For most, Dr. Jane Goodall needs no introduction, for those not familiar with her work she is a primatologist, anthropologist, philanthropist, a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and self-proclaimed activist most known for her work in protecting the critically endangered chimpanzee.
In February 2019, I had the honor to travel to Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa, to film and interview the living legend that is Jane — something I’ve dreamt of, but never thought possible, since I was a little girl growing up in the Midwest of the United States.
In 1988, Bala Amarasekaran, was driving through a remote village one day with his wife and he found himself face to face with a baby chimpanzee tied to a tree. He couldn’t leave knowing that the animal would be sold or eaten as bush meat, little did he know that rescuing “Bruno” was the start of Bala’s passion and purpose intersecting. Over the next couple years, Bala investigated the number of other chimpanzees kept in captivity in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. In 1993, Bala rescued yet another chimpanzee, “Julie”. Before long, Julie and Bruno became fast friends, and more difficult to care for safely in Bala’s backyard.
Bala sought the advice of Dr. Jane Goodall to seek refuge for the two chimpanzees. Jane, made arrangements for the animals to be relocated to the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Zambia, but suggested to Bala that Sierra Leone with second largest Western chimpanzee populations in the world, needed a safe solution.
One day as Bala was driving through Freetown, he witnessed two other chimpanzees for sale. He knew then that the solution needed to come from within to protect these great apes who are genetically closest to humans – sharing 98.6% of our DNA.
Twenty seven years later, Jane returned to Sierra Leone to see what Bala built. A true sanctuary that is now home to almost 100 rescued chimpanzees. To watch two people who have dedicated their lives to something so much bigger than themselves, reunite in celebration was truly humbling. Witnessing Bala excitedly greet Jane and weave her through the jungle, to meet his team, pointing excitedly as he neared the chimpanzee sanctuary and the sense of pride that crept across Bala’s face as they approached the orphaned baby chimpanzees would melt even a critic’s heart. Jane looked on calmly, graciously and then she smiled. She spotted one curious baby chimpanzee and Jane knelt down. The baby slowly approached her. The chimp whisperer gently held out her arm as the animal reached for her, as they touched, Jane encouraged, “So brave, so brave.”
Jane’s great return to the country, one that has survived all odds — an eleven year long civil war, Ebola and even mudslides a result of logging which killed hundreds and left thousands more homeless — marked a positive turn for this West African nation. The country is ready for and dedicated to sustainable tourism development under the new leadership of President Julius Maada Bio.
The Ministers of Agriculture & Forestry and Tourism, realizing the delicate balance between wildlife, their natural habitats and the surrounding communities, have worked together to name the critically endangered Western chimpanzee the national animal of the country, as well as supporting the surrounding communities through sustainable job development and anti-logging practices in their forests and jungles. To better understand the human wildlife conflict and the importance of protecting wildlife, one need look no further than Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary — a local conservation success story. Bala attributes much of the success of Tacugama as a result of engaging his community through education initiatives and even hiring former poachers to protect the local wildlife living in the sanctuary. Travelers can now visit Tacugama to witness firsthand the important conservation work with chimpanzees, take hikes out in the sanctuary to check out the local birdlife and many yoga and meditation retreats that take place in the rustic eco-lodge set deep within the jungle.
On the last day of our shoot, the 84 year old Jane Goodall marched alongside 300 singing school children to the British Embassy to launch Sierra Leone’s first chapter of Roots & Shoots — a youth-led global community action program, aimed to inform, educate and empower young citizens to make a difference on an individual level.
The government is smartly looking to Rwanda as a recent success story to model their sustainable tourism development plans after. Protecting chimpanzees and launching Roots & Shoots were not the only exciting developments made during our trip. Vice President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh announced that Sierra Leone would now be issuing electronic visas on arrival and on March 12, 2019 the World Bank announced a $325 million USD funding package for Sierra Leone – with special focuses on women and children, people with disabilities, sustainable tourism and micro-financing for small businesses.
While you might not meet Jane during your visit to Sierra Leone, you will no doubt feel the hope for the future that she has helped instill in the resilient people of the country. There are some inspiring local people that you should meet while in Salone. Nothing says African design like color and there is no better ambassador for Western African fashion than designer Madam Wokie and her colorful handmade designs. Journey on by boat only, to the historic Banana Island to glamp at the eco-chic Bafa Resort with Wassim & his wife Sam. Meet Morris, part of the diaspora who returned home to fight Ebola, set up a tech hub to empower young entrepreneurs and is about to open two eco-resorts with coffee, cacao, mountain biking and access to some of the country’s prettiest remote beaches. If you are lucky Chef Susan Senesie will invite you to her home to taste the traditional food and craft cocktails of Sierra Leone. Getting around can be trickier than other African destinations as the country builds out its infrastructure. For one of the most touching personal stories and unlimited historical knowledge on the whole of Sierra Leone, use Peter Momoh Bassie as your local guide, and let adventure tour operator James Torvaney of Xtreme Africa plan your immersive journey for you. In Freetown, stay at the hidden gem that is Toma, a unique fusion of African antiquities with contemporary design and the best nightlife in the city.
To quote Jane, “When the head and heart work in harmony, is the only time we work towards our full potential.” It’s all inter-related: our environment +wildlife + our people, and there is no better place to watch this equation coming sustainably to life than in Sierra Leone ♻️ 🌍 💧.