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Cruelty and Love: Two Unseparable Faces of Chimpanzee Refuge Centre

Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

It is forbidden by national and international laws to hunt chimpanzees, sell them or keep them as pets. However, illegal hunting, the sale and smuggling of chimpanzees is a common activity in many parts of Africa. To enforce the laws, authorities need to have places where confiscated animals could live in good conditions. This demand led to the founding of refuge centres. The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, which accommodates confiscated primates, now consists of 22 centres in 12 African countries. One of them, the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, is located near the Kenyan town of Nanyuki. It’s the country’s only such refuge.

Chimp George. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

As Kenya is not within the range of chimpanzees' natural habitat, many animals in the sanctuary had to travel long distances to get there. George (pictured) was born in 2003 in Mozambique and was later found bundled up in barbed wire by a road. He was there for sale. George was brought to the sanctuary via South Africa. In the beginning he appeared very lonely as he wasn't used to having other chimpanzees around, but it turned out that he is a smart animal and likes to be involved in "politics" within the group he lives in.

Chimp Poco. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

Poco (pictured) was born in 1980. For chimpanzees it's unnatural to stand on two legs, but Poco is an exception. He spent the first nine years of his life in a cage suspended above a small workshop. He was placed there to attract customers. The cage was so small that he was only able to sit or stand on two legs. This cruel treatment is the reason why he still stands on two legs most of the time. Now he acts as a peacekeeper in his group.

Chimp Alley. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

Not all of the chimpanzees held in the Sweetwaters suffered from human cruelty. Alley (pictured) was born in 1987 and she came to the sanctuary from a good home. She likes helping others and also continues some of the behaviour she picked from her previous owner, such as spitting or throwing soil if she doesn't get what she wants.

Chimp Claping Hand Over His Eyes. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

Most of the chimpanzees in the sanctuaries have been saved from cruelty. In November 2012, the UN initiative dedicated to conservation of great apes published preliminary results of the project focused on illegal trading in great apes. According to the results, there were 299 chimpanzees sent to African sanctuaries in 2005-2011. It's estimated that the death toll is at least five times higher: five dead chimpanzees for every confiscated live one. Often the intercepted chimpanzees are traumatized infants whose parents were killed in front of their eyes.

New House In Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

It was proven that law enforcement is higher in countries with sanctuaries because politicians and other responsible forces can't use a lack of capacities as an excuse for inaction. Currently, most of the sanctuaries are full. The Sweetwaters Sanctuary has just finished a new building which will allow it to rise the number of accommodated apes from present 42 to 50.

Enclosure In Chimp Sanctuary. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

Chimpanzees in the Sweetwaters Sanctuary live in two groups, inhabiting two large enclosures divided by a river. Some of the chimpanzees that arrive at the Sweetwaters had been kept in such horrific conditions that they need rehabilitation. They can't be put into one of the large groups and they have to start socialising within a smaller group of new friends. The heavily fenced area near the new house is designed for such cases.

Veterinarian George Paul. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

"Deforestation and commercial hunting for bushmeat has become the most significant threat to the future of chimpanzees in the wild," says George Paul, a veterinarian and deputy manager of the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Illegal pet trade is the third main threat.

Chimp Fingers On the Cage. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

Some chimpanzees in refuge centres could be released into the wild again, but that is not the case with the chimps at the Sweetwaters Sanctuary. The lives of its inhabitants had been affected so terribly that, for their own good, they will have to stay in captivity for the rest of their days.

Chimp Throwing Soil. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

However, the conditions humans prepared for them in the Sweetwaters are generally very favourable and much better then the chimps had experienced before they were brought here. The platform for visitors from where the chimpanzees can be watched is open just for three hours a day. Enclosures are so large that it's absolutely not guaranteed the visitors will see any ape. The chimpanzees can easily hide and enjoy a full social life…

Chimps - Maternal Love. Photo: Jan Stejskal /

… and even maternal love!


All images by Jan Stejskal /ThinkBrigade

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About The Author(s)

Jan Stejskal

Jan Stejskal

Journalist, based in the Czech Republic

Journalist, currently an editor-in-chief of the - leading Czech on-line news, comments and features on environment and nature. As he has to illustrate his stories, he takes photos as well. Master degree in anthropology.

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