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 central Kenya, was delighted to find the 5-year-old 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.”
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 from Sherwood Park, Alta. with unwavering conviction.
Spencer Sekyer bonded with Manno during a visit to Erbil in 2013, where he came to believe the infant ape was purchased through the black market.
Although Manno was well cared for at the time, Sekyer worried that as he grew older and more aggressive, he would have to be locked away in his small cage or even euthanized.
Dreaming of giving his friend a better life in his natural habitat, 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, the chimp was freed less than an hour north.
Sekyer was reunited with Manno and they traveled to Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
One year later, Manno’s grooved face appears more content. There’s a new glint in his soulful, amber eyes as protruding ears take in the tweets, hums and calls of the vast 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.”
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 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.”
As a young, male chimpanzee, there’s 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
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.”
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.
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.
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 something.”