Uganda Wildlife Education Center, Entebbe, Uganda
There’s always something endearing about any animal who is the littlest of the pack. Nepa is the youngest chimp on the island. There are babies currently living in the vet clinic, hopefully soon to be integrated into the larger group, but for now, Nepa is the darling of the island. She is usually the chimp playing on the fire hose strung between two trees, and she is almost exclusively the chimp found on the tire swing. She crawls inside and contorts herself into all kinds of yogic and knotted positions.
She is very playful and likes human contact, probably on account of being rescued so young. Many of the other chimps are fairly indifferent to humans, but she seems to actively enjoy us. She captured my heart through her personal interaction with me. When I came to the night enclosure in the mornings when I was the first to arrive, other chimps might amble over after some time, but Nepa always came over immediately and stuck her hand through the caging for me to grab – she’s the only one still little enough to fit her whole hand through up past the wrist. We would shake hands, and she liked to play slapping games, where we would slap each others’ hands. Eventually she would always put her feet up on the caging, so her little pink butt was aimed squarely at me. Well, you just never know about these chimps and their lack of decorum, so I would always back away and tell her to be polite, and she would usually lower herself and keep playing. We often played tug of war with sticks.
She is exceedingly, I daresay worryingly, brave when it comes to the moat around the island. She will go in as far as she possibly can to retrieve food floating on the water. The ground slopes down from the shoreline underneath the water … if she lost hold of that rock, she could slide right in, and chimps don’t swim. I never saw another chimp so bold. Maybe I should buy her a rubber raft to float around the moat in. ha ha.
And of course, getting to spend time with her on the island only strengthened my fondness for her.
Perhaps my most poignant memory of Nepa is a rather melancholy incident. After we threw some clothes to the island for the chimps to play with, she and Onapa were the first to claim these items. She has having a lot of fun, trying to fit a shirt over her head and waving it around in the air. Sarah came over to investigate after a time, and ended up grabbing the shirt away from Nepa. She ran up a tree and Nepa chased her. They had a tussle up in the branches and Sarah eventually ran through the tree tops and disappeared into the bushes, victorious. Little Nepa didn’t give further chase. She sat in the tree and cried. Just like when I tickled her and she laughed like a little girl, now she sat in the tree and cried; the only toy she’d ever been given was stripped away from her. She was distraught. I’ll never forget the sound of her forlorn cries in the tree top.