MEFOU NATIONAL PARK, Cameroon — After several busy days spent covering Pope Benedict's first visit to Africa in Cameroon last week, I needed a break from the hysteria, the crowds and the phalanx of heavy-handed security personnel.
The perfect answer was less than an hour's drive from the capital, Yaounde, in Mefou National Park, where the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund has a 2,500-acre tropical forest that serves as a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees, gorillas and monkeys.
When I lived in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo a few years ago, I used to relax on weekends by visiting a similar sanctuary for bonobo apes, better known as pygmie chimps. There, the baby bonobos would immediately leap onto me, climb atop my head and pick my pockets for anything entertaining — sunglasses, money or food. Just being around these rascally creatures could melt away the stress of a hard week in Congo's teeming capital.
In Mefou, the chimps and gorillas are far too big and powerful for playful games — they could accidentally tear a person limb from limb. So humankind's closest relatives can only be admired from behind a high electric fence, which protects the primates on both sides.
Still, they are a wonder to behold.
The chimps leap around their compound, climbing walls, hanging upside down, stomping their feet, doing somersaults and making farting sounds with their rubbery lips. At all times they make sure visitors pay close attention.
The western lowland gorillas are much more regal, moving their huge bodies slowly but gracefully through the bush and gazing calmly into the eyes of onlookers.
The United Nations has designated 2009 the Year of the Gorilla in an effort to help conservation and boost the livelihoods and incomes for local people. Gorillas are threatened by diseases including Ebola, as well as by deforestation and armed conflicts. They are also hunted for meat and their infants are captured to serve as pets. While trading primates is illegal under Cameroon's laws, the trade in bush meat and live animals for pets remains lucrative for impoverished residents of the west African nation.
Three of the world's four gorilla species are listed as "critically endangered" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, putting them at risk of extinction. Mountain gorillas in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and the Cross River gorilla in Cameroon and Nigeria number only 700 and 300, respectively. The eastern lowland gorilla in the Congo has plummeted dramatically over the last ten years, with only about 5,000 of the formerly 17,000 animals remaining, according to the UN.
Cameroon's Western Lowland Gorilla, which is also found in Angola, the Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo, numbers more than 200,000, but they remain under threat.
Villagers hunt them for food, with at least 1 million tons of bush meat extracted each year from the Congo Basin forests, and use the animals in traditional medicine. Logging and slash-and-burn agriculture is gradually but inexorably destroying the gorillas' habitat.
The primates at Cameroon's Mefou sanctuary have been rescued for now, and they seemed to be enjoying their new home. Eventually though, conservationists hope to send them back into the wild, where there are no electric fences.
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