Careful retreat for lab chimps in Liberia

Marshall City (Liberia) (AFP) – Veterinarian Richard Ssuna carefully examines the coast of the island from his boat, where his colleagues, with their feet in the water, toss fruit, imitating the cries of chimpanzees.

The coast is deserted, but the bush rustles and comes to life. Slowly, a monkey comes out into the open, waddling to catch food thrown over the edge.

He’s a dominant male, says Ssuna while other primates follow suit, the younger ones squealing in delight when bananas, coconuts or cassava roots are thrown at them.

About sixty kilometers southeast of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, six islets spread out in a mouth overlooking the Atlantic Ocean are home to 65 laboratory chimpanzees rescued from an American medical research project that used about 400. Some of them underwent several hundred biopsies.

When they arrived at this “second chance haven”, “they were traumatized”, explains Ssuna, a Ugandan scientist and representative of the NGO Humane Society International (HSI), which campaigns for better consideration of animals by humans.

Testing on chimpanzees began in 1974 in Liberia with a research project focusing on hepatitis B and blood purification, among other things, launched by an American blood bank, the New York Blood Center (NYBC).

When the country plunged into civil war (1989-2003), chimpanzees nearly starved to death. After the departure of the foreign researchers, they owe their survival only to the risks taken by the local team to continue to feed them, out of their own pocket.

abandonment

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the World Bank, 44% of the population lives there below the international poverty line (US$1.90 per day per person).

Monkeys began to be taken out of the lab in the mid-2000s, but in 2015 the NYBC ended its research project in Liberia and cut all funding, leaving the primates to fend for themselves in the process.

The decision sparked a worldwide campaign of outrage at the time, with protests outside the blood bank’s New York headquarters and a petition asking the NYBC to reverse its decision.

On site, as during the civil war, local personnel, although no longer employed, are unable to abandon the monkeys and continue to help them, thanks to funding provided by NGOs and the US bank Citigroup.

In 2017, the NYBC – which did not respond to an AFP question about its reasons for withdrawing from the project – ended up signing an agreement with HSI on sharing the cost of long-term care for chimpanzees, and is committing to finance them in the amount of 6 million dollars (5.5 million euros).

Confinement for life

Former lab animals now benefit from veterinary care and two meals a day provided by HSI. But many bear the scars of their past, such as Bullet, a grizzled ape with one arm amputated and described by Ssuna as a “victim of torture”.

Bullet, he says, lost his arm as a baby, at the same time his mother was killed by hunters, before reaching the lab.

Caregivers are trained to bond strongly with chimps in ways that don’t scare them away, says Ssuna, noting that, like humans, these animals respond to any stimulus that might trigger traumatic memories.

The primates that have passed through the laboratory cannot be released into the wild because they never learned to fend for themselves, but also for fear of spreading diseases contracted during their years of captivity in the service of research: they are confined for life on their islands.

Meeting your dietary needs is not easy. Every morning, they should be given about 200 kg of food and another 120 kg in the afternoon. That’s almost ten tons of food a month. And this ritual must continue until the last monkey dies, says Mr. Suna.

The life expectancy of these primates is estimated at about sixty years. Many of them are in their twenties, and there are a small number of babies. To avoid population turnover, HSI plans to vasectomize the males.

“We can be optimistic for the future”, assures Mr. Ssuna, “we would have preferred to release them in the wild, but they are better off here” on these islands.

© AFP

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