HSVMA Member Helps at African Wildlife Sanctuary

September 1, 2009

By Gwendy Reyes-Illg, DVM

Five-year-old Tinto Eve has a respiratory infection. Even this young, a chimpanzee like Tinto is strong—again and again, she escapes the stethoscope.

During the rainy season in western Cameroon, a "little cold" can quickly become pneumonia and monitoring is critical. But in order for me to listen to her chest, Tinto has to stop wriggling.

Finally, I figure out that Tinto will let me do anything—as long as she is busy carefully unlacing my shoes.

A True Sanctuary

Limbe Wildlife Center sign
The sign welcoming visitors to the Limbe Wildlife Center.
Dr. Gwendy Reyes-Illg

I first went to Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon last summer, the day after graduating from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. Limbe is home to hundreds of primates—chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, mandrills, guenons—all confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.

In contrast to the many dreary roadside zoos in Africa, Limbe is a true sanctuary—the animals are rescued and live in spacious enclosures; only highly endangered drills are permitted to breed; many animals are returned to the wild; and conservation education is central.

Limbe is a project of Pandrillus USA, a nonprofit organization that works in conjunction with the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife in Cameroon.

The primates arriving at Limbe are often sick or injured infants. Like Tinto Eve, most are orphans of the bushmeat trade, the top threat driving African primate species to extinction.

The illegal meat of endangered primates, considered by some a delicacy or status symbol, is often smuggled to faraway cities. Infants fetch a higher price sold illegally as pets or tourist attractions. By providing a sanctuary for confiscated wildlife, Limbe encourages officials to enforce wildlife protection laws.

Fulfilling a Dream

It has long been a dream of mine to be a veterinarian in a primate sanctuary. I was fascinated with primates as a child.

In high school, I remember watching a documentary about Jane Goodall that changed my life, filling me with an unshakable certainty that caring and advocating for chimpanzees was going to be a central part of my life.

Limbe Wildlife Center's Gorilla enclosure
The gorilla enclosure at Limbe Wildlife Center.
Dr. Gwendy Reyes-Illg

During college and veterinary school, I volunteered at two ape sanctuaries: The Center for Great Apes in Florida, which cares for chimpanzees and orangutans rescued from the entertainment and pet industries, and Louisiana's Chimp Haven, set up by congressional mandate, which cares for chimpanzees retired from biomedical research.

Several years ago, I became a supporter of the Great Ape Project. Both an international movement and a book, the Great Ape Project promotes extending certain basic legal rights—such as freedom from torture—to chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.

For me, getting illegally-held primates into sanctuaries or back to the wild, is realizing the vision of the Great Ape Project.

Lessons Learned

Volunteering at Limbe has been a lesson in self-reliance. Overnight, I went from a well-equipped Veterinary Teaching Hospital—complete with specialists, advanced diagnostic equipment, and extensive libraries—to a single-room veterinary clinic with unreliable electricity and water.

Dr. Reyes-Illig monitoring anesthesia
Dr. Gwendy Reyes-Illg monitors anesthesia during exploratory surgery on a gorilla at the Limbe Wildlife Center.
Simone de Vries/Limbe Wildlife Center

I even had to negotiate with the cook for "stove time" to boil water for sterilizing the surgical instruments.

In the beginning, the Limbe sanctuary vet clinic was literally a small dark closet. By the time I arrived, it had grown and included an in-house laboratory, a pharmacy, an operating table, and an area for quarantined animals.

In my time as a volunteer, I've learned the challenges of working with limited medications, supplies and tests on hand—not to mention treating species whose medical conditions are not well studied.

Looking Ahead

Upon return to the states, I found a job at a practice willing to give me two months off each year to do volunteer work. In a few months, I will be returning to Limbe and am now busy trying to collect veterinary supplies to stock the clinic when I get there.

Sanctuary work—and veterinary work in general—gives veterinarians the opportunity to know and understand the individual animals they care for.

When that little chimpanzee starts eating and playing again, I can see the difference I'm making—and that is what gives me the energy to keep going.

Dr. Reyes-Illg is a 2008 graduate of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and is currently in private practice in Pittsburg, PA.