'They all love him:' Chimp rescued by Alberta man thrives at Kenyan sanctuary

A young chimp rescued from an Iraqi zoo by an Alberta man has overcome a hurdle crucial to his survival at a sanctuary in Kenya.

'He gets to jump on top of their backs whenever he wants. You can just see the love.'

Manno and his foster mom Jane at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya. (Andreas Fox)

It was a breakthrough when young Manno stopped resisting the overtures of the older female chimpanzee who would eventually become his foster mother.

Jane, a 14-year-old black-haired chimp with a warm gaze, gently touched the younger chimp's foot. 

"He went down, touched her hand, and then actually tumbled onto her," said Daniel Stiles, with the Project to End Great Ape Slavery. "And then they just started chasing each other."

​Stiles, who recently visited Manno at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya, was delighted to find the 5-year-old chimp socializing and riding on the backs of doting females.

"He just seemed really, really happy," said Stiles. "In fact, he seemed to be quite a popular chimpanzee."
The first touch between Manno and Jane. (Daniel Stiles)

It's been a year since Manno was freed from captivity at the Duhok Zoo in Erbil, where he only interacted with humans.

Leading the rescue efforts was a high school teacher with unwavering conviction from Sherwood Park, Alta. 

Spencer Sekyer bonded with Manno during a visit to Erbil in 2013. He came to believe the infant ape was purchased through the black market.

Manno was well cared for at the time. But Sekyer worried that as he grew older and more aggressive, he would have to be locked away in his small cage or euthanized.

Dreaming of giving his friend a better life, Sekyer drew on the expertise of Stiles, Animals Lebanon, and a local veterinarian.

He sought support from primatologist Jane Goodall, then Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani and many others.

Finally, as the battle to free Mosul from ISIS ramped up last November, less than an hour north a chimp was being freed.

Sekyer was reunited with Manno and they travelled to Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Spencer Sekyer and Manno at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. (Ol Pejeta Conservancy)

One year later, Manno's grooved face appears more content. There's a glint in his soulful, amber eyes as protruding ears take in the tweets, hums and calls of the savannah that is now home.

"This really has been like a Disney-type ending," Sekyer told CBC News last week. "There's so much more to do in regards to primate animal trafficking but if nothing else in this world, we saved one soul."

Didn't know he was a chimp

There were never any guarantees when Manno took up residency at the 300-acre sanctuary with 34 other freed chimps.

They might not like him. They might even kill him.

After months in quarantine, the team of chimp keepers at Sweetwaters embarked on a carefully crafted integration strategy as Manno underwent a painful process of self-discovery.

"He didn't even know what a chimpanzee looked like," said Dr. Stephen Ngulu, a wildlife veterinarian who oversees Sweetwaters. "He didn't even think he was a chimpanzee. He thought he was a baby."
Dr. Stephen Ngulu is the head of Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. (Daniel Stiles)

They felt sorry for him in those first few days out of quarantine, Ngulu said. A terrified Manno couldn't eat or sleep. He showed no interest in an older female selected to foster him.

​Sekyer flew back to Kenya to find the small chimp curled up in a fetal position. No longer allowed to interact with humans, they made one last exception.

A video shows Manno bounding down from his enclosure and leaping into Sekyer's waiting arms, likely for the final time. 

"It's kind of heartbreaking for me that I'll never be able to hold him again but this is a far better situation for him," Sekyer said.
After months in quarantine, Manno the chimp is about to be released to live out the rest of his days in a sanctuary. Manno was rescued from a zoo in Iraqi Kurdistan by Sherwood Park teacher Spencer Sekyer. 0:11

After bonding with Jane the chimp, who was confiscated from an airport with a shotgun pellet in her finger, each introduction was another win.

"Manno progressively lost the fear because the females that we introduced to him only showed love," said Ngulu, explaining that his adoption by Jane sent a powerful message to the community.

"That this is my baby. Don't mess with my baby."

They were building Manno a family — the protective circle he would need when he finally faced the males who could easily turn on him.

Females gang up on alpha

In mid-October, Manno met William, the new alpha male.

A report by Ngulu describes what happened when William tried walking towards Manno, who was being groomed by a younger female named Joy.

"Joy called an alert and all the females ganged up and attacked the alpha (William)," Ngulu wrote. "William was later seen to interact positively with Manno."

The platform where Manno likes to sit on his own and look around. (Daniel Stiles)

As a young, male chimpanzee, there is no way to avoid group fights or the beatings sure to come his way. He's going to learn the hard way, Ngulu said.

But so far, life since integration has been sweet. Instead of a diet of junk food and cigarettes once forced on Manno by zoo visitors, he feasts on avocados, mangoes and ground nuts. 

It's a safe haven for him. They all love him. And the group dynamic, it's so amazing- Dr. Stephen Ngulu

And with the demands of being a zoo attraction behind him, Manno is free to simply be a chimp.

By day, he's mothered, played with and groomed. At night he falls asleep on a soft bed of straw close to his new family.

"It's a safe haven for him," Ngulu said. "They all love him. And the group dynamic, it's so amazing.

"He gets to jump on top of their backs whenever he wants. You can just see the love."

Stolen apes

Manno's emancipation is the exception in a growing illicit trade of endangered chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans.

Entire chimp families are slaughtered for bushmeat to retrieve just one infant, according to "Stolen Apes," a 2013 United Nations report written by Stiles and other researchers.                       

Young apes are smuggled from west and central Africa to zoos and households across Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, the report says.

Researchers describe the confiscation of terrified and starving infant chimps found wedged into cardboard tubes or between sacks of marijuana.

From 2005 to 2011, the report estimates 22,218 apes were trafficked or killed.

Daniel Stiles has tracked more than a 100 players involved in great ape trafficking. (Provided)

Stiles has spent three years tracking more than a hundred of those dealers globally.

In a sting operation earlier in Bangkok, he saved two orangutans and nabbed two traffickers. The case is now in court.

"I'm hoping that that will send a signal to these guys that maybe they should look for a different line of business," Stiles said.

He suggested those looking to help could donate to ape advocacy groups or sanctuaries belonging to the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, such as Sweetwaters, where you can even "adopt" a chimpanzee. Their overall care costs about $5,000 USD a year, Stiles said.

But he emphasized the payoff is much greater for such highly intelligent creatures who know the difference between life in a cage and being free.

"It gives joy to these apes," Stiles said.

Sekyer hopes to visit Manno at Sweetwaters one day with his 2-year-old son. (Andreas Fox)

Seeing Manno free is something Sekyer hopes to show his 2-year-old son one day on a trip back to Kenya. Whenever Anders sees a photo of Manno, he calls out his name.

It's a promising sign for his dad, who hopes a seed has been planted.

"Just basically to do good in the world," Sekyer said. "And to realize that when you put your mind to something, you can do anything."



About the Author

Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights, immigrant and Indigenous communities, youth at-risk and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca