African apes in need are a part of conservation art

By Robin Huffman, Safina Center Fellow

Mercury, Roman god of speed, is often portrayed with wing-tipped ears. Thatʼs what patas monkeys make me think of. Iʼm caring for two of them right now. From the northern savannah regions of Cameroon, they are the fastest running primate on earth. And as if to announce their prowess, they have elegant swooping tufts of hair at the tips of their ears, like wings.

Iʼm in my fifth month of volunteering at Ape Action Africa in Cameroon. This 2,100-acre sanctuary harbors primates orphaned by the bushmeat and illegal pet trades. Sixteen species of monkeys and apes reside here, 350 primates in all, including over 120 endangered chimpanzees and 22 critically endangered gorillas. It was here in 2007, during my first volunteering stint, that I was handed a tiny 12-ounce bundle of life that changed my life. Maasai was an infant mustache monkey and my very first task was to care for that fragile blue-faced miracle of nature. When she looked up at me, I knew nothing would ever be the same. I fell head over heels in love and am still falling.

Cici, a putty-nosed guenon living at Ape Action Africa’s sanctuary, with spaghetti. ©Robin Huffman

And now I serve, back for my seventh time. In addition to the two young patas monkeys, Leonie and Coco, and little putty-nosed guenon Cici, by a twist of fate I am again raising young mustache monkeys. Charlie and Dali are named after famous mustachioed men even though we believe they are females. Oh, and Leonie will never be one of the fastest primates on earth. As an infant in the wild, when her mother she clung to was shot and killed, Leonieʼs femur was so badly damaged by bullets she had to have it amputated just below the hip. But no one seems to have told her that sheʼs missing a limb. Her climbing, balancing and leaping abilities are extraordinary.

Dali in the mirror. ©Robin Huffman

Dali biting Charlie’s tail. ©Robin Huffman

Dali and Charlie sleeping. ©Robin Huffman

Who needs TV reality shows and daytime talk shows when you can get all the drama you want from watching a primate integration? Personalities and mannerisms abound and emotions are mercurial. Charlie and Dali were bonded first – and fiercely so – being the same species. In fact, Dali arrived at the sanctuary on the brink of death, weighing less than 9 ounces. Charlieʼs companionship almost certainly saved her life. Coco and Cici, a little older, were later paired and eventually became playmates after initial tense interpretations of different speciesʼ signals, such as for play and aggression. Leonie, the oldest, had been living with a male DeBrazzaʼs monkey who largely ignored her. Now the five are together, Leonie flourishing in her new role as the demure matriarch, particularly with her “Mini Me” sidekick, Coco. The species draw seems to trump all.

There is much for me to absorb with these forest dwellers, so I may become more effective at sharing their stories and painting their portraits.

Charlie and her ball. ©Robin Huffman

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