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BLOG May 21, 2013

A bandit stole my heart

Lucy Marris Re-lives some of her experiences at Chipangali from 2012

This article was written by Lucy Marris back in 2012 when she travelled with us, visiting some of our African Wildlife Care & Rehabilitation Projects.

Whilst the article is old, it tells of fantastic experiences and adventures caring for sick, injured or orphaned African animals.

Learn more about our wildlife conservation volunteer projects.

Zombie like from sleep deprivation I arrived at Bulawayo airport, as I was disembarking the plane and walking to the temporary shack that is the airport, I noticed the single bulb in ‘arrivals’ spluttered and gave out almost the very instant I passed through the threshold. Welcome to Zimbabwe! Here skills in troubleshooting and crisis management to address immediate challenges have to take precedence over long term planning. I quickly learn two phrases: ‘TIA’ – this is Africa – a sort of verbal shrug, and ‘make a plan’ which actually refers to improvisation rather than forethought. A loose translation meaning we’ll think of something!

I was scooped up by Nicky into an engulfing vortex of welcome. I was immediately struck by her warmth, openness and industry. My collection from the airport tied in with picking up a genet in need of relocation; meeting son from school; nipping to a soon-to-be opened veg store to plead for waste produce and the daily quest for fresh milk for orphaned animals various. On arrival I was given a quick orientation tour of the orphanage. The lack of funds available mean there are some compromises, however, this is the challenge, how is the project to improve without the funds and efforts brought by volunteers? Animals are everywhere; some for various reasons (injury or having become desensitised to human contact) are resident to the centre. Initially it was a bit disconcerting to find a leopard launching itself at the wire netting as you pass, but over time it become a joy to be close to such amazing creatures. As I was there a few weeks I also had the privilege of going in with two sibling younger lions – one Oranya has epilepsy and is very docile appearing to thoroughly enjoy being petted. Jackie the Jackal longed for the enrichment provided by human company and would rush up for cuddles whenever you entered her enclosure. The majestic Serval Prince is forgiven for spraying me in the eye and dribbling over me to the point my boots squelched, because he was so interactive and affectionate. It is a complete mystery to me how some people can look at animals that are so breathtakingly beautiful in life and consider them more beautiful transformed into a rug or wall trophy. A conversation for another time, and the debate about the role of hunting in conservation is a lively and challenging one. There is a deep irony that it is partly because I got to see these animals up close in captivity I feel so strongly that they need to be protected in the wild.

I have so many memories and experiences from Chipangali, but perhaps rather than hear my adventures it is better if you go and make your own? I would though like to share a few highlights, the main one of which was buddying up with Bandit.

Bandit was an orphan vervet monkey probably just a week old when he was brought to the centre by a passing couple who’d retrieved him from some children who were carrying his dead mother and him along the highway. When I arrived many of the staff were sick with a respiratory infection, this could potentially transfer to him. Thus this tiny fragile primate was thrust into my care, with the instruction basically to keep him warm and feed him every 3 hours.

Initially I felt quite overwhelmed with this responsibility. How people cope with the emotional burdens of parenthood I can’t begin to imagine. He was so sweet (no doubt still is) albeit with alarmingly human features, though I never did really take to the prodigious amounts of monkey poo which he produced prolifically. The first time I fed him he just gulped down his milk all the time locking me with his huge pool eyes. I am in awe by how something so small (fitting easily in the palm of my hand) can be so completely perfect, tiny finger nails, gripping hands. Sated he then snuggled under my fleece and went into a deep sleep until woken by his own hiccups some hours later. This pattern continued. He stayed in my room at night, and initially I couldn’t sleep, I lay awake restless, fearful he’d be unhappy and call for me or worried he was too quiet. I constantly crept across to his carrying cage to check he was OK throughout the night, fighting the urge to poke him to see if he stirred. Eventually, I gained confidence, and every morning at 5.30 when I roused him for his first feed of the day my heart would skip as he trustingly gazed up at me and crept into my outstretched palm ready to face the world. Every day he amazed me with some new developmental feat. The first day he boinged with experimental jumping as opposed to crawling; the day he did his first free flying jump; the day he gained enough confidence to crawl a little away from me to explore first my room, and later the gardens; the day he spontaneously started grooming my hair – with each new milestone I felt an irrational proprietorial pride! How can so much cuteness be compressed into such a minute form! Bandit was the touchy feely highlight of my time at Chipangali, but it’s important to remember that lovely as it was to spend time with him, and in my own small way contribute to his future life chances, he shouldn’t really be in captivity.

He arrived at the centre because a couple happened upon him. Individual monkeys can’t just be re-released into the wild, they need to be part of an established troupe of a sustainable size, bringing together such a troupe can take many years of planning and depends on what other animals arrive at the centre. I wouldn’t have missed my time with Bandit for the world, but here lays down a challenge for Chipangali. The best outcome from the centre surely is that people become better educated about their indigenous species so they don’t see monkeys as a pest or target, but a part of the ecosystem and other species are recognised as more valuable to them as tourist attractions than as poached bushmeat. There is no room for sentimentality, the preservation of animals and their habitat is tied up with the economic fortunes of the local population.

I spent a month at Chipangali, I’m awash with impressions but to finish some key things I learned:

  • Monkey poo is not great, it doesn’t get better, but if the producing primate is as lovely as Bandit you really won’t care if every item of clothing you possess gives off the faint whiff of monkey milk and excrement. I also became obsessed with poo consistency as a way of checking I’d got my milk to cerevita cereal ratio correct for my growing charge. Gillian McKeith has got nothing on me!
  • Peacocks look beautiful, at Chipangali they were a-squawk everywhere – a legacy from families departing Zimbabwe and leaving their animals behind, peacocks are not native to Africa. They are the scavengers of the camp.
  • I gather the collective noun for peacocks is an ostentation! Well, when you’ve seen an ostentation of peacocks scavenging on anything they can find lying around they are a lot less decorative I can assure you
  • When I hear about food miles, I’ve always nodded in agreement that it is shocking how food is transported across the world. But this really had meaning for me the day I was preparing feed for the antelopes. A local upmarket fruit and veg store donated produce past its best on a daily base for us to prepare for the animals. So it was I found myself peeling the polythene of a cucumber imported from UK, probably grown in a poly tunnel, flown to Zimbabwe, and then unsold and rotting it ended up being unwrapped by me and chopped up for a rescued Kudu. Happy as the Kudu was to chomp through it, surely that is madness
  • Seeing a 500 million dollar and 100 billion dollar notes at Victoria Falls – taught me what hyper-inflation means. No wonder Zimbabwe has resorted to using the American dollar, no wonder it has to operate as a purely cash economy despite the uncertainty that brings
  • The noise of lions at night vibrates right through you, that for me became the sound of Africa.

My 4 week sojourn sped by, and it seemed no time at all before I was waving goodbye to Nicky back at the airport and walking under the ubiquitous portrait of Mugabe as I exited. It was hard to say goodbye, I felt so welcomed by the people at the project, and looked after. They opened their hearts and home to me and facilitated trips around Zimbabwe as well as allowing me the privilege of getting close to their animals. Chipangali is not perfect, how can it be given the challenges it faces? I just parachuted in and parachuted out, but perhaps in a small way we have become part of each other’s story. I hope that as the political climate stabilises, as surely it must, the for the project will be more positive than its present. It may yet return to its full former glory days adequately funded to fulfil all its project objectives in rehabilitation, research, release and education, all of which were at the core of the mission statements at the inception of the sanctuary. I learned much from my time in Zimbabwe, the most powerful lesson being that the future of the wildlife is inextricably tied up with the future of the people; they face daily struggles and hard choices too. You will need your open mind if are going to Chipangali and also retain some optimism, the project still has a vision, it just lacks the resources right now to realise it.

Lucy Marris
ACE Volunteer Chipangali October/November 2012

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