It seemed to be his lucky day as Innocent Ampeire said his goodbyes to visitors from Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), and onto a boat to sail to Ngamba Island, a woman, who was curious about what he did, called him. He told her he was a guide at the centre.
“Would you like to come to Ngamba Island some day?” she asked. Ampeire did not know that he had made an impression on the executive director of Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Lilly Ajarova.
An opportunity came up when the sanctuary rescued two baby chimpanzees (Mawa and Abega), and needed a caretaker. She asked Uwec to recommend someone and Ampeire’s name came first. At the time, he was a volunteer at the education centre and to get the placement, he needed to fulfil some requirements one of which was to be fully vaccinated against some key diseases lest he infected the chimpanzees.
He did not have the money to get all the vaccination and his politeness saved the day when he walked through hospital doors and humbly requested for vaccination after sharing what lay ahead of him.
He got the placement and 12 years later, Ampeire who thought he would only serve for five years, says he does not see a life outside the confines of the chimpanzee sanctuary because living with chimpanzees is as good as being with family.
Ampeire attended Rubaya Primary School, from Primary One to Primary Seven. He then joined Rubaya Secondary School for Senior One. He continued to Entebbe Parents School from Senior Two to Senior Six but did not join university due to lack of funds.
He searched for an opportunity and got one with United Nations Volunteer programme to join a training that was carried out at UWEC. As a volunteer, he was trained as a conservation educator who guided tourists, pupils and students as well as adult visitors around UWEC.
He also later pursued a diploma in wildlife conservation through a long-distance arrangement at the Penn Forester Career School in Pennsylvania, USA. He is currently a wildlife manager.
Life at the centre
His tales bring the fact of chimps being 98.7 per cent human, to life. He is head caregiver of chimps at the facility, a job he has done since 2006. His job entails welfare of the jungle friends, including feeding, monitoring their health, behaviour and medication.
There is a veterinary doctor to whom he refers cases that need medical attention but not the political games that have come to define the hierarchal members of the jungle establishment. Like it is in conventional national set-ups, the sanctuary has a sitting government and individuals opposed to its leadership. For a long time now, Mawa, one of the facility’s old folks, has sought to retain leadership he lost in 2006, but all in vain.
He is one of three leaders that have been confined to solitary because they pose a threat to harmony when released into the forests where the rest of the chimpanzee community stay.
He has an ally in Abega who has stood by him, irrespective of his irrational decisions. As one of the veterans at the island, Mawa was one of the first leaders at the sanctuary. He was entitled to privileges such as eating the most, access to as many females as he could hunger for.
Ampeire says his misbehaviour led to his confinement and the next time he was released, he found a new leader- Mika. “When we tried to re-integrate him back to the forest, he found it hard to live under the new leadership. He had lost followers. He became angry at everyone, including the caregivers. He would always plan escapes with his friend Asega,” the caretaker narrates.
It only gets more interesting at Ngamba, and for Ampeire, everyday comes with an experience, like Pasa, who was taken to the sanctuary in 2002, at eight months. He was young and fragile and could not be released into the forest so he stayed with staff of the sanctuary. The social interaction allowed him an opportunity to see how the facility was run and now that she is older, she knows how to open fences using dry sticks. His caretakers are only smarter.
“Over time, she thinks she is smarter than human beings,” he says. However, there are things that put everyone in order at the sanctuary. The sight of a dirt gun means danger and humbles the naughtiest of the jungle folks. The caretaker says the gun is never used but because they know it has a needle with medicine that will immediately put them to sleep, they rather it is not used on them. Ampeire says so far, he has only got minor injuries.
Why he loves his job
The experience of looking after chimpanzees is as adventurous as it comes for Ampeire who recounts seeing the first chimpanzee at seven years, in a neighbour’s garden but could not imagine it would become something that drew much of his passion.
It is equally humbling. “Sometimes I think to myself; ‘who am I’ the boy from Bugaaga, Kabale, to deserve a fulfilling job like this, one that earned me my first opportunity to board a plane to USA where I went to receive further training in animal management?” an elated Ampeire says.
His dedication has earned him recognition not only by the sanctuary’s management but the board of directors. He has been recognised as employee of the year three times in a row. He was also able to buy three acres of land in Kibale, each at Shs2.2m, in 2015. In 2010, he bought a Nikon D200 at $1, 400 (about Shs5m) to enable him take photographs of the chimpanzees.
His day starts at 6am with a prayer before he goes to a meeting with fellow caretakers to plan their day. Each of them is given a role for the day. At 7am, all caretakers go out to see how the chimpanzees are. They return to give a report. And as he cares for chimps, Ampeire also puts his skills of taking photography to use.