Q&A with the Director of JGI Congo, Tchimpounga Sanctuary

Written By: Rebeca Atencia, Director of JGI Congo
Category: From The Field

How and when did you become interested in chimpanzees?

I became interested in chimpanzees when I was eight years old. One day I saw a documentary on television about chimpanzees that touched me deeply. Over the next few years, I watched more documentaries and I knew who Jane Goodall was. All that was fascinating to me, and I knew I wanted to work with chimpanzees one day. My childhood dream has been fulfilled.

Chimpanzee hugging Rebeca Atencia

What is your typical day like?

Every day is different. One day I will be transferring a chimpanzee to the islands, on another day I will be taking care of a baby chimpanzee suffering from fever, and on the following day I’ll be meeting with the Minister of Congo.  Recently, I checked on the progress at Conkouati National Park where we are planning to release of a large group of Tchimpounga chimpanzees. There are no typical days here, it’s impossible.

Photo of Rebeca and chimpanzee

How many people do you work with?

We have a big staff. There are caregivers, a veterinary team, a logistics team, administrative personnel, rangers, maintenance people and an education team. In total we have 135 employees.

Staff at Tchimpounga waving

Do you think people in the community have become better informed about endangered animals and chimpanzees in particular over the years because of Tchimpounga?

We have invested a lot of energy, money and time working on education projects around the country. We have put up more than 70 billboards in the region. We aired documentaries and an educational series on different local television channels. We also launched awareness campaigns working with local law enforcement and government officials. We’ve been doing all this for the last 12 years and are seeing changes and improvements. We have effectively stopped the arrival of orphan chimpanzees to Tchimpounga. We’ve received only one orphan chimp over the past three years. This is a great achievement that shows us that our efforts are working well.

How does Tchimpounga help fight wildlife trafficking?

Today Congolese officials have a place where they can take confiscated chimpanzees. This allows them to continue their work. Without a sanctuary you can’t confiscate animals as you have nowhere to take them. And we established the Tchimpounga reserve. In the reserve, there are different communities of wild chimpanzees which are protected by JGI rangers.

Chimpanzees in a truck going to forest school

What is your favourite part of your job?

My favourite part is when I’m working directly with chimpanzees, taking care of them. Saving the life of a chimpanzee is very gratifying. Chimpanzees know when you’ve helped them or saved their life. Sometimes they thank you with a hug. Tens of thousands of people watched the video of us releasing chimpanzee Wounda onto Tchindzoulou island. Before embracing Jane, Wounda approached me making a gesture of gratitude. She knew that I saved her life and she wanted to thank me. For me, these moments are unforgettable.

Chimpanzee named Wounda hugs Rebeca
What is the best part of working with chimpanzees?

Chimpanzees are the animal that is most similar to a human. When I look into their eyes, I know how that chimp is feeling. Some of them are my friends. I have spent so much time and have had so many adventures with them over the years that we have made very strong and emotional ties. They need me, and I think I can help them get a better life after so much suffering.

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Photo Credits: Fernando Turmo/JGI U.S.