island.
The buildings within Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary only take up a small area of land. They are based near the front edge of the island facing Lake Victoria. Along with a visitor’s center, gift shop and restaurant, the sanctuary has four fully equipped, luxury eco-lodges where visitors can book overnight stays.
In addition to full and half-day visits, the sanctuary holds various volunteer programs where participants can experience hands-on involvement in some of the daily staff responsibilities in caring for the chimpanzees. Tasks can include assisting in meal prep, enrichment activities and collecting behavioral data.
Along with traveling by boat, it’s possible to reach Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary by air via helicopter rides from Entebbe Airport or Kajjansi Airfield in Central Uganda. For those who are unable to visit the sanctuary, but wish to support its mission, the sanctuary seeks donations via its website. It is in partnership with the U.S. nonprofits, Friends of Chimps and Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.