“A chimpanzee saved my life”

Interview with Rebeca Atencia, a veterinarian protecting chimpanzees in Africa with the Jane Goodall Institute

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Rebeca Atencia in a jungle river with Koungoulou, a chimpanzee leaning on a tree.
Rebeca Atencia with Koungoulou - Photo by Fernando Turmo

The veterinarian Rebeca Atencia, born in Galicia (Spain), has focused on the protection of chimpanzees in the Congo since 2004. Currently, this is where she is now the executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute (a non-profit organization in which she has been working for 16 years) and the director of the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center. She has received the 2019-2020 National Award from the Spanish Geographic Society and was nominated for Newsweek’s 20 Women of the Future to be a trailblazer for the next generation. For her, being with a chimpanzee is like being with a human, and she has dedicated nearly her whole life trying to rehabilitate the species and conserve their habitat.

Question: Did you always want to be a veterinarian?

Answer: When I was eight or nine, I told myself “I want to spend the rest of my life with animals.” I also thought that being a veterinarian would let me help them when they were ill. My reference point is a ranger who saved many animals after a fire near my home. When you are that young and see something like that, it leaves a mark on you.

Q: In 2004, you went to Africa to reintroduce chimpanzees.

A: One thing I knew for sure was I wanted to protect wild animals. During my first year in my veterinary studies, I took part in some Africa-related projects and with wild animals, as well as being in a zoo in Madrid doing practice. I wanted to train in all fields that could open doors for me, so that when opportunity knocked, I would have knowledge. For me, life is like a game of chess: when you play, you leave some moves open so, if there is an opportunity, you move.

Q: And opportunity did knock!

A: I was looking for a project involved with the reintroduction of chimpanzees and the only one in the world was Help Congo. It was just a matter of contacting the Spanish veterinarian Carmen Vidal and saving up money to be able to go to Africa to see her. Since I had already had experience with chimpanzees in captivity and with wild animals, they offered me to work for them for the whole year directing the rehabilitation center. Let’s say that it is good to be lucky, but luck does not just suddenly appear, luck is made.

Lib, a young chimpanzee, carried on Luci’s shoulders.
Lib carried on Luci’s shoulders - Photo by Fernando Turmo

Q: How did you make the leap to the Jane Goodall Institute? 

A: When I went to work at Help Congo, I brought my microscope with me, the first thing I bought when I started earning a bit of money, and upon my arrival at the airport, they stopped the luggage because it seemed like an odd thing for me to pack. The director at that time asked me “but, why did you bring that? We already have some!” In the end, we were allowed to take it out of the airport which later allowed us to diagnose so many things, since the ones they had were either damaged or poor in quality. This was what gave me more credibility. Then, it was the director herself who recommended me when the Jane Goodall Institute was looking for alternatives for the Tchimpounga Center.

Q: How did your first meeting with Jane go?

A: The first time I saw her, I was in the Triangle, a part of the jungle of the Conkouati-Douli National Park where we were working with Help Congo, and she came to see a reintroduction project. Jane was not used to working with reintroduced chimpanzees, and when she wanted to go to the bathroom, she asked me:  “What do I do if I come across a chimpanzee?” And I thought: “Jane Goodall is asking me what to do if she comes across a chimpanzee!” Afterwards, Jane told me that it surprised her to see me leading a team of Congolese, who were all so strong and dressed in military gear.

The chimpanzee Mpili Nitu in a tree staring into the camera.
Mpili Nitu in a tree - Photo by Fernando Turmo

Q: Does working for Jane Goodall change your day-to-day much?

A: Yes, because at that moment I was following chimpanzees halfway into the jungle. I followed them face to face. I learned botany to make sure I knew what they were eating, I learned their language or even things that seem basic like using a compass to guide me. They accepted me in the group which was all so intense and beautiful. You are overcome by a strong love for the earth, and for nature, and you feel part of it. Yet, you also realize that you are very fragile which is hard because you are in a group of people and sometimes there is a shortage of things, and you have to fight for basic needs like water, fire and food. When I went on to work for Jane Goodall, she had a rehabilitation center where the chimpanzees were in fenced-in areas of jungle, more similar to a safari in Europe or a large zoo. There I learned a lot about construction to create better facilities. I felt more comfortable because it was more similar to what I had done before going to Africa.

“The chimpanzees arrive with a strong psychological trauma because they lost their families”

Q: What is the rehabilitation and reintegration of these primates like?

A: They arrive with a strong psychological trauma because they lost their families and have been witness to violence. They have such severe trauma that you can give them all the medicine you want. If there is no love or affection, they die because they have lost their comfort zone. One must bear in mind that a chimpanzee is like a human being, they take many years to become an adult, and they have to learn to move, to detect a snake, to eat… Afterwards, we looked for large facilities in the jungle where they can be with other chimpanzees. Our idea with the group that we are working with currently is for the whole group to be fully reintroduced and that they can protect each other.

Rebeca Atencia while getting an affectionate hug from Zanaga.
Rebeca Atencia gets a hug from Zanaga - Photo by Fernando Turmo

Q: How do they resemble human beings the most?

A: They have very similar behavior and they have the same needs as we do. Human beings are very social and they need a healthy social life to be happy, so do chimpanzees. We carry out personality tests on them and psychological studies to find out if they are happy and what they want.

Q: And what do chimpanzees want?

A: One thing I have learned in Congo is that every individual is different and the jungle is not for everyone. When I arrived, the jungle meant freedom to me, but later I realized that it is not the paradise we imagine it to be, it is very dangerous. There are wild chimpanzees, elephants, gorillas, crocodiles, snakes, and the food you need to find… There are chimpanzees that prefer to be in smaller groups, in a 30-hectare facility where they get fed every day, others prefer to be on an island… They each make their own choice as regards their comfort zone.

“Being with a chimpanzee is like being with a human being. The only difference is that they do not talk like human beings”

Q: How much DNA do we share with them?

A: Nearly 99%. My personal experience is that being with a chimpanzee is like being with a human being. The only difference is that they do not talk like human beings.

Q: What is their language like?

A: It is gestural, with facial gestures, movements with the hand and the body. They do not vocalize like us. And we are able to speak about the past and things that do not exist, while they communicate about things in the present. They warn you when there is a snake: “uh oh” and with a look. However, they do not usually communicate with human beings. With me they do, because I am in the middle of the jungle with them, they have known me since they were little and they know that if they make a gesture, I will respond to them, I copy them.

Q: Can you express messages that they understand?

A: Of course, very basic concepts like “there is food here” or a danger, “come with me” or “sorry.” Reconciling is of absolute importance, because sometimes, as a veterinarian, I have to anesthetize them, and to do so, I have to give them a prick and they get angry. So, I apologize to them and they forgive me. If I do not say I am sorry, they could hurt me later on.

“I could not imagine a chimpanzee confronting one of his own to defend me. He saved my life”

Q: Your bond with them is so strong that one of your children is named Kutu in honor of a chimpanzee.

A: It is a circumstance I thought I would not survive, that I was going to die alone in the middle of the jungle, with a group of chimpanzees attacking me, Kutu defended me. And this was something that really made an impact on me, I could not imagine a chimpanzee confronting one of his own to defend me. He saved my life.

In the foreground, Wounda and Kiminu, two chimpanzees that are sitting on the jungle floor. In the background is Hope with Chris, the caregiver who collects data on the chimpanzees’ behavior.
Wounda and Kiminu sitting on the jungle floor - Photo by Fernando Turmo

Q: What have you learned from them after all these years?

A: The chimpanzees and Africa have taught me to be hopeful, to fight to have hope, and that it can get better. This is because I have seen chimpanzees that you would touch with your hands and there were skin and bones and they seemed they were going to pass away and now they are part of a group of over twenty chimpanzees and they are dominant. Furthermore, I have seen how the situation in the Congo has changed.

Q: Has the situation improved?

A: In Congo specifically, yes. We use the triangular strategy: education, upholding the law and care for rescued animals. And if you see the graphics on how illegal trafficking of the species has gone down… We even hired some poachers to become caregivers. The effort made by the whole team has made a difference. Since I have been here so long, I have been able to see the change, the decrease in chimpanzees that end up at our sanctuary, since they do not sell chimpanzees like they used to… That is when you say that it is incredible. Good planning and making an effort, not giving up on your ideas and transmitting your passion, one can achieve things.

Rebeca Atencia is already working on her plans for the future: share the three-pillar strategy with other countries and help them carry it out so that, through education and respect for the law and care for animals, not only can you manage to improve the conditions for the chimpanzees, but also for the whole planet.