The Road Chose Me – Afi Mountain Drill Ranch
By: Dan Grec
The Afi Mountain Drill Ranch lies in the South East of Nigeria, close to the Cameroon border. It was created by an American couple, Liza and Peter, in 1991 to rehabilitate and breed the endangered Drill Monkey. This extremely rare primate is only found in this part of Nigeria, Southern Cameroon and on an island in Equatorial Guinea. They are among Africa’s most endangered primates mostly due to habitat destruction and illegal hunting for bushmeat. Interestingly, the hunting is mostly commercial – i.e. hunters are not just killing what they need to survive, they are killing as many animals as possible to sell for a profit.
Most of the Drill monkeys have been donated by locals, or rescued as orphans. Since the project started more than two hundred have been born in captivity, making Drill Ranch one of the world’s most successful breeding programs for an endangered species. In 1996 the first group of Drills was released into the wild, the ultimate goal of the project.
The entire site is nestled between mountains in thick jungle, which is doing it’s best to reclaim the entire site. The drills live in huge electrified enclosures where they are fed twice a day – usually papaya, mangoes, advocates and beans wrapped in leaves (which they particularly love). The males are enormous, and the females quite small. I repeatedly go to the feedings, a highlight of my time at drill ranch.
The food shack at the ranch is electrified because some of the males have figured out how to climb out of their enclosure and repeatedly wander into the main camp area. Walking around I often bump into them, though they are always scared of me and run away when I lift my arms or step towards them. It’s hilarious to watch at feeding time as the escapees line up to climb back into the enclosure to be fed before escaping again. The drills are not dangerous, so preventing them escaping is not a huge priority. In fact the project now has so many, the keepers would be happy if some chose to escape and return to the jungle to live.
The whole area is extremely peaceful, with only the sounds of the jungle throughout the day. At night it comes alive, raising to an incredible volume.
Drill ranch is also home to numerous Chimpanzees that have been donated over the years. Peter and Liza couldn’t say no to these highly-endangered animals that desperately need a home. Many chimps are kept as pets after their mothers are shot for bush meat, and so they have a very hard time transitioning back to life as a wild chimp.
Enormous effort goes into slowly introducing them to the large on site group so they feel comfortable and are safe, before they are actually put into the massive enclosure.
Feeding time is fascinating – it’s clear some of the males are simply bullies, and one of the keepers leads them along the fence to be fed separately. After going with them one morning I see a lot of screeching and fighting, and even have a couple of stones thrown at me. From then on I decide to stay with the much more chilled-out group for feeding, and it’s much more my style.
The chilled chimps don’t fight each other, don’t scream, and actually stand up and hold out their hands for food. Most of them then just walk a little distance away and sit down to peacefully eat. When the odd squabble does break out, 90% of the others don’t even care, they just keep being chill.
Drill Ranch has fixed the males so captive breeding can not happen, though one baby was born. Unfortunately, there really is no chance for re-introduction to the wild for these chimps who are so dependant on humans, and who would likely be killed by any wild chimp group that found them.
Spending time with the chimps is a once in a lifetime experience, and I spend many hours just sitting in the grass near the fence watching them. Often I can see they are content to just watch me, and I honestly think they get a little used to me in the few days I constantly return. The keepers explain they are extremely strong and dangerous, and contact is seriously forbidden. Around the world handlers have been killed by violent escapee chimps.
Just watching their play fighting it’s obvious they would do me serious harm even by accident.
This is an experience I will never forget.
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