How I helped Leila

How I helped Leila

Journalist John Grobler was on assignment in Angola when he came across a young chimpanzee in trouble. This is the story of his mission to take her to a place of safety

Chimpanzees, like humans – honest ones, anyway – look you straight in the eye. And once you’ve seen what’s in there, there is no more looking away.

On the second day after I met Leia Lopes Gimpoi, there was a moment of clarity: those soulful brown eyes, glazed with the suffering of a sentient being chained in the sun and begging from passers-by for food scraps and drinking her own urine to stay hydrated, suddenly locked on to mine for what seemed a very long time.

There was a light in her eyes that was not there the day before. A little bit of hope.

Leia was born four-and-a-half years ago to a chimpanzee family somewhere in the Maiombe National Park, a 250,000 hectare reserve. Prized as pets, baby chimps are captured after poachers kill their parents, often shooting as many as 10 adults, to lay their hands on the babies which are worth up to $20,000 each on the black market.

Leila is named after Leila Luliana Lopes Umenyiora, an Angolan actress, model and beauty queen from the former slaving harbour of Benguela who was crowned Miss Universe in 2011. She has her own TV show in Luanda, and her and Leila’s worlds could not be further apart.

For one, Leila looks nothing like Miss Universe 2011. She sports a scar that looks like a blow from a bottle on the top of her skull, and the area around her shoulders were bare, a sign of chronic malnutrition.

Old zoo park

Leila carefully fished out the fried chicken, took a bite and then had some chips before taking a long drink from the can

I first met Leila over a fried chicken ’n’ chips and soft drink dinner I bought her where she was chained between two trees at the entrance to the old zoo park, the Granja-por-de-Sol on the southern outskirts of Huambo, central Angola.

“No, she eats the same food as we humans. She likes pasta, chicken, rice and fried potatoes,” the park’s two employees assured me. Not that there was a choice: the only food stalls had no fresh produce. Leila also loved drinking beer and whiskey, I was told to the general mirth of bystanders.

Leila was hungry: the speed at which she bolted her food – selecting the chicken first for a few bites, followed by rice and potatoes, washed down with a deep gulp of the gasosa – indicated she not seen much food besides the odd piece of dry bread of late.

I had arrived two weeks earlier in Angola to follow up on a previous story I had done on the Caminho de Ferro de Benguela, the railway line that provides the shortest direct route to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo’s mineral wealth located in Katanga, 1,342km away to the east.

Huambo was the first stop by bus from Benguela: I planned to take the train, but the special locomotives bought from China four years ago had all broken. From Huambo, I was to travel by train about another 1,000km east to the frontier with Katanga to Luau.

A friend showing me around town took me to the park and its swimming-pools (the largest one had water in), a popular place for hosting local weddings. Owned by national oil company Sonangol, it has been leased out to a certain Mr Morais, who skipped town in the wake of the economic melt-down 18 months ago, owing big bucks all over the place, I was informed.

Salaries comprised what could be skimmed off the gate taking and the wedding events, so Leila lived off the left-overs of the left-overs the staff did not want.

Leila had kept thrashing her cage until they moved her to next the entrance, where she could beg for food and drinks, holding out an empty can or plastic bottle for whatever was going. A drunken lout insisted on giving her beer while I was leaving, just to show me how she loved the stuff.

Could I just buy her and smuggle her back to Namibia by truck, as a friend suggested I do? Could there be better solutions?

I had two days left before taking the train to Luau, so I took to my extensive FaceBook network, where I had been blogging about my journey through one of Southern Africa’s least-known, incredibly beautiful countries.

The ability to upload short clips of Leila’s intense enjoyment of her first taste of natural food – fresh avocados and a pineapple – quickly reverberated around social media networks. People were sympathetic and offered help – from outside Angola, though.

I got desperate and penned an open letter to Isabel dos Santos, elder daughter of President Eduardo dos Santos and the chief executive of Sonangol, as owners of the now bankrupt park, and a friend translated it for me to post.

That Sunday night as I was packing, I received a call from Dalene Dreyer, a fellow Namibian living in Luanda. She would take Leila in, as she was already raising seven-month-old George, the third such chimp she had helped reach sanctuary.

Dalene informed me that it was totally against the law to keep a chimp as a pet, but in a country where the local boss’s word is the real law, what were the chances of confiscating Leila from Granja Por-de-Sol?

Over the next weeks as I trundled by train to first Luena and then Luau, where the railway line ends, I pursued all avenues. Angola’s conservation regime is a bureaucratic nightmare: Conservation is a sub-division and reports to the Ministry of Agriculture. Huambo, however, has always been famous locally for its university’s veterinarian school – and someone there could maybe help.

By the time I got back to Huambo a week later, Leila immediately recognised me again and started whooping excitedly. Amazing – she had only seen me three times a week earlier, but she knew me already.

Making plans

Things were looking up: I had a name for a local veterinarian who also lectured at the university. Leila was very hungry, bolting two huge avocados immediately and ignoring the chicken: the food-stall owner I had left money with to feed her drunkenly insisted that Leila would love whiskey instead.

On Sunday night I tracked Dr Alexandre Duarte down by telephone: yes, he knew the chimpanzee, having previously inoculated her against rabies, a constant problem in Angola’s crowded musseques (townships). Yes, he would assist in getting a Giua de Transito to move Leila to Luanda. But did I know about that other macaque as well?

Returning to the park, a mute boy named Illandro made perfect sense of my bad Portuguese and led me to a round cage of no more than five metres across, where I found Ambrosius, a yellow baboon from Cuando Cubango, I later learnt. His mate had escaped some time ago, but it was not clear if she made it past the crowded bairo next door.

Ambrosius was hostile to Leila, so moving them together was not an option. Another plan would have to be made later, Leila was the priority.

I organised a reliable vehicle, driver and assistant, and an old palletised 1,000 litre tank used for moving chemicals. I also found a carpenter who would convert it into a cage for Leila for the drive to Luanda, once the papers were ready.

I got my hands on Leila’s existing paperwork: A Certificate of Ownership and a “Guia de Transito de Animais, Troféus e Despojos de Caça” – the “Permit to transport Animals, Trophies and Spoils of Hunt”. Actual permit numbers had been filled in with a long row of XXXXXs. My guess was the copy did not exist any more.

The signatures and stamps indicated these were issued to one Marcos Nhunga N. Meno Gimbi of the mussueque Kilambi Kiaxi in Luanda on 15 January 2013 by the Director of the Institute for Forestry Development of Cabinda, Simåo Zau.

A rabies vaccine issued two days later in Luanda to Gimbi, living in Kilambi Kiaxi, listed his passport as French. Leila was listed as a macaque, a common name for any species of monkeys or baboons.

Later, Dr Duarte called: unfortunately, the director was still attending a symposium, and was not available. My heart started sinking: I could just abduct her, but how would I get past all the roadblocks? My press card had expired, and how would I explain a chimp in the car to any nosy or greedy policeman?

Despondent, I dawdled off in a different direction that night in search of something to eat and to find a friendly little place where the owners personally welcome me: estrangeiros (foreigners) have become a rare sight since the oil price crashed in 2014. And then I lucked out: the owner, listening to my tale about Leila, pointed at a gent picking up two dusky beauties: the director himself.

I dashed over and introduced myself as a visiting journalist to all of them, careful to keep a thumb over that expiry date on the press card. I pleaded Leila’s case: a bankrupt park, owner in hiding, critically endangered species, invalid documents and an offer to help by Dr Duarte.

Ah yes, he was very busy with a very important symposium all the time, unlikely to be able to do anything before Friday. I persisted: I need to leave, I’m running out of money and time, and Leila will die if she is not rescued. OK, he will be back in the office late Wednesday. Maybe Thursday. OK, he will see what can be done.

The next day I spent on tenterhooks: I could not put any plans into motion before I knew for sure I had the authorisation to confiscate Leila and move her to Luanda to safety. Late in the afternoon, I got a call: there was a chance the papers were going be ready tomorrow, maybe.

The next morning, the best news: the documents were ready to be picked up, an absolute miracle in a country where nothing bureaucratic happens quickly, ever. I organised a kalleluja, the ubiquitous Chinese-made three-wheeled pick-up of Africa, to get the tank and deliver it to the carpenters at the airport.

I found light fencing material and tools in local shops, dropped those off and gave instructions, and then went to feed Leila and Ambrosius. I spread Kwanzas, cool drinks and good will among the guards and “empragados” (employees) of Granja, who had now mysteriously doubled in size. I explained the “animais em perigo do extinsao”, and smoothed the waters by explaining the “lei de Angola de ambiente”. All seemed in agreement.

Happy Leila. Chimps drop their bottom lip when they are happy, and when they are baby-happy, they do this

Things could go wrong

Thursday went well: I met Dr Duarte at his well-appointed clinic in Roa Norton de Matos in central Huambo (“We can do everything except spinal surgery here”), donated a bottle of good scotch and picked up Diazepam at the local pharmacy: we would need to put Leila to sleep for a while, and two of those would be good for eight hours, he estimated.

Returning later to Granja to feed Leila and Ambrosius and make final arrangements, Leila was very happy to see me but was highly agitated, not least because of a group of sharp-dressed young guys now also hanging out around her.

Ambrosius e doénte” – Ambrosius was sick, he could not walk, one staff member told me. Leila helped herself to two green peppers and I went to see Ambrosius. On the way down, I got the really bad story: Ambrosius somehow broke out of his cage and tried to escape through the neighbouring bairo, where some kids cornered him on a fence and stoned him. He could not move his lower body. His spine looked broken.

I climbed into the small cage and had a closer look, Ambrosius baring his fangs helplessly at me. I offered him some apples, which he snatched at and immediately ate: at least he still had appetite, but his lower body was immobile.

I tried to reach Dr Duarte, who was in surgery. When he called back later between operations, he concurred with my prognosis: putting Ambrosius down was likely the most humane option. Spinal surgery was the one thing his surgery could not do, he reminded me again.

My phone died. I got Leila some water and spent a bit of time with her before going back to Ambrosius’s cage. He chattered at me, a sign he was trusting me now. I waited. Long after dark, Dr Duarte arrived with some powerful opioids I fed to Ambrosius. Trying to inject a badly wounded baboon, not anything he’d ever done before, in the dark was not a good idea.

That night, I slept even worse than all previous nights. I had arranged everything I could think of, but this was Angola – anything could still go wrong. The plan was to drug Leila with 20mg of Diazepam in some wild honey I had bought, and assist Dr Duarte help Ambrosius into the hereafter while she fell asleep in an hour or so.

We arrived at the park early the next morning and I immediately knew something was off: there were lots of guards milling around and Leila was outside the fence, looking small and very vulnerable. A new guard whom I’d not seen before accosted me: he needed to talk to me, about a very important matter. No, the car must remain outside: they have total responsibility for everything here, including the chimp.

I told him to wait: I first had to feed Leila her pills and then go see about Ambrosius. More people were milling about, and Leila was highly agitated: she would take the fruit and then scamper off to her only useful small tree to get away from the people. Someone was trying to obstruct me from leaving.

Good-bye, Ambrosius. He died dreaming of freedom

Goodbye, Ambrosius

So, instead I went down to Ambrosius’s cage: he was still alive, in spite of my hope he’d overdose on the opioids. I fed him all the pills I had left, putting them in carrots and apples and feeding him slowly to make sure he ingested them. He had turned himself around and was facing out of the open cage door. I watched him drop off to sleep again, hoping that this would be the last time.

Up at Leila’s trees, something was happening. I walked back up just in time to see Mister Very Important undo the chain – and Leila lunging at him as if to bite and then shooting off into the dense, unpruned undergrowth. Disaster. I stopped everyone chasing after her and asked the oldest gardener to just follow her: I know where she’s going, he said.

I first called Dr Duarte, still groggy with sleep, and then the director: all was in order, but the boss of the security company (Mister Very Important) insisted on personal instructions. So, I gave it to him in front of everyone: when very angry, my Portuguese is remarkably fluent. I then called the director again, and made Mr Very Important talk to the now annoyed director. Never seen a bad attitude melt that quickly: So sorry, mister, so sorry, I do not want to lose my job, just doing my job. Right.

Across from the small decorative pond, the old gardener was waving at me: Leila had hidden herself in a stormwater pipe. I walked over and told her it was time to go – and out she came, arms in the air for me to pick her up. Back at the car, she immediately climbed into the cage – the part I had most worried about in respect of her handling. Those pills were not working, so I fed her one more with honey and boiled eggs, and handed some cash to one of the guards to go buy breakfast for everyone.

We were out of there.

On the outskirts of Huambo, we were stopped by traffic police. I dropped the name of the local police chief and some cash, and we were on our way again, winding our way down to Lobito first because the main road to Huambo was too damaged to use with such tender cargo in the back.

By the third roadblock, we had worked out a system: we let the cop come up and I then opened the back, darkened windows and barked at him about his over-stepping his authority and demanded to see any form of ID. None had any except their uniforms – and anyone can rent those for a bit of freelance highway robbery.

It was slow going: for parts, the road is good but parts are badly pot-holed, forcing driver Joao Paolo to weave and lurch with sickening thumps through the worst bits. Leila, still not asleep, had got hold of bottle of honey through the cage fence and was by now a sticky mess – and still awake, although extremely drowsy.

Pedo and Joao were a little surprised at me asking them not to play music just yet: I had a pounding headache from too little sleep and wanted to monitor Leila through the small window at the back of the double-cab, decked out in red-and-black leather seats.

Leila seemed curious about the passing show on the streets of Huambo as we drove out of town; higher speeds made her nervous – touching my fingers through the mesh several times – but she was not freaking out. Four hours later, she eventually did fall asleep for about an hour – those Diazepams were supposed to be good for eight hours.

“Leila is a strong one. She is sleepy as a child but she just won’t close those eyes, she keeps fighting back,” Joao, who had been watching her in the mirror, said. Leila, if nothing else, is a survivor.

For hours she hung from the bars across the cage as we clocked up the kilometres; by early afternoon, we had dropped from the Planalto to the sweaty, humid plains. Joao Paolo was keen to get to Luanda before dark.

We stopped for lunch at a small road-side restaurant which took nearly two hours, to Joao’s irritation. I kept quiet: the worst roadblock is 80km before Luanda, where there are also Forestry officials posted, and I would rather not have to deal with them, as legit as the documents in my bag were. By 21h00, we got to this roadblock and I asked Joao to slow down to let a few sedan cars get there first. They all got stopped, but we were waved through.

Time to go and let go, with a last good hug

Good-bye, Leila

By 22h00 we entered Luanda, exhausted and slightly lost. Leila, whom I’d been watching all the way, had fallen finally asleep in a small bundle at the bottom of the cage as it got dark. She briefly looked up before burying her face in her towels in the cage.

Dalene and her son Janco drove out to meet us, and we followed them to their house. We had to lift the cage over the wall, because the doorway was too narrow. Leila woke up, and by the time we had set it down, had started wriggling herself out underneath the mesh around the cage (I got ripped off badly by those carpenters), and was trying to rip loose her old chain, still around her neck.

I stepped in and picked her up, which immediately calmed her. Undid her chain, and then sat down with her on the cool floor. We made it, and it felt great.

John Grobler is an Oxpeckers Associate based in Namibia. His trip to Angola was made possible by the EU Journalism Fund. Leila’s rescue was sponsored by donations to the Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation. The plan is to send her to the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia


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