Tuesday, February 27

Lwiro Sanctuary, heal baby chimpanzees with love




We share almost 99 percent of our DNA, which brings us closer in intelligence and disease, the tragic price of sophisticated psychology. Although they separated from our evolutionary line about 7 million years ago, empathy ignites with an ancestral spark if we look into their eyes or carefully observe their gestures. “The Lwiro Sanctuary is a rehabilitation center for baby chimpanzees that have been orphaned by poaching,” he explains. Itsaso Vélez (Vitoria, 1984), its technical director, from near Lake Kivu, on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with Rwanda. “Adults are killed to eat and mothers are the easiest victims, because they carry their babies on their backs and go slower,” he describes.

“The babies witness how they die and are dismembered, and they arrive here traumatized,” he laments. The first thing we have to offer them is security, with a surrogate mother, and then veterinary care, because many suffer from cuts on the skin, parasites and diseases.

The work of the Lwiro Sanctuary has recently been described in the short film ‘Mama‘ (Pablo de la Chica, 2020), nominated for a Goya and starring Mother Gifts, a Congolese woman with a sweetness that overwhelms viewers, and who overcomes her own traumatic experiences – which include beatings and various sexual assaults – thanks to the therapeutic love that caring for chimpanzee babies gives her. “For her, it was difficult to trust human beings, but it was easier to trust others who had been through the same thing,” explains the psychologist. Lorraine Aguirre (Madrid, 1978), who also works in the center. “Traumas cause the world to become dangerous and mistrust those around you, deregulate the autonomic nervous system and push the state of survival, in which something bad is expected to happen all the time,” adds the specialist. “You can’t develop a society like that,” he reflects.

Illegal market. Poachers kill chimpanzee mothers and then try to sell the young, who are often traumatized and need treatment at the center.

Behind the second congo war (1998-2003), the armed groups that operated in the conflict continued with their looting and crimes in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri. It is a region rich in natural resources that has been punished by violence for a long time, and it is also a key place for primates, since in this border strip is the Virunga National Park, home of the mountain gorillas. As inhabitants of the rainforest, RDC is also home to chimpanzees and bonobos, two essential species for studying the origins of human behavior. «They are animals that laugh, cry, feel, kick, and have the same cast of emotions as us» explains Aguirre. “Negative news always arrives from the Congo, but we wanted to send a message of hope,” reflects Vélez. “If we help improve the mental health of the population, the country can be fixed,” says the psychologist.

Congolese, who are increasingly aware that psychological suffering has a solution, also benefit from Aguirre’s work. The same goes for chimpanzees. «they are not pets», emphasizes Vélez. “Sometimes, they kill the mothers to sell the young on the illegal market,” he denounces. Their mission is to return them to nature cured. “My dream is that we are not needed.”

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