Protecting primates amid war

Andrea Edwards works with primates in the Congo amid its civil war and was in Summerville to speak at the International Primate Protection League's biannual members meeting. On Thursday, she visited the league's Gibbon Sanctuary.

SUMMERVILLE--The gibbons whoop and trill around Andrea Edwards. The azaleas are out. It seems so peaceful.

Only a short time ago, the 28-year-old Australian stood in a tropical forest beneath extinct volcanoes, hearing the crack of gunfire and an occasional blast, trying to safeguard about 100 chimpanzees and monkeys from desperate rebels accustomed to eating bushmeat. All she really had going for her was superstition and the fact that the rebels are leery of the pugnacious chimpanzees.

The Lwiro Primate Sanctuary is one of those make-do animal rescue operations -- not a lot more than concrete floor cages. It operates in a national park in the Congo, where fighting is relentless between the military and secluded rebel strongholds. The sanctuary is too exposed, too undeveloped to attract foundation money, and its primates aren't as endearing as the lowland gorillas who also live in the park.

What it has going for it is people like Shirley McGreal and the International Primate Protection League, headquartered in Summerville.

Edwards arrived here this weekend to speak at the league's biannual members meeting. She will discuss the work the members are helping support. She is one of more than 100 primate conservators from around the world who have quietly converged to network in the countryside to the singsong calls of sanctuary gibbons.

They're here because they need help, Diane Taylor-Snow, league

board member, said. "(Lwiro) is doing incredible work where humans fear to tread."

One irony about primate conservation is that endangered apes often are found in places where their fellow primates, humans, are in peril, too.

The park primates are disappearing to poaching and illegal trade, warfare, human-carried diseases and wide-scale habitat destruction for the mining of coltan, a valuable ore used for computer and mobile phone capacitors. They're a secondary victim of the poverty that keeps the African country unstable.

The sanctuary can't win high-profile foundation contributions because its quality standards aren't good enough; the standards aren't good enough because the managers can't get the money to do the work.

Edwards, the assistant manager, would like to see the cages expanded to native forest and savannah enclosures, allowing the apes to live in tribes they would in the wild and getting them ready to return one day, maybe.

In the meantime, the Lwiro sanctuary, like its apes and the villagers who volunteer there, fight to survive.

"It takes some real guts to support a sanctuary at our level," Edwards said. "Every species plays a role in the ecosystem. You lose one, and you're in trouble."

Lwiro managers aren't sure why they have been pretty much left alone in all the fighting, so far. There's an animal museum across the way, and the rebels are Sengalese, superstitious about dead animals.

The rebels also are afraid of the chimps, who do attack. The sanctuary chimps tend to be orphans whose parents were hunted. They get fierce around uniforms or guns -- letting out angry whoops, puffing their hair out, banging and throwing things around.

Edwards' voice is gentle. Dressed in sandals with toenails painted red, she looks more like a college coed than a jungle veteran. She got into the work while caring for primates at a zoo in Australia.

She decided she wanted to do some real good and took the job in the Congo because that's where the apes are, war or not. She already has been evacuated once.

It's tough not to be a little jealous of the spacious environmental yard enclosures for the gibbons in Summerville, the way they can fling themselves along the swings.

"Better than my bedroom at home," she said. Peppy, one of the gibbons housed at the sanctuary, sucks his thumb and watches from the enclosure. Gibbons are smaller, astonishingly acrobatic, Asian apes, with the signature deeply furrowed face and perusing eyes.

"They're so beautiful," she said. "I love the thumb suckers, even though it's an anthropomorphic thing. They don't have human personalities, but look at that face. How can you say that isn't personality?"

For more information about the International Primate Protection League, go to www.ippl.org.

For more information about the Lwiro primate sanctuary, go to lwiro.blogspot.com.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.