On Sunday, we made an amazing visit to a place called “Monkey Island.” It is about a 1.5 hour drive outside of Monrovia, past the Roberts International Airport, and then down a dirt road to the waterfront. Along the dirt road, you pass the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research (yes, such a thing exists, and yes it does look like a great setting for a horror film!).
People call it “Monkey Island,” but actually there are six islands, and they don’t have monkeys on them, but rather chimpanzees. They are not wild chimps, but chimps that were previously used for hepatitis studies and vaccine tests, and then released into the “wild” as their “retirement.”
We visited three of the islands via motor boat, hitching a ride with the men whose job it is to feed the chimps every day. They rotate between three islands on one day and three on the next, so all the chimps are fed every other day. The journey starts at a dock at the end of a dirt road, where the men load a large quantity of food from the back of a truck into the boat – mostly fruit (papayas, pineapples, mangoes, bananas, and oranges), but also coconuts, sugar cane, and cornbread (which is apparently baked just for the chimps). And for drinks, some barrels of water and a jug of milk!
The food is paid for by the New York Blood Center, the same organization that established the laboratory in 1974, which was later forced to shut down due to the civil war. The chimps have to be fed regularly because there is simply not enough food on the islands to support them (in the wild, chimps move from place to place in search of food, sleeping in a different locations each night).
Observing the chimps was an exceptional experience, and unlike anything you could get anywhere else in the world, as the observation is surely too close to be safe – the boat pulls right up to the shore, and the chimps come running to collect their food. The men actually get out of the boat, and wade to shore to hand them their food (even individually feeding them milk out of a plastic cup).
A friend of mine who did the trip last year said that one of the chimps jumped on the boat and grabbed him. Fortunately, on this occasion the alpha male settled for merely throwing a rock at us.