Chimpanzee Island adjoins the village of Grand-Lahou in the Bandaman estuary, an outlying reach of tropical forest about 100km from the commercial capital, Abidjan. Only Ponso remains of the group of chimpanzees relocated to the tiny island from Liberia in 1983 by a research laboratory for medical tests. Two years ago, Ponso suffered a traumatic loss when his female companion and two children all died of unknown causes, says Koidja, a retired farmer in his 60s.
Since then, the animal has been “the world’s loneliest chimp”, as SOS Ponso puts it.
Part of the family
Every morning, barefoot, Germain Djenemaya Koidja, a carer, pushes through the water lilies on a makeshift boat to carry food and medication to the island, which lies just a few metres (yards) offshore.
He is welcomed with cries and acrobatics by Ponso, an ape about a metre tall leaping from one branch to the next.
“Ponso is like my child. I don’t want to see him go…I’m making a call to have someone send me another female,” says Koidja, whose family specialises in primates, from his father down to Junior, his 21 year old son.
The small village community shares his determination to save Ponso, whom residents now consider to be part of the family. The chimpanzee’s isolation has also moved Francoise Stephenson, the Franco-American owner of a hotel in Lahou. Stephenson has now become the leader of a rescue committee.
A carer heads to Chimpanzee Island near the town of Grand Lahou, Ivory Coast
An Ivorian citizen
“I have accepted the role of intermediary between well-wishers and Germain,” says Stephenson, who is in her 60s and has come to know Ponso well. “During my last visit, we exchanged kisses and praise, he put his nails in my ears and then my nose,” Stephenson says. “I left the island with the impression that I was coming down from another planet.”
Ponso’s fate has been taken up by the new African Primatological Society (APS), which held its first congress this year to respond to a catastrophe that may see more than half of Africa’s primate species doomed to disappear.
In the large island nation of Madagascar alone, off the southeast African mainland coast, about 85 per cent of the famous wide-eyed lemur population is threatened. “Ponso’s story is rather touching,” says the APS president, the Ivorian Inza Kone, who is also director of the Swiss Centre for Scientific Research in Ivory Coast (CSRS).
“A plan to transfer (the ape) to a sanctuary in Zambia was mooted by NGOs to end his solitude. But Ivorian authorities refused, arguing that Ponso was a non-transferable Ivorian citizen,” Kone adds. Ponso’s salvation has become a textbook case for African primatologists confronted with poaching, deforestation and the need to mobilise resources to help animals.
“From a scientific and even ethical point of view, it’s clear that Ponso must be brought out of this situation of isolation, as soon as possible. There are two methods, sending him company or taking him somewhere else,” Kone says. Specialists are wary, however, about finding companionship for Ponso, since nobody has clearly explained the deaths and disappearances on his island in the last 20 years.
Ponso, the only surviving chimpanzee of a colony of 20 apes, sits in a tree on Chimpanzee Island (AFP)
One school of thought holds out for prolonged care and company, arguing that to move Ponso elsewhere would be admitting an inability to protect the last primates in the tropical forest, where their ecological worth is incontestable. “These great apes are cousins with whom we share 80 per cent of our genes.
A single family lives in a very large territory and can travel 15km per day.
All along the route, it eats and leaves waste and grains that grow to make the space green again,” says Bassirou Bonfoh, chief director of the CSRS. Most people see the creation of a chimpanzee sanctuary as the most viable solution.