Row over Goodall chimp haven

A row has erupted over plans involving a bid by international primatologist Jane Goodall and South African National Parks CEO David Mabunda to rescue abused chimpanzees from Angola and give them sanctuary in South Africa.

Seven chimps are destined to fly to the Umhloti sanctuary in Nelspruit in early September. The six adults and one infant have apparently been living for years in tiny cages in backyards and pubs.

The head of the Jane Goodall Institute in South Africa, Edwin Jay, says the chimps are survivors of an active pet trade emanating from Cabinda province in the north, where logging and oil exploration are threatening the habitat of the endangered apes. They are also becoming victims of fears relating to the outbreak of Marburg disease in Angola.

“The problem is that, south of Zambia, there are no sanctuary facilities for abused and confiscated chimpanzees in Southern African Development Community [SADC] range states,” says Jay.

The sanctuary is being built at the 1 000ha Umhloti Nature Reserve and, if all goes to plan, Jane Goodall will visit it next February. The reserve belongs to the Cussins, a well-known family in Nelspruit, and it was used for Land Rover 4X4 trails before the chimp project began.

Mabunda is chairperson of the project’s management board. He says he took on the role in his private capa-city at the request of Eugene Cussins, Umhloti’s owner, whom he knows because of his roots in Nelspruit.

“Where there are chimps in distress, we will assist them as part of a Nepad [New Partnership for Africa’s Development] initiative. Other SADC countries either do not have the resources or their facilities are overcrowded,” Mabunda says.

But the wildlife unit of the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) is opposing the project, on the grounds that it is primarily a commercial venture and not an animal welfare project.

“Of major concern is the proposed number of daily visitors -— up to 300 a day. It is evident that this operation will be run in much the same way as a theme park,” says NSPCA director Marcelle Meredith. “Chimpanzees are exotic animals in South Africa and we fear that if this type of sanctuary is allowed, it would pave the way for other types of exotic animal sanctuaries to open.”

The NSPCA lodged an appeal against the project with the national Department of Environmental Affairs and the Mpumalanga authorities in March, but has not received feedback.

Permit conditions for the project, stipulated by the Mpumalanga Parks Board, include that the chimps must be microchipped, they may not be sold or moved, and no breeding will be allowed. A maximum of 40 chimpanzees will be housed at the sanctuary.

Mabunda dismisses the money-making criticism, saying it is not a “crime” to attract money through tourism. “The Umhloti project will give us the opportunity to attract tourists to the region, and the South African law allows for money to be raised for conservation projects through tourism,” he says.

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements. She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga. An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation. She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive. She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice. Read more from Fiona Macleod