Jessica Ney is an animal behaviorist. She is in charge of the daily tours at JGI Chimp Eden, as well as administering the volunteer program they run and conducting behavioral research at the sanctuary. She has a BA in animal behavior, ecology and conservation, and a masters in animal sciences. Following her passion for animals to Africa, she took up guiding at Kruger National Park. Despite her academic accomplishments, guiding was a welcome alternative to working in an office in her native Germany. Whilst working at Kruger, Jessica was offered the position she now holds at Chimp Eden.
“When I first came to South Africa, I was not expecting to work with Chimpanzees. They don’t occur here naturally – they are tropical animals, so I never thought I would get the chance… but I love my job. Watching them [the chimps] go through rehabilitation is the highlight for me. When you first see them, they are this beaten little animal that has lost its personality. A few months later, their personality begins to shine through and eventually they behave completely like a normal animal. It’s amazing. It’s hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other job.”
Chimp Eden employs a ‘hands off’ approach to rehabilitation. While Jessica holds a handling permit, the sanctuary tries to keep contact with the animals to a minimum. In the evening when the chimps return from their 17-acre enclosure, she will sometimes stroke them through the bars in the night rooms. This ensures the chimps remain familiar with human contact, easing the administration of medical care. “[Having contact with the chimps] is not in their interest… I think they’re actually much better off grooming, playing and cuddling one another than they are being cuddled by me.”
As the interview progressed and Jessica described the various stories of how the apes came to be at the sanctuary, it became clear that the plight of the chimp is much worse than first observed. It seems that the celebrity status surrounding the chimp is directly responsible for the species’ popularity in illegal trade and capture. All of the animals at Chimp Eden were rescued from a captive scenario, where they were either forced to perform in nightclubs, entertain guests at a restaurant, or in the case of Nikki, kept as humanized pets.
Just like the Handshake, Jessica’s solution to the apes’ dilemma is education. “Education needs to start in all countries of the world. It’s not just the chimp – it’s other great apes and other animals that are endangered for the same reasons. With chimps, the countries of origin need to be targeted. The people there are often very poor and it’s the poacher that must be observed – most likely he will have no form of education, he probably cannot read or write, which instantly rules out the chance of him having the nice life of a lawyer or something like that. In a country like that you have little choice. The illegal animal trade will support his wife and kids at home, and as long as the western world is still buying these products, it will continue. People need to be educated that their new teak table is responsible for destroying the chimp’s habitat. People don’t see the connection – they just like the table. They don’t see that it’s dripping in blood.”
Jessica explained that education needs to start everywhere, simultaneously. Teaching poor children to read and write will elevate them from the necessity of poaching and illegal trade, giving them a chance at a better life and a secure future. At the same time, the west needs to be educated on a completely different level. As long as people are happy to watch chimps be exploited on television, or buy furniture made from the destruction of the chimp’s habitat, the problem will continue. If the demand is stopped, the supply will follow. The blame lies equally in the poacher’s hands for catching the animal and the customers for demanding it.
Together with the educational tours that Jessica conducts, and the Roots and Shoots initiative run by JGI, education is certainly high on the agenda. “I think what you guys [The Great Primate Handshake] are doing is great. It’s exactly what I always talk about which is education. You’re recording different people and educating people, which is the way forward. I think you can get the word out. Plus it’s very commendable that you are run by volunteers. I think that digital media has the power to effect real change in conservation; instead of spreading the word to four people in front of you, you’re spreading the word to millions.”