“I picked her up, and she just put her arms around me.”
The moment John Grobler laid his eyes on the malnourished chimpanzee tethered between two trees, he knew he had to help her.
Grobler, a Namibian journalist, was visiting Angola for work when he wandered past Granja-por-de-Sol, a private park on the southern outskirts of Huambo. And that's where he first saw Leila, a 4-and-a-half-year-old chimpanzee.
“I immediately saw this young chimpanzee who was chained between two trees, and right next to the entrance, in what looked to be very poor condition,” Grobler told The Dodo. “Nobody was really taking care of her.”
Grobler started questioning locals about Leila, and he learned that someone had sold Leila to the owner of the park when she was just a baby, presumably after killing Leila’s mother for bushmeat.
They told Grobler that Leila was initially kept inside a cage, but she apparently destroyed the cage and so was moved to the chain.
The chain, however, wasn’t much better. Leila was in direct sunlight, and she had no real shelter — though in some photos her chain appears long enough for her to crawl under a nearby wooden table. She’d made a little bed for herself in the shallow hollow of one of the trees, and she had a fabric that she sometimes laid on top of her head, according to Grobler. But life was extremely hard for the young chimpanzee.
To survive, Leila begged for food from people visiting the park. Unfortunately, the nearby food stands only sold unhealthy things like fried chicken and pasta and fries, as well as beer and whiskey, so that’s what Leila had lived on for years. To stay hydrated, Leila had become accustomed to drinking her own urine, Grobler said.
While Grobler observed that people in the area appeared to be generally kind to her, he also found a scar across her head, which told a different story.
“She was obviously massively underfed and in bad condition, and she’d been hit over the head with a machete at some point,” Grobler said.
Grobler wasn’t planning on staying in that part of Angola for long, but he knew he couldn’t leave without rescuing Leila from her situation — no matter how inconvenient or expensive it was.
“I come from a line of people who love animals, so I saw this chimpanzee, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something about this, and I can’t leave this just be,’” Grobler said.
Unfortunately, rescuing Leila was anything but straightforward. It’s technically against the law to keep a chimp as a pet in Angola, but there’s a lot of corruption in the country, and Grobler suspected that he’d have to convince the right people to be able to take her away. But Grobler was determined to help Leila.
First, he got in touch with Dalene Dreyer, a Namibian woman who was raising another orphaned chimpanzee named George. When Grobler asked if she’d take Leila until he figured out the next step, she agreed.
But then things got more complicated. Grobler had to get a confiscation permit to take Leila away, and get Leila a passport and updated rabies vaccination. He also had to organize a driver and hire a carpenter to create a transport cage for Leila. Thankfully, he got help from the Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation, which helped Grobler raise the necessary funds, and made Leila’s rescue a reality.
While waiting to drive Leila to safety, Grobler brought her water and nutritious foods like coconuts. Interestingly, Leila was suspicious of anything she didn’t see Grobler eat first, which suggested that people might have tried to poison or trick her in the past.
“She would not eat, for example, a cracker without me eating it first in front of her,” Grobler said.
Finally, a few weeks ago, the day came for Grobler to free Leila from her chains and drive her to a new life. He’d sedated Leila to keep her calm, and she ended up being a patient passenger for the long drive.
Now Leila is at Dreyer’s home in Luanda, Angola, and she’s settling in well, Grobler said. Leila may spend at least the next year in Namibia, but Grobler is planning for her to move to Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia. Then hopefully, within one or two years, she’ll be released back into the wild. Despite her unusual upbringing, Grobler believes that Leila will be able to easily adjust to life in the wild.
“I think she will make it,” Grobler said. “She’s a very bright one.”
But when it was time for Grobler to go back to his own home in another part of Namibia, it was difficult for him to say goodbye to Leila — and Grobler believes that Leila knew that he was leaving.
“I picked her up, and she just put her arms around me,” Grobler said. “She could see the bags, so I think she understood.”
Grobler said he can’t wait to visit her again — he promised her that he would.