Sierra Leone Chimpanzee Keeper Earns Disney Conservation Hero Award

28 May 2009 Science News

Willie Tucker, a veteran chimpanzee keeper whose calm and commitment have helped steer the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone through more than a decade of civil war and crisis, has been named a Disney Conservation Hero for 2009.


Tucker becomes the third consecutive Disney Conservation Hero from a Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) member sanctuary, joining Cameroon's Jonathan Kang (Limbe Wildlife Centre, 2007) and Uganda's Stany Nyandwi (Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, 2008).


The Disney Conservation Hero program was designed to honor local people who make significant contributions to conservation in their communities. Tucker will receive a plaque and a $1,000 cash prize at a ceremony in Sierra Leone later this year.


"PASA is extremely proud of Willie Tucker and the valuable work he is doing at Tacugama," said Doug Cress, executive director of PASA. "We all know that Sierra Leone has been through turbulent times, and Tacugama suffered like many institutions. At times, the sanctuary was a battleground. But Willie's dedication to his work and to the chimpanzees under those conditions is exemplary."


Tacugama, which was founded in 1995, is a charter member of PASA and currently cares for over 90 orphaned chimpanzees.


During the nine-year civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone in the 1990s, Tucker visited the sanctuary regularly to ensure the chimpanzees were properly fed and cared for. And when the fighting reached its peak around the sanctuary - conflict so fierce that the sanctuary became a no-man's land that left bullet holes still visible in the sanctuary walls today - Tucker was among those who braved the gunfire to check on the chimpanzees, skirting rebel roadblocks by passing through the forests to deliver food for the chimpanzees.


A graduate of the College of Wildlife Management Mweka in Tanzania, Tucker is a native Sierra Leonean who spent several years working as a wildlife conservation officer in his homeland's national parks in the mid-1990s. Tucker was appointed by the Sierra Leone government to help shepherd the Tacugama project into existence. Although he had no formal training in great ape care, Tucker was a quick study, and soon became indispensable to Tacugama's day-to-day operations. He helped establish veterinary healthcare protocols, worked to sensitize local villages and towns, and served as a liason between the sanctuary and the law enforcement officials now emboldened to crack down on the chimpanzee smuggling that was rife in the region.


When 31 chimpanzees escaped from the Tacugama early on the morning of April 23, 2006, it marked one of the darkest days in the sanctuary's history. A local taxi cab driver was killed during the escape, three tourists were injured, and there were fears that Tacugama - which had otherwise been a model member of PASA - would be forced to close or relocate.


But once Tucker reached Tacugama, the situation began to improve dramatically. With sanctuary founder Bala Amarasekaran away in London and head veterinarian Dr. Rosa Garriga en route back from a conference in The Netherlands, it was left to Tucker to help assess the situation, calm the staff and local citizens, pacify the media, reign in the police and military forces that descended upon the site, and figure out a way to get back to work with 31 terrified and angry chimpanzees loose in the nearby forests.


Working with a team of Tacugama keepers, armed guards and later Amarasekaran himself, Tucker then began meticulously combing the hills of the Western Forest Reserve above Freetown, searching for each of the 31 escaped chimpanzees. One by one, the trackers uncovered chimpanzees, some within a few hundred yards of the sanctuary, others many kilometers away. Tucker and the staff fanned out over hundreds of square kilometers over the next eight months, chasing down reports from the local citizens and rallying support, but sometimes going days and weeks without a chimpanzee sighting.


By December, 2006, Tucker and his co-workers had returned 27 of the escaped chimpanzees to Tacugama. None required violence or gunfire to recover, and many happily accepted a fruit drink laced with sedatives from Tucker before lapsing into sleep and being carried back home. More important, no further reports of chimpanzee attacks or violence against local citizens were reported during the recovery.


PASA was formed in 2000 to unite the rehabilitation centers across Africa that care for orphaned chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, drills and literally thousands of other endangered primates. For more information, please visit or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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