Liberia, a remote west African country, has a secret placed called Monkey Island. Too dangerous for people to set foot on, it is fiercely protected by dozens of infected chimpanzees released from a controversial US virus testing laboratory. It’s a story that seems straight out of a movie, so I decided to search for this place and see if any was real. What I eventually found was spectacular.
The rumours about the chimpanzees are mind-blowing. First of all the chimps are claimed to have survived decades of abuse, involving deliberate exposure to invasive hepatitis B, river blindness and blood cleansing experiments. They were captured from the wild back in the 1970s in a shady deal with local poachers, who sold the baby chimps to the American research facility.
Liberia itself has its own tragic story. It’s a country ravaged by two brutal civil wars (leaving 250.000 people dead) and was isolated from the outside world during the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15.
Against all odds some lab chimps survived these tough periods and are now enjoying a peaceful retirement on an abandoned island in the Liberian jungle. Now that’s one hell of a story worth chasing.
But to reach Monkey Island I first had to get to Liberia itself, which actually turned out the hardest part. Most people still try to avoid the country, and relatively little is known about the situation in Liberia these days.
I was determined to visit though and applied for the Liberian visa in Cote d’Ivoire. I then crossed into Liberia through a remote border post in the steaming hot jungle. It took another two days to travel to the capital Monrovia, using whatever transport options were available to me. It was surely a lot of improvising but there was more ahead.
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Posing at the flag of Liberia at a police check point, half an hour after crossing from Cote d’Ivoire. This is probably the most remote border I have crossed on my west Africa trip so far! During the ebola time this whole area was locked down, to prevent the disease from spreading east. During the Liberian and Cote d’Ivoire civil wars this region also hosted many refugees. What an epic journey it has been so far. I have 2 more weeks to go here in Africa. Keep following my stories not to miss out! Oh, and today I just received my last visa, can you guess for which country? Leave a comment below if you managed to read this caption all the way to the end! #travel #africa #afrique #westafrica #westafricatravellers #everycountry #everydayafrica #solotravel #liberia #ivorycoast #cotedivoire #adventure #border #lp #natgeo #globetrotter #everypassportstamp #flag #checkpoint #posing #wanderlust #picoftheday #likeforlike
That’s because I still had to track down Monkey Island. I did some research online and asked around for several days in Monrovia. I did not get far. Most people clearly had never heard of the story and just assumed I wanted to buy a monkey for keeping as a pet. My findings did eventually lead to a small fishing town nearby, so I travelled here hoping to find people who knew more about the chimps.
That was a good strategy. The moment I finally pulled up in town and reached the water front, a small motor boat appeared in the distance. On board three men all wearing identical bright-looking clothes.
Now people wearing exactly the same clothes never happens unless it’s some kind of uniform. And in Africa that usually means some kind of foreign involvement by an NGO. BINGO. I flagged them down and we started talking.
It was a stroke of luck because I had found the best people who could tell me all there is to know about the lab chimpanzees of Liberia. And even better, under the condition of anonymity they agreed on taking me on an official feeding trip.
Planet of the Apes
So here is the real story of what is sometimes dubbed the (real) ‘Planet of the Apes’. It turns out there are six ‘monkey islands’, home to a total of 64 chimpanzees. They were put there after the second civil war broke out, which forced the American researchers to abandon the lab and escape the country.
The original care takers, many of whom know the chimps from when they were still babies, still feed them twice a day. International funds allow for decent salaries, enough food and even a Ghanian doctor to regularly check up on the animals’ health.
After a short boat journey, me and the three men pull up at the first island. It’s a rather ordinary looking piece of land, until about 10 seconds later two chimps show up out of the woods. They are fully grown adult apes, well-fed and muscular, and could easily rip a human being apart. I have no idea how they will respond to seeing me, a white guy on a small open boat holding a camera.
I look at the care takers to see their response, but they remain dead quiet as the boat halts about three meters from the shore. One of the guys starts throwing a bunch of fruits to the animals. Within mere seconds more chimpanzees show up out of nowhere. One of them walks slowly but steadily towards our boat.
I am so nervous I cannot even hold my camera still as I start to take photos. I have come face-to-face with the notorious and potentially infected lab chimps of Liberia. Before I know it one of them is just two meters away from me. I have no other option than trying to stay calm and trust the men in their uniforms.
I see the chimp wading ankle-deep in the water, stretching her arms out to snatch the food straight out of the care taker’s hands. Another chimp is quick to join in. Up-close I can clearly read the human-like facial expression of the chimp, who seems desperate to get a bit of food even though she probably knows there is plenty.
I then realise the chimps are absolutely frightened of the water. Most other chimps do not even dare to come near the water. I also notice how the men still have a deep and strong bond with the animals, in fact they are the only ones who can get near. It’s an impressive scene unfolding in front of my eyes.
The serenity, the mutual respect, it is so different from what I was expecting to see. There is no aggression, no chaos, and no apparent danger. It is truly one of the most unique and humbling experiences of my life.
With six islands to be visited spread out over the jungle, the feeding routine is efficient and we move on to the next island. We do agree on me joining only for the first two, which is a bit of a disappointment but still I am grateful for the unique opportunity.
On the second island I am able to see another approximately twelve chimps. Unaware of the existence of the other groups they too have established ranks, causing the group dynamics to be slightly different from the other group. The experience from my side is however totally the same, it’s mind-blowing to see these animals up-close. We spend around five to ten minutes before the guys eventually drop me off at where we first met.
It’s important to realise that visiting Monkey Island is no tourist attraction. If you go with the wrong people it is potentially dangerous, and it could disturb the well-being of the animals. For a fact there are sometimes guards stationed in front of the feeding areas to fend off any unwelcome visitors.
I know about cases of tourists paying local fishing men to take them to the islands, some with more success than others. I cannot prevent anyone from going, but I do hope that if you end up going that you show your respect to the animals. People have already taken advantage of them for too long.