“Without Jane, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Not only was she the inspiration, but also the conduit of my success.

Each morning, Izzy Hirji looks out on an expanse of greenery dappled in sunlight. Butterflies float on a warm breeze and just beyond the rolling hills is a family of chimpanzees that he has grown to love.

In Sierra Leone, Izzy is living his childhood dream—he is the resident veterinarian at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.  

Izzy has loved animals and cared deeply for the environment since he was a boy. But the day he met Jane Goodall while on tour in Toronto was when he knew he was destined to follow in the great primatologist’s footsteps. “It was a chance to meet someone I absolutely revered and it forever changed my life.”

For Izzy, this moment marked the beginning of a journey of a lifetime. 

Izzy went on to found a Roots & Shoots group at the University of Guelph where he was studying zoology and ended up on JGI’s National Youth Leadership Council. Throughout vet school, he travelled to Cameroon, Indonesia and North America as a JGI Canada volunteer, working in sanctuaries and in the wild.

Encouraged by the world of Roots & Shoots, Izzy began to see the solutions to problems affecting the natural world as interconnected. “People, animals and the environment. Knowledge, compassion and action. Every individual, no matter how small, makes a difference.”

Supported by friends and connections he made through Roots & Shoots, Izzy started working at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Ontario. Seven years later, he was invited to journey in another direction—all the way to Africa—to work with chimpanzees in Sierra Leone.

“It’s better than I ever could have dreamed,” smiles Izzy, describing his new life in the jungle. But with 77 chimpanzees and staff under his care, the young veterinarian has his hands full and has faced his share of challenges.

On top of bucket showers, erratic Internet service and a diet largely consisting cassava leaf soup, Izzy grapples with the country’s lack of accessible veterinary medicine, equipment and supplies. But seeing chimpanzees like little Pieh grow healthy and strong makes it all worth it.

“Pieh had a bacterial infection and was touch-and-go for a while,” shares Izzy. “It is amazing to see her out in her enclosure and back to good spirits. We have a special bond thanks to all the time we spent together.”

For Izzy, it’s an honour just to be in the presence of the chimpanzees, to look into their thoughtful eyes and know that he’s making a difference for them.

It’s been many years since Izzy met Jane and embarked on his journey, but his passion for building a sustainable, harmonious world is as strong as ever. During the most challenging days in Sierra Leone, he remembers Jane and her message of hope for all living things.

“Without Jane, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Not only was she the inspiration, but also the conduit of my success.”

Photo credits: Izzy Hirji except for Izzy with Dr. Goodall by Ophir Sarusi

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