Visiting Tacugama: An Unexpected Paradise

PASA volunteer, Matt Brunette, tells all from his visit to Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a great ape paradise in Sierra Leone.

by Matt Brunette

“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, a PASA sanctuary just outside Freetown, the bustling capital of Sierra Leone. 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.

“Is it safe there?” (Yes. 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, the same three things came up in conversation: War, Diamonds, and Ebola.

African countries like Sierra Leone (in green) host 23 PASA sanctuaries.
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. The forest, the beaches, and the people all intertwined with each other to form one unforgettable place – and we didn’t even see half of it.

I was familiar with Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary through my volunteer work with PASA. We planned our trip around visiting the sanctuary and seeing some of the other sights in Sierra Leone.

PASA volunteer Matt Brunette helps build enrichment at Tacugama.
We stayed four nights at one of Tacugama’s eco-lodges, which sit just outside the sanctuary gates in the dense and isolating forests of the Western Area National Park. Each morning we’d wake up to the sound of screaming chimps, 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.

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.

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 – two industries that often fuel each other. 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.

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.

Tacugama provides these amazing animals with peace, security, and a second chance at life. Their beautiful enclosures provide them with room to be chimps again. Though its not an ideal situation, it is a worthy alternative to many of the 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 the sanctuary. Not only are they dedicated to the survival and safety of the chimps 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 is utterly inspiring. Watching them work, learning about their efforts and their day-to-day challenges 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 and stories we bring home with us are important ways to support their on-going work. Tacugama conducts one-of-a-kind environmental projects in Sierra Leone that are 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 progress.

Unfortunately, the misconceptions 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. 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.

Click here to learn more about how you can visit Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary!

Tacugama ecolodge

Tacugama Congo Dam.

“We spent our days touring the sanctuary, going on fantastic guided hikes on nearby trails, and going on day trips into Freetown  … 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.”