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An African adventure

Apr 23, 2019 | Features, Volunteer

A childhood spent fantasising about living in the wilds of Africa, inspired by the TV shows On Safari and Daktari, was the original motivation behind Leigh Findlay’s decision to spend six months as a volunteer, monitoring chimpanzee behaviour with the Jane Goodall Institute in the steamy forests of Senegal, West Africa.

By Judy Fredriksen

Like many children, Leigh loved animals from a very early age. But it wasn’t the usual furry kitten, playful puppy or chirpy budgie that held her fascination – it was wildlife that piqued her curiosity.

After Leigh finished school, she acquired a degree in Veterinary Science and a doctorate working on native Australian wallabies. She then worked in various veterinary practices – including her own – for the next ten years.

Many years after reading Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, a comprehensive field study of chimpanzees in Tanzania, Africa, Leigh signed up as a member of the Jane Goodall Institute. The Institute supports research and the conservation of the great apes and the natural world.

“I was particularly attracted to the philosophy of the Institute, which has the acronym of APE – animals, people, environment. They believe that in order to make a difference in conservation, you have to involve those three aspects; otherwise it won’t be successful. That really resonated with me,” says Leigh.

Responding to the Institute’s call for volunteers to help with the chimpanzee research program in Senegal, Leigh’s indomitable spirit fired into action. The chimpanzees in Senegal are a rare subspecies not found anywhere else in the world.

The all-too-familiar story of disappearing habitats and food sources, coupled with the increasing trespass and competition for land by humans, means these chimps are in danger of becoming extinct.

Wild Chimpanzee ( Pan troglodytes ) portrait in the jungle. Uganda

In mid-2018, forewarned that her time in Senegal would mean extreme heat, monotonous food, no home comforts, and isolation from friends and family – all compounded by language barriers – Leigh embarked on what she calls a ‘bucket list adventure’.

“The capital of Senegal is Dakar, that’s where I flew into,” says Leigh. “The closest town to the research centre is Kedougou, a 15-hour ride from Dakar on an overloaded bus. Then a 1.5-hour ride to the little village near the research centre over a dirt track with huge potholes in a 4-wheel drive that had definitely seen better days!” she laughs.

Upon arrival, Leigh was hosted by a Senegalese family, though she had her own accommodation in a hut called a ‘sudu’.

“It was a lovely little house, just a one-room house… it had mud-concrete walls and a concrete floor and thatched roof, and I was very lucky because I had an outside sit-down toilet! Most of the toilets are holes in the ground with pieces of concrete on either side where you put your feet while squatting.

“It was very ingenious, an old 20-litre plastic bucket with the bottom cut out and surrounded by concrete.

“And your shower was a couple of kettles of cold water that you poured over yourself. You wet yourself with the first one, soaped up, and then rinsed off with the second one. But the cold water was usually welcome because it was so hot!

“It was challenging, especially the local food,” grimaces Leigh. The meals were mostly based on rice with a sauce or a small quantity of vegetables.

Conjuring up an image of rustic African bush tucker, I ask Leigh about the vegetables.

She stifles a chuckle and replies: “We’re talking about one small piece of carrot and one small piece of eggplant and a piece of this local vegetable, a sort of bitter melon. If it has the bejesus cooked out of it, it’s almost edible!”

If she was lucky, Leigh’s host family would make a sauce out of peanuts which were grown locally, but sometimes the sauce was simply made from leaves of particular trees. “The sauce had a most unfortunate colour.”

As part of the daily research, the volunteers would head out into the forest with local research assistants, looking for signs of chimpanzee activity – where they ate or slept, noting their daily movements and any vital evidence such as pieces of food or droppings.

But the observers needed to maintain a substantial distance from the animals. Sharing her professional knowledge, Leigh explains that by getting too close to the chimps, they lose their fear of humans.

“That makes it easy for ill-intentioned people to do them harm. They can also catch human diseases and it potentially alters the chimps’ behaviour.”

The volunteers don’t just record the behaviour of the chimps, they look at the species of trees that provide shelter and the types of fruit they eat.

Intriguingly, the locals are somewhat afraid of the chimps and don’t seek to harm them; the Senegalese believe that chimpanzees are the spirits of their ancestors.

These rare creatures have an uncertain future as their habitat faces destruction to make way for things like power lines. They also have appeal as a tourist attraction, which can manifest into the temptation of financial rewards for locals.

As for Leigh, the adventure and temporary discomfort were worth it because, besides working with the chimps, she became friends with many local people and young volunteers from other cultures who enriched her life.

Having now crossed that off her bucket list, she is surrendering herself to the universe to “see where life is going to take me next.”

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