Providing refuge for Congo’s forgotten victims

Warrandyte Diary, October 2014

Photo: Lwiro Primates

In recent years when the United Nations warned people to evacuate from her village in eastern Congo as rebels stormed the area, Andrea Coleman was adamant that she stayed right where she was.

“The military have never attacked our sanctuary, we knew they’re not after us, we’re not part of their fight. Also, it can send a bad message to our staff and people in the community if every time something goes bad you leave,” Andrea recalled.

Andrea is now working from her home in Warrandyte to help the DRC's endangered primates
Andrea is now working from her home in Warrandyte to help the DRC’s endangered primates.

“In the earlier years the vet would always insist I left because I was young, but in the last few years she’d let me stay. Strangely, I’m grateful for that because the people living there don’t have the option to leave and it’s really hard to get into a car and leave them behind.”

Andrea recently spent five years between Congo and Templestowe, coming home to work and to save some money to fund more trips to the dangerous Central African zone, where she was working to save endangered primates.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world’s poorest countries, devastated by years of conflict.

In the Lwiro village in South Kivu, near the border of Rwanda and Burundi, is the Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro, providing refuge to 58 chimpanzees and 73 monkeys.

It’s one of only two chimpanzee sanctuaries in Congo – and the number of sick, injured and psychologically scarred primates entering the sanctuary is ever growing.

These animals bear some of the tragic consequences of Congo’s poverty and conflict, with habitat destruction from logging and mining, the hunting of primates for food and the illegal wildlife trade threatening their existence.

“A lot of the baby chimps we receive are very cute and cuddly but there’s a really nasty side to it. Their families have been killed, their mums are shot dead on the ground, the babies are prized off their mothers, screaming and then they’re thrown into a sack and travel like that for days, sometimes weeks,” Andrea said.

Rambo“They come to us really sick and scared, sometimes they still have snares on them or bullets stuck in them.”

Mostly 30 Congolese staff now run the sanctuary, set up by foreigners in 2003.

They rehabilitate the orphaned primates, who have suffered immensely at the hands of humans, and integrate them into social groups with the other primates.

While it’s still too dangerous to release the orphans into the wild, out of fear they could be shot and captured again, the sanctuary recently raised enough money to build a four-and-a-half acre enclosure for the animals in a small forest near the sanctuary.

Andrea says they’re not only helping to conserve wildlife, but they also provide a source of income for locals, many who are widowed women with few employment opportunities.

The sanctuary also supports local projects, such as weekly classes that teach villagers about health, personal hygiene and caring for the environment.

“Conservation projects have to involve locals, especially when you’re putting in so much infrastructure for chimpanzees, feeding them so much, giving them so much and there’s humans there that don’t have that,” Andrea said.

“Despite everything they’ve gone through, the locals are so friendly and they want to give you so much. During the war, sometimes they couldn’t get through to the animals for several days because of the fighting and when they could, they would risk their own lives to take table scraps to the animals. They’re just amazing people.”

Andrea says her work unexpectedly involved educating soldiers, who are often responsible for Congo’s illegal activity.

Congo’s mostly poor and uneducated soldiers are paid little – if at all, joining the army only because they had no other choice.

They often turn a blind eye when soldiers steal from villages and take monkeys from the forest for food, often eating the older monkeys and selling the babies.

“We needed to train them and let them know it’s illegal. So we invite them into the sanctuary with the hope of getting them to feel some kind of responsibility towards their own wildlife, and explain why how conserving that wildlife will benefit their families.

“It is quite scary dealing with soldiers but I truly think that underneath all of that aggression, they just really want to see the animals. What we found really gets the message through is to tell them that the wildlife belongs to their president and that it’s illegal to take what belongs to the president.”

Reflecting on her time in Africa, Andrea says she has grown to love the people in the Lwiro community, but had never imagined she would end up in Congo.

A zookeeper by trade, Andrea wanted to do something hands-on with primates and asked around.

“When I received an email saying I should go to Congo, I was like ‘are you crazy? But I thought about it and I knew I just had to go, that’s really the frontline of wildlife conservation. There’s no point going somewhere where they don’t really need you.”

Having returned from Congo earlier this year to get married, Andrea continues to fundraise and organise the Lwiro sanctuary’s social media from her new home in North Warrandyte.

From time to time residents will find her holding a sausage sizzle outside IGA or at the Warrandyte Market, raising money for the monkeys and chimpanzees back in Lwiro, her second home.

She even says that Warrandyte’s community atmosphere reminds her a lot of Congo.

Trying to raise enough money to meet the monthly $10,000 price tag of running the sanctuary keeps her busy, and while she intends to return to Congo, starting her own family in Warrandyte is on the cards for now.

“I have days where I might miss Misisi more than anyone else, then I’ll think about Goma and I’ll wonder what he’s doing right now. You develop a bond, even from afar and I miss them a lot, everyday.”

Itebero and Walikale. Photo: Lwiro Primates

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Brianna Piazza

Journalist and travel writer.