Summerville-based league helped save primates during Ebola crisis

Palu-Palu the gibbon, watches as Bala Amarasekaran, founder of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, is interviewed Friday at the International Protection League sanctuary in Summerville.

SUMMERVILLE — Ebola killed people within a third of a mile of Bala Amarasekaran’s life’s work — caring for 77 chimpanzees in a sanctuary that is the heart of the imperiled species’ recovery in Sierra Leone.

They were people he knew, and if a single person had shown up at the gates with the virus undiagnosed, if a single chimp had been infected, all of them would have been put down.

The outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in 2014 wreaked deadly havoc in four countries — Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Although it is now considered over, it has killed more than 11,000 people, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

In the midst of the human horror, its impact on wildlife and conservation efforts has been overshadowed. It was widely suspected to have been spread by people eating primate “bush meat.” Animals suspected to be infected were destroyed.

“A human threat has a face. Ebola, you don’t see it until it shows up at your door. We didn’t know who to trust. We didn’t know who to touch. I couldn’t travel to talk. People would have been scared to be in the same room with me,” said the 55-year-old founder of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

The virus appears to have started when a child was infected playing under a bat roost in Sierra Leone, Amarasekaran said.

Amarasekaran was forced to lock down the sanctuary — interrupting the ecotourist and donor support he needed to keep going. The International Primate Protection League came to his aid, contributing and publicizing the plight for other contributions to keep the sanctuary running.

As he spoke at the league’s headquarters Friday, gibbons all around him took up their reverberating, singsong whooping.

The low-key league quietly operating in the countryside out of Summerville is a key player worldwide in the protection of the animals closest to man, working in 31 countries with primate conservationists and sanctuaries such as Amarasekaran’s.

It also keeps what is today 37 rescued and unreleasable gibbons in the sanctuary at its headquarters there. It’s the only sanctuary for the Asian primates in this country, and one of the few in the world. The league holds its annual members meeting at the headquarters this weekend.

Amarasekaran is one of a handful of field expert speakers who will talk about the league’s importance to their operations. Among others are Edwin Wiek of the Wildlife Friends Foundation, who keeps more than 500 primates at sanctuaries in Thailand and Laos, and Angela Maldonado, whose work in Colombia with owl monkeys poached for research labs has led to threats against her life.

The meeting will take place with the whooping sounds of the gibbons, long-armed, gracefully swinging tree acrobats of Asian primates. It is not open to the public, but people interested in becoming members can go to its Facebook page or call 843-871-2280.

As Amarasekaran spoke Friday, he kept a smile and an eye on the fellow primate gibbons scampering the wire runs and leaping rope to rope across their high-ceilinged cages. The Tacugama sanctuary too is the only sanctuary — of any kind — in impoverished Sierra Leone.

An accountant by trade, he was drawn to chimpanzees because of their intelligence, he said, and the frustration that humans, with their intelligence, were decimating them. When he began his recovery and education effort 30 years ago, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 chimps remained. Today there 20,000 to 30,000, he said.

But the chimps there still are threatened, by habitat destruction largely, as well as the pet trades and the consumption of bush meat.

“There is so much human need in our country, it’s hard to raise a dime” for conservation, he said. “You cannot practice conservation when people’s stomachs are empty.”

When he started, there was only one national park and five protected areas in Sierra Leone, he said. Today there are four parks and 16 protected areas. “You need to educate people to believe that wildlife is part of our heritage,” Amarasekaran said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.