Inside Zambia’s Leading Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Inside Zambia’s Leading Chimpanzee Sanctuary

By Dan Grec

Inside Zambia’s Leading Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Chimfunshi Chimp Orphanage offers the ultimate opportunity to connect with endangered primates.

During my travels through Africa I have been lucky enough to be close to, and spend a lot of time with, chimpanzees. A genuine highlight of my entire life was interacting with them in Marienburg, Cameroon. I tickled, carried and play fought with the chimps, and it’s something I will never forget as long as I live.

I am ecstatic to learn that the same interaction is possible at the Chimfunshi Chimp Orphanage in Zambia. The orphanage is tucked into the jungle, not far from the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

After camping a night on site we’re excited the following morning as we gear up to visit the chimps. We don overalls and load the pockets with dry dog food before moving into the chimp enclosure.

Soon we are introduced to two female chimps – one fully grown and another that is nearly full grown. Immediately the chimps climb onto our laps and begin digging in our pockets for the dog food, eager to find all the hidden treats. I notice immediately how gentle and considerate they are. Even though they are massively strong and could easily tear me limb from limb, they gently try to move my arms when they block access to hidden pockets. One wants me to stand up to get into my back pockets, and gently pushes on my back, then walks around in front of me and pulls gently on my arms while pleading into my face, exactly like human friends would do.

Over the next thirty minutes we sit and play with the chimps – scratching, poking and prodding them, which they don’t seem to mind at all. They enjoy the attention, though I can see they’re not nearly as curious about us as we are about them.

Soon we set off hiking into the jungle, with a chimp each perched on our backs, loving the high vantage point. Playing with and carrying the chimps is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we are both quickly lost for words. I enjoy every minute with the chimps, and genuinely feel sad as we say goodbye and step back outside the enclosure.

Once we’re outside the fence, the rest of the chimps are released and we get to know them a little through the fence. As with my other encounters, it’s very clear each chimp has its own personality, and I quickly notice how calm these chimps are. There is no loud screeching or fighting. They are all very quiet and laid back.

After removing our overalls we walk over to meet Sheila, the founder of Chimfunshi. Sheila was born in England and in the early 1950s her Dad loaded his family – his wife, two daughters and the family dog – into an old truck and drove from London to Zambia. The journey was obviously beyond epic, and my mind spins thinking about how different their experiences must have been to mine.

Sheila explains that many years ago she was farming the land with her husband, when a friend brought over a chimpanzee that needed a home. The chimp started the orphanage and still lives at Chimfunshi today. Over the years, Sheila rescued a baby hippo, which wound up living for 19 years (mainly inside her house which makes for some mind-bending photos she is very happy to share with us). Only when the hippo was so big it broke the couch and couldn’t fit through the door did it become an outside pet, though until the day it died it was extremely friendly and cuddly. Shelia insists it was just like a kitten, though also a fantastic guard dog on the rare occasion that was required.

Sheila’s life has been more adventurous and interesting than anything I can even imagine and I could easily spend a month listing to all her stories of life in Africa from 1950 until now.

Chimfunshi is an extraordinary place tucked into the Zambian jungle. Find your way to Zambia and you will not be disappointed!

Explorer in Residence Dan Grec is a modern day adventurer traveling the world in a modified Jeep Wrangler. Follow his journey on his blog, The Road Chose Me and on Instagram @theroadchoseme.

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