“Don’t go to Sierra Leone. It’s a dangerous place!”

That was one of the last comments we heard from family and friends before leaving on our trip to visit Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary just outside Freetown, the bustling capital of Sierra Leone.

To be honest, we found comments like that to be quite common among the people we spoke to before we left. People didn’t really know much about Sierra Leone. Most of what people knew was informed by a movie that came out over a decade ago and an outbreak that dominated news coming out of Africa in 2014-2015.

These general perceptions about Sierra Leone are a symptom of a greater lack of knowledge of Africa.

“Is it safe there?”

Yes it was, we never felt threatened and the people we met were very friendly.

“Why are you going there?”

Keep reading and you’ll find out.

For most of the people we talked to about Sierra Leone while we were planning our trip the same three things came up in conversation after conversation: War, Diamonds, and Ebola.

People didn’t think there was much more to this tiny West African nation than that and boy were they wrong.

Sierra Leone surprised us in many ways and has been calling to us every since we got back to Toronto. The forest, the beaches, the people, all intertwined with each other to form one forgettable place – and we didn’t even see half of it.

Our goal was to visit the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary for a few days and spend the rest of our short time exploring Freetown and the surrounding area. We wanted to see the chimps and see Sierra Leone firsthand.

Tacugama is an amazing place. Amazing enough to inspire a blog article!

I was familiar with Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary through volunteer work that I’m involved with at PASA (Pan African Sanctuary Alliance) and our good friend Izzy, who just so happens to be a veterinarian at the sanctuary. Through my volunteer work at PASA, I was working with sanctuary staff to identify partners and potential funding opportunities to help them with priority sustainable development projects. One of the big ones being a renewable energy project to help the sanctuary acquire reliable and renewable energy. (Do you know anyone that can help?)

We planned our trip around visiting Tacugama and seeing some of the other sights in Sierra Leone. We ended up spending most of our time around Freetown and the peninsular region, and we are so glad that we did.

Bruno Lodge

We stayed four nights at the “Bruno” eco-lodge at Tacugama. A quaint, one-bedroom/ one-bathroom building fashioned after a more traditional African hut, it was the perfect base for our first few days. Tacugama’s eco-lodges sit just outside the sanctuary gates and are nestled in the dense and isolating forests of the Western Area National Park.

It was wonderful. Each morning you would wake up to the sound of screaming chimpanzees, well rested from a night in their sleeping enclosures, as they were released into their beautiful daytime enclosures and fed a big healthy breakfast. Sometimes you could even hear the wild chimpanzees off in the distance. One evening we were lucky enough to see a wild chimpanzee mother and offspring watching us and the sanctuary chimps as they made their way into their sleeping enclosure for the night from nearby trees. It’s estimated that 40-50 wild chimpanzees live in the 17,688-hectare national park.

Wild chimp visiting Tacugama

We spent our days touring the sanctuary, going on fantastic guided hikes on nearby trails, and going on day trips into Freetown. When there was a need for extra help, we happily volunteered our time to assist the Tacugama team with inventory of donated medicine and building enrichment items for the chimps.

Making enrichment for the chimps

Chimps enjoying our enrichment! Success!

The sanctuary has a volunteer program and is currently working to make improvements to it. If we had more time, we easily could have spent a week or two or four volunteering.

We spent as much time as we could observing the chimpanzees. Most, if not all of them, are orphans and rescues of the illicit bushmeat and pet trades. Both the bushmeat trade and the pet trade go hand in hand. Chimpanzees, and other apes, can make for expensive pieces of meat on the black market, and babies that are too small to eat are often kept and sold as pets for profit.

Orphans Ratch, Joe, Lucky and Jackson (left to right)

With some of the chimpanzees you could see the physical scars of bush snares or poor treatment through missing hands and deep lacerations now healed into lasting reminders of a nightmarish past. With others you can see the mental scars of growing up without mothers or a deep mistrust of humans.

Tacugama provides these amazing animals with a second chance and peace and security. Their beautiful enclosures provide them with room to be chimps too. Though its not an ideal situation, it is a worthy alternative to many of the man-made challenges they face outside the sanctuary such as deforestation, hunting, and human borne disease. The sanctuary’s goal is to eventually release the rehabilitated chimpanzees into the wild, but it has proved challenging to find a safe and suitable location.

The survival of these animals would not be possible without the team of people working tirelessly at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Not only are they dedicated to the survival and safety of the chimpanzees in their care, but they are also proactive in conserving wild chimpanzees in Sierra Leone and working with communities and the government to address key environmental issues such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

The team at Tacugama were utterly inspiring. Watching them work and learning about their efforts and the day-to-day challenges of work truly left an impact on us and a desire to stay involved in supporting these important global issues. Though the team remains cautiously optimistic and dedicated to the tasks of conserving chimpanzees in Sierra Leone, many challenges still remain.

The financial support we can provide as visitors and the information/ stories we bring home with us are important ways to support their on-going work. Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary does one-of-a-kind environmental work in Sierra Leone that is not only focused on conserving wildlife and ecosystems, but is also focused on supporting the people of Sierra Leone and the communities that depend on these forest resources to survive. The odds can seem overwhelming at times but this small team led by tremendous drive and spirit have already been able to make tremendous progress. If this blog can help to add wind to their sails I will be happy with that.

Some of the Tacugama team: Aram (Programme Manager), Andrea (Vet), Matt (me), Bala (Director), Izzy (Vet), Rohit (Volunteer)

Unfortunately, the perceptions mentioned at the beginning of this article continue to hurt a country that is struggling to get its footing after a dismal string of recent decades. Our trip to Sierra Leone, to the beautiful forests just outside Freetown, to the amazing communities of Tasso Island, to the sobering history of Bunce Island, to the stellar beauty of River No. 2 beach, opened our eyes to a nation that is largely misunderstood by the rest of the world. If anything, our journey has made us unofficial ambassadors of sorts, trying to inform people about the amazing things waiting to be discovered by a large majority of people. Take it from us and don’t listen to those people that tell you otherwise, Sierra Leone had only positive things to offer us and it’s vital that we open our eyes and continue to listen to the important things that are actually happening and that actually matter in the country.

Not only will the people, chimpanzees, and environment benefit from this, but I promise, you will too.

Guest blogger Matt Brunette from Toronto, Canada