Yerkes chimpanzees `return' to Africa in unprecedented loan

The first loan of chimpanzees from the United States to an African zoological park occurred this month, when the Yerkes Primate Research Center transferred 10 of its chimpanzees to the East London Zoo in South Africa.

"We are excited that the Yerkes Center can offer this unprecedented loan that will add another bond between the `new' South Africa, Emory University and the Atlanta community," said Thomas Insel, director of Yerkes, which has more than 200 chimpanzees in addition to almost 3,000 rhesus monkeys and other primates.

Although chimpanzees are not among the wildlife native to South Africa, the loan of chimpanzees to that country's East London Zoo is regarded as a repatriation of sorts of these animals to their home continent, said Insel. In Eastern Africa, wild populations of chimpanzees are found in Tanzania, Zaire, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and the Sudan, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

"The loan of chimpanzees is probably the single most important event in the East London Zoo's long history," said A.D. Janse, director of the 80-year-old zoo. "It is the first really important step to the development of the zoo into one of the most important environmental educational facilities in the country.

"The presence of such a species as chimpanzees presents an ideal opportunity to educate and inform visitors on the need to practice conservation and not just to preach it if we want to maintain the biodiversity of our planet," Janse added.

With the loan, the East London Zoo will have the third largest captive group of chimpanzees in South Africa. A total of 45 chimpanzees now live in five South African zoos.

"The Yerkes loan not only will significantly increase the zoo population of chimpanzees in South Africa but also will provide a rich genetic diversity that will benefit the long-term survival of these animals in the South African zoological community and indeed the international community of zoos," said Insel.

"The loan of Yerkes chimpanzees to a South African zoo fits well with Emory's growing international spirit," said President Bill Chace, "and we are delighted to have this new connection between our university and South Africa."

A total of 52 Yerkes primates already are on loan to 13 zoos in North America. "Due to the excellent veterinary care that our animals receive and their success in breeding, the Yerkes Center's chimpanzee population is particularly useful for conservation efforts, including the development of educational exhibits in zoos," said Insel. The largest loan of Yerkes animals involves Zoo Atlanta, which has 25 Yerkes gorillas and orangutans.

"We hope that the East London Zoo will experience the same success as did Zoo Atlanta when Yerkes made a similar loan of three gorilla families to that zoo several years ago," said Vice President for Health Affairs Charles R. Hatcher Jr. "These gorilla families were the impetus for immense growth and redevelopment at Zoo Atlanta. The East London Zoo loan, like the Atlanta loan, gives us at Emory much joy and satisfaction to know that these magnificent animals live in a natural environment where they will bring thousands of people a better understanding of the importance of conservation."

The chimpanzees will be the only great apes at the zoo, which is located in a botanical garden with a vast natural forest on one of its boundaries. The chimpanzees will inhabit an almost 10,000-square-foot outdoor enclosure containing natural vegetation. Indoor housing areas are attached to the outdoor enclosure.

-- Cathy Yarbrough