Nigeria: Primate preservation adventures in the jungle

The cheeky chimps at feeding time

The cheeky chimps come out of their lush mountain folliage to show off at feeding time however, they are kept behind an electric fence for their own protection

As he does almost every night the old man sits by his fire in the middle of the Nigerian jungle – suddenly a tree falls, destroying the electric fence. The chimps come quickly down from their nests and, taking advantage of the tree-bridge, cross to the other, ‘forbidden’ side.

They do not go far.

They join the security guard sitting around his fire and the man, whose job it is to watch out for such eventualities, radios calmly back to base – ‘all the chimps have escaped but don’t worry they are sitting here with me’.

“You see,” says, my driver, who is recounting this narrative, “the chimps are very smart – they know he is an old man and if they went anywhere he would have to run after them and maybe he would hurt himself.”

It sounds a terrifically tall tale told for tourists but as we bounce up the mud road, with my husband sitting in the tray of the four-wheel-drive truck on top of a huge pile of bananas which have just been bought from a neighbouring village, I a) don’t care if it’s true or not and b) can easily believe it.

For you see, the primate sanctuary Drill Ranch, with its larger-than-life scenery on the Nigerian/Cameroonian mountain border, also seems to breed larger than life characters – both human and animal.

Let’s start with the animals. Drill Ranch at Afi Mountain, run by the NGO Pandrillus, is primarily home to the drill monkey, one of the world’s most endangered primates. The species has suffered terribly at the hands of hunters, partly because of its beautiful rainbow-coloured backside – yes, you read correctly – rainbow-coloured; the male behinds really are a sight to see.

Then there are the chimps. Despite their lack of a delightful derrière, and their much smaller numbers, they try pretty hard to steal the show with stellar ‘cheeky chimp’ performances.

The humans: We were lucky enough to meet one of the co-founders of Pandrillus. A maverick American who, on a trip through Africa a quarter of a century ago found himself dedicated to Nigeria campaigning for a species that was on the verge of extinction, creating one of the world’s most successful breeding programs, successfully convincing the government to create a national park and now heading up a government-supported deforestation taskforce – literally risking life and limb chasing down trucks involved in Nigeria’s lucrative illegal logging trade in the middle of the night.

Next comes the volunteers; giving up months of their lives to help with special projects like the latest: a new, larger chimp enclosure.

And then there are local keepers and staff – each one a character and all kept in check by the steadying influence of ‘Doctor’. The vet and manager, he came to Drill Ranch as part of Nigeria’s compulsory national service after his studies and has not left the solar-powered, non-mobile-phone-reception reaching wildlife sanctuary since.

We arrive in this eccentric place one Thursday afternoon. We’ve travelled by public transport and it’s been a long, tiring journey but we recover quickly in the serene kitchen and lounge area. A beautiful wooden structure, a roof with open sides, offers stunning views of the mountainside; it’s an easy place to chill out, socialise and enjoy cooking our evening meal.

Day two begins with a feeding of the drills. One of the big four primates these drills are living in their natural environment, which means they are energetic and exciting in a way you will never see zoo animals behave.

It also means they are feisty, with breeding here far more successful than any zoo project – so far over 300 drills have been born thanks to the organisation.

The fences are for the drill’s protection as the hunting of monkeys for ‘bush meat’ is still a common practice. There is a grand plan in place to release the largest group, Group 1, into the national park, but with hunting still a problem this is still some time off.

After the drill feeding we walk around to one of the chimpanzee enclosures for a feeding there. We are warned they can be very cheeky and like to throw things – I experience this first hand almost immediately when a small rock hits my shoulder with some force. Somehow this only adds to their appeal.

Many of these chimps have been rescued from families who stupidly, and illegally, bought them and then discovered they could not take care of a chimpanzee as it got older. Lovely Jackie was even taught to do a traditional Yoruba greeting, which she still likes to show off.

While they are obviously happy at the sanctuary, these wonderful animals – our closest animal relative – have no chance of being released. For most this jungle is not their natural habitat – one called Pablo is actually a South American native – and because the group is made up of many different sub-species they are also stopped from breeding. 

Once the chimps get bored of us we head up for breakfast in our lovely campsite and replenished embark on a rainforest canopy walk.

Built of steel it’s less scary than you might think (unless, of course, you don’t like heights) and well worth doing. The views and the sounds of the jungle are great but don’t expect to see a proliferation of wildlife. Generally speaking the jungle hides its inhabitants well – although you will have more chance of seeing wildlife if you do the walk in the early morning or at dusk.

We cool off from the walk by swimming in gorgeous waterfall-fed river pools and then head back to the camp in time to catch the 5pm four-wheel-drive utility truck into the nearest village.

Recommending this village visit to us, one volunteer says: “You may have seen many African villages but you won’t have seen any in this setting” and indeed the village has a gorgeous mountain background. Large and fairly modern Buanchor is welcoming of visitors because the Drill Ranch is the largest private employer in the area and they know that the paying guests help keep the ranch going.

The biggest surprises: how much of an insight you gain to the NGO’s work and how likely you will be to want to prolong your stay (as indeed we did).

The only negative: For safety reasons you are not allowed to venture around the sanctuary or into the forest without a member of staff accompanying you.

The verdict: A definite travel highlight.



And now for the practical stuff…


The closest large town is Calabar. Here you can visit the Drill Ranch headquarters where you can see drills, chimpanzees and other rescued animals and get the most up-to-date information on visiting Drill Ranch up on Afi Mountain.

We went by public transport, taking an over-crowded share taxi from Calabar (boarding at the bus stop near Watt Market) to Ikom. This took 4.5 hrs. From Ikom, after considerable haggling, we were able to get a private car straight to the Drill Ranch. Be warned though – you should try get a driver who has been there before and is 100 per cent sure of where he is going: when the roads are wet it can be tricky going. Journey time, 3 hrs.

Cost: (Note - USD 1 = 150 naira)

Transport: Calabar to Ikom 1,200 naira per person plus (after bargaining) 250 naira for each large piece of luggage. From Ikom to Drill Ranch (after bargaining) 6,000 naira for a whole car

Accommodation: Screened cabin with comfortable bed and private patio, bedding and towels provided, shared toilet and showers, 6,000 naira per person per night. Camping (with water and shower only) 4,000 naira per person per night. Overland truck parking (no amenities) 750 naira per person per night

Guide for hikes 1,000 naira per day

Afi Mountain Community Development Fund 250 Naira per person per night (this money goes to a local competition-fund for eco projects)

You must bring your own food and drinking water to the ranch (and a torch)

For more information see