Dr. Rebeca Atencia: A true chimp champion

Written By: Rebecca Dean, JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: From The Field

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Her mother killed by poachers, a small chimp named Anzac arrived at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center frightened and terribly injured having lost most of one arm.  Luckily for the scared chimp, Dr. Rebeca Atencia was there to help, taking care of the chimpanzee’s wounds and even teaching her how to climb trees despite having lost a limb. The chimpanzee in this image lives at the JGI sanctuary. We do not endorse the handling of wild chimpanzees.

As the  Executive Director of the Jane Goodall Institute in the Republic of Congo and head veterinarian at the Tchimpounga sanctuary,  Rebeca — who was recently awarded her PhD having successfully defended her thesis in chimpanzee physiology — is nothing short of a hero to more than 150 rescued chimps.

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Dr. Rebeca Atencia sits beside a rescued chimpanzee

Rebeca, whose partner Fernando and their two children Carel and Kutu also live at the sanctuary, has dedicated her life to rehabilitating chimpanzees, often orphaned because of illegal hunting. Typically, the chimps are terrified, malnourished and depressed when they first arrive. Rebeca assigns each chimp to an experienced caregiver who acts very much like a surrogate mother, providing the little chimps with the love and care they need to regain a sense of security, confidence and zest for life.

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Caregivers at the Tchimpounga sanctuary often establish lifelong bonds with chimpanzees

Often, the first step for Rebeca is gaining the chimpanzee’s trust. Once that bond is established, it can last a lifetime.

On one occasion, for instance, Rebeca was conducting field research when she came across a group of chimpanzees.  The alpha male began to show signs of aggression towards her, and it was clear to Rebeca that she was in danger. Suddenly, Kutu, a chimpanzee Rebeca had cared for in the past, emerged from the bush and stood by her side, effectively protecting Rebeca from the alpha male — an encounter that also demonstrates that chimpanzees have long memories, are very intelligent, and have a great capacity for empathy.

Want to help chimps? Find out more about how you can support Rebeca and the Tchimpounga team by becoming a chimp guardian.

I want to be a chimp guardian
All photo credits: JGI U.S./Fernando Turmo