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November 21, 2018

The chimpanzees of Sweetwaters sanctuary

CLOSE TO HUMANS: The chimp at Sweetwaters.
CLOSE TO HUMANS: The chimp at Sweetwaters.

Sweetwaters Wildlife Sanctuary should be one of the most famous tourist attraction site in Kenya. For a start, it is only three hours away from Nairobi or Nakuru, and a stone-throw away from Nyeri. Nanyuki is about half-an-hour drive from the park. Yet the many times I have been there, I have never witnessed the kind of traffic that one encounters at the Nakuru National Park, even now that the lake is virtually overflowing and getting into the wildlife areas is next to impossible. Sweetwaters is a unique park. Its uniqueness is the fact that it hosts not only most of the wildlife one can see anywhere else in the country, but one species that is important to man — our cousins. This is the only place in the country that you can see and get a one-on-one encounter with the chimpanzees, the next in line from Homo sapiens. Our bush brothers, who think like us, do most of their things like us.

A visit to the zoo in most parts of the world will confirm that the most-visited areas within the zoo is normally the area that hold either gorillas or chimpanzees. But not in Kenya. Most of us would rather spend the day playing hide and seek with the anti-alcohol crusaders because we want to have our drink before the recommended hours. We would rather spend colossal amount of money bribing our way out of drink-driving adventures, or spend another sizeable hard-earned money repairing a broken down expensive vehicle after an accident caused by drink-driving. The money and time that could have been used to drive with the family to a place like Sweetwaters and visit our cousins there. The visit would be beneficial to the conservation efforts that go to rehabilitate the chimps. The trip could also be a much-needed family time spent together.

Chimpanzee is a noisy, curious, intelligent and social animal. Like the orangutans, gorillas and gibbons, they are grouped together in the family of apes. Apes are in the order, primates, which also include lemurs, monkeys, and man. But it is the chimpanzees that have a plus of 99 per cent of our brains. The closest animal to man. Other than having no spoken language, most of their behavioural characteristics and genetics are as close to us as can be.

Chimpanzees are to be found in the dense rainforest like in Congo and parts of Uganda. They may also wonder into the short scrubland but for brief periods to look for something in particular. They make a simple nest of broken stamps of wood and lined with soft leaves, to sleep at night. They also eat the leaves of certain trees within the forests and use the tree branches and the vines growing in the dense forest to play, swinging from tree to tree using the tough ropes of the wild.

They walk with their front fists closed while the rear foot is open and spread out for ample support. Their hind legs can grab and hold on to something, just like the hand. We can well say that all toes act like the opposable thumb on the hand. That allows the chimpanzee to navigate the thick forest with ease even though it is a heavy animal.

Chimps do not like water. In fact, the two groups of chimpanzees that are at the Sweetwaters are divided by a small river. They would not dare cross the river, yet most other animals will wade through to either side of the divide when they wish to. At Sweetwaters, they are hosted in a relatively “home-like” place with tall trees and some open areas but they are helped to survive by being given food and water by the keepers. In the wild, when they cannot get across a stream, they are known to make themselves a bridge of broken trees and stumps of dead trees. When they want water, they chew on soft branches of trees and make a sponge out of it. They dip the branch into a pond and suck in the water absorbed by the chewed up tree.

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