Chimpanzees are an internationally protected species so when a man came to our gate selling one I feigned interest. Its’ mother had been shot for food and they hoped to make some good money selling the baby, which used to be a big business here. We know many of the people working to save chimps here and have been able to do our little bit for conservation by flying some rescued ones to orphanages when it has worked out with our schedule. It took a week of talking, but after long negotiations I convinced the chimp’s captors that not going to jail was the better option and they agreed to give her to me for immediate relocation to the Chimp Sanctuary. I gave them some Mosquito nets and a few things to “help them” for “feeding” the chimp for so long. Sakina looked to be healthy and she threw her arms around my neck and hugged me the first time we met.
The next step was to try to arrange a letter from the local person responsible authorizing me to transport the chimp to the orphanage in Bukavu. I had a lot of email correspondence from ICCN (Congo’s National Parks), about taking her, but no way to put the ever important official letterhead to it. In the past ICCN had spent $1000 on transporting a chimp so they knew the value of us helping for free. But getting hold of the local man in charge was also not working.
And now it was time to go. Since Sakina really likes our young worker, Philemond, he came with me to the airport, cuddling her on his lap and trying to keep her calm while we waited till what we thought was the last minute to put her in our little plastic dog-carrying box with its’ little metal wire door. I put it in and, closing all but one of the airplane’s windows so she would have fresh air, went off to check the weather along the route. I came back to the plane about 15 minutes later only to see Cadima, one of our MAF workers, trying to herd the chimp down the access road back to our office! He was too afraid to pick her up but was trying to keep her from running totally off. It had not taken long for Sakina to escape the dog box and the plane! And we were trying to keep a low profile. As I walked up to her she jumped into my arms muddy and clingy. Glad I had a jacket over my pilots shirt but the rest of me was muddy as well. I cleaned up the poo spread all over the back of the plane and got her back in the cage. She instantly started in on another escape attempt. I was taking a USB student family home and I could just imagine her getting out in-flight with 11 Africans on board, 7 of them young kids, so I tied the door in place using ropes all over the box. It still didn’t look chimp proof, so I put a cargo net around the whole box and clipped everything together with carabineers. Now I was getting happier.
I had found out from the weather office that a storm was coming our way and if I didn’t leave soon we would be stuck here for a while. We had the ICCN people already waiting at the Bukavu airport to pick up the chimp, and Stan, our chief of maintenance, waiting for me to bring the plane to Kampala, Uganda to start a big inspection. But my passengers had a vehicle breakdown and they were only now getting to the airport. An hour and a half late! Not a good start to the day. With the rain along the way I was starting to get a bit tense. When we finally got in the air things began to feel better. I did have to go down low to get around the weather but we managed.
The National Parks man from Bukavu was there to meet the plane and Sakina went happily with him. He invited me to the Gorilla Park not far from the airport. I would love that but, since I can’t afford the $400- $600 to go visit gorillas like a tourist, it is good to have friends in the right places. Now this is getting more like Zimbabwe where I knew everybody.
After the blood-letting of paying all the taxes at the airport we were finally on our way to Entebbe, past the volcanoes by Goma and over many of the Great Lakes of Africa. Finally, a lovely day at the office.