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“Freedom has his freedom” The first gorilla return in Cameroon’s history

It’s World Wildlife Day and we are going APE about our joint conservation success with Ape Action Africa

Our CEO Dr Sharon Redrobe OBE and Head of Life Sciences Dr Matyas Liptovszky have just returned from a successful conservation mission to remember!

In August 2019, a male gorilla fittingly named Freedom had entered a populated area of Cameroon, Africa which wasn’t the safest place for him to live and Ape Action Africa called upon experts here at Twycross Zoo to support them moving him to an area of dense forest, free from poaching, for his own protection.

Travelling over 3,200 miles Sharon and Matyas met with the Ape Action Africa team including Director Rachel Hogan OBE to assist in the country’s first ever gorilla return which proved to be a huge success and an incredible achievement for great ape conservation.

Head of Life Sciences, Dr Matyas Liptovszky kept a diary of his 5-day trip. Read more below:

Our mission began by a 10 hour airplane journey from England to Cameroon via Paris – luckily the French air traffic controller strike didn’t delay us in any way! I arrived late at night in the Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé and then a vehicle transfer took me to Mefou Park – Ape Action Africa’s Headquarters. I received a lovely welcome from the team who were excited and relieved that I had managed to arrive on time!

After resting from the long journey we started planning the move. Sharon visited a month earlier to help the AAA team and Director Rachel Hogan give Freedom the gorilla his pre-return health check and plan his journey to a safe part of forest.

On day 3 it was Freedom’s move day and late afternoon a truck arrived which we planned to use to transport him. We waited until near sunset when we anaesthetised Freedom and moved him into his transportation crate. We were ready to leave Mefou and begin our 6-7 hour journey through the night to the return site.

Instead of 6-7 hours, the drive took 12 hours – much longer than we expected but due to the regular stops to check on Freedom, comfort breaks and the roads being very muddy state, there was no way of it being quicker. We got to the river early morning and we were all amazed how calm Freedom stayed throughout the journey.

There was just the boat trip left to go. We needed to safely cross the river to get to the return site, one of the biggest undisturbed tropical rainforests in Cameroon and a beautiful site.

Once the crate was lifted onto the boat and Freedom was sedated to make sure he wouldn’t rock the boat – literally – and to keep him as calm as possible. The rainy season had just passed so the river was flowing rapidly, but the crossing went very smoothly (if a bit scary).

The return site was about 50m from the riverside we positioned Freedom’s crate to remotely open it. Then the moment came… as the door opened, Freedom bolted out of the cage like a train, fast and noisy, probably never to be seen again.

It lasted just seconds, but very important and emotional seconds, as this was the first ever successful gorilla return in Cameroon’s history. Freedom had his freedom.

The rest of the day was spent with the team transporting the crate back to the truck and after we relaxed on the riverside while taking interviews with local officials. The majority of the team (myself included) returned to the nearest village for an overnight stay while Rachel and a small team remained behind to check that nobody attempted to track Freedom into the forest and, on the following day, to trek the forest surrounding the return spot to ensure that Freedom had left the area.

On day 5 we drove back to Ape Action Africa Headquarter at Mefou Park. In the meantime the truck which was used to transport Freedom had broken down a couple of times – luckily on the way back after Freedom was returned.

All the team at Ape Action Africa were extremely excited and relieved, as our mission was complete. Late that evening Rachel arrived back and confirmed that they never saw Freedom again.

They did see signs of forest elephants, a very encouraging sign that the habitat is in good shape and poaching is not an issue there.

Rachel Hogan OBE, director of Ape Action Africa, commented: “Freedom’s return is the first of its kind in Cameroon and is a great example of a conservation organisation working hand in hand with the government of Cameroon to achieve what we all need to be focusing on – keeping endangered animals in the wild where they rightfully belong.”

Dr Sharon Redrobe OBE, CEO of Twycross Zoo said: “Joining forces with our conservation partner Ape Action Africa to return the first ape of its kind to the wild in Cameroon has been a huge success.

“We’re now in the 6th extinction crisis with great apes expected to be non-existent in the wild within 20 years, our relationship with projects across the world including Ape Action Africa is vital to protect endangered species and shows how zoos, like us at Twycross Zoo and our experts, provide needed support.”

What is Ape Action Africa?

Ape Action Africa is a wildlife conservation organisation founded in 1996 and, from its base in Mefou, Cameroon, provides sanctuary to wild endangered primates orphaned by the illegal bushmeat and pet trades, as well as educating and supporting local Cameroonian people to protect their natural heritage.

As a conservation charity Twycross Zoo works with lots of projects across the world, including Ape Action Africa, to provide support and expertise to protect some of the most endangered species on the world.

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