Renate Winch knows a lot about chimpanzees. She even knows the secret to hippopotamus bliss (scratch them behind the ears). But this week was her first encounter with a sanctuary full of gibbons. Although she has been an IPPL supporter since the 1990s, her long-time residence in Africa meant that she has not had a chance to visit IPPL—until now.
Renate became deeply acquainted with yet another primate sanctuary in the 1990s: Chimfunshi, which was founded in Zambia by Sheila and David Siddle. It’s one of the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuaries.
For a number of years, Renate took responsibility for arranging the paperwork that allowed Chimfunshi to legally import chimpanzees in need of rescue—from around Africa and around the world. Chimfunshi is located in a remote part of the country, and in the 1990s the facility had no electricity, not even a proper telephone connection. Since Renate and her husband were situated in an urban area, Renate’s work to prepare the proper customs documentation (in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species/CITES) was vital.
That was a not a job description Renate could have foreseen. She was born in a small town in eastern Germany (her still-detectable accent gives her away), but her early years in the mid-20th century were marked by a number of dramatic travels—to China and back, even!—before her family eventually settled in the United States. She seems to have soon learned to take things in stride; as she says, “nothing much bothers me!”
As an adult, she went on to live and travel in various parts of the world, as well, but most extensively in Africa. Nigeria, for example, is where she met her husband, a researcher with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture at the time. The two of them went on to make their homes in Lesotho, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, and Armenia before retiring to Zimbabwe.
While her husband was occupied with his official duties, Renate was able to carry out her own activities on behalf of Africa’s wildlife. She had previously worked with the national park service in Uganda, so when her husband was posted to Zambia, it was natural for her to continue to make use of her talents, passion, and expertise in their new home.
Her first experience rescuing chimpanzees Zambian style came via a phone call at 2 AM. “It has to be a wrong number,” her groggy husband told her. “This is someone from Papua New Guinea asking about a pair of chimps.”
“Give me the phone!” Renate replied quickly. It happened that two chimpanzees had been abandoned by a bankrupt circus on that distant island, and Sheila was trying to get them brought back to Africa.
Renate did most of her work from home, but every few months she and her husband would make the trek out to Chimfunshi to see the fruits of her labors. They were fascinated by the chimps. Sheila expressed her special appreciation for Renate’s efforts by letting her accompany the rehabilitated baby chimps on their walks in the forest—a rare privilege.
Afterward, Renate would see the other animals the Siddles had taken under their protection—baboons, vervet monkeys, African gray parrots, even a beloved hippo named Billy. Guests at Chimfunshi relaxing around the table after dinner would often have their bare feet licked by a young and curious Billy. “It was the best massage ever,” Renate remembered.
So Renate knew a lot about chimps, but almost nothing about gibbons, when she first met Shirley at the international CITES conference held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1997. She soon learned that that the two of them shared a passion for primates, and they have been in touch ever since.
Even though Renate has been a friend of IPPL’s for decades, this week’s visit was her first time here, so she got a special guided tour of the sanctuary grounds yesterday. “Hearing the gibbons sing is absolutely unique!” she exclaimed before hurrying off to write enthusiastic e-mails to her far-flung friends.