Fall 2017

A Rescue Mission

For years, international organizations have turned to Jim and Jenny Desmond to care for primates in crisis and to track dangerous diseases. Now, they’re taking on their toughest challenge yet.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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Jim and Jenny Desmond are creating the first sanctuary in Liberia for orphaned chimpanzees—all victims of poachers illegally hunting adult chimpanzees for meat and selling their young offspring as pets. Photo: Jenny Desmond

When veterinarian Jim Desmond, V08, VG08, and his wife, Jenny, first arrived in Liberia in July 2015 to care for a group of chimpanzees, the situation they found brought them to tears. “It was horrible,” recalled Jim. “The chimps were desperate. You’d come up with a boat to bring them food, and the chimps would go crazy trying to climb in to grab it. And they were fighting each other, because there just wasn’t enough to go around.”

For thirty years, chimpanzees kept at the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research served as research subjects for hepatitis B vaccine studies conducted by the New York Blood Center. In 2006, the blood center halted its experiments, retiring the apes to six nearby islands within an estuarine habitat with extensive mangrove forests. For nearly a decade, former lab staff cared for the animals, which were wholly dependent on humans for food and fresh water. Then, in March 2015, the blood center cut off all funds. The staff—who kept on caring for the chimps, unpaid—knew all the animals were likely to die if they couldn’t find anyone to help.

No one knows what would have happened if not for the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which started in Guinea in December 2013 and raged across the neighboring countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone, killing more than 11,000 people. Because the former hepatitis research operation was one of the few laboratories in Liberia—a nation torn apart by a 14-year civil war—researchers from international health agencies used it to conduct Ebola research. The chimpanzees’ head caretaker, Joseph Thomas, who had worked with the animals since the 1970s, brought visiting scientists out on his boat to witness the chimps’ distress firsthand, and begged them for money to buy both food and the fuel needed to bring it to the animals. One of those scientists alerted the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

The HSUS and a coalition of 40 organizations responded by trying to find someone to manage the chimps on-site and soon found that the short list of qualified people was short indeed, said Doug Cress, then the director of the United Nations’ Great Ape Survival Project. At the top of that list were Jim and Jenny Desmond: Over fifteen years, they had cared for gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, monkeys, and other primates at eight sanctuaries in seven countries around the world. When several organizations came together to create a sanctuary for eastern lowland gorillas in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cress had recommended the Desmonds because they could whip up community support like no one else, even from such a remote facility: on top of a mountain, miles from the nearest city or airfield, the nearest neighbors often rebel armies. Just as important as that experience, Cress said, was that the couple knew when they’d need to adjust their approach for an entirely new climate.

Jim and Jenny Desmond are caring for 17 young chimps confiscated by the Forestry Development Authority, the government agency tasked with protecting wildlife and enforcing wildlife laws in Liberia. Photo: Jenny Desmond

But as it turned out, the plight of the former lab chimps wasn’t the only crisis to contend with in Liberia. During a five-week intervention Jim and Jenny undertook before signing on to the job, something unexpected happened: Locals brought them two infant chimps that had been kept as pets in deplorable conditions. Over time, more and more came in—today, 17 of them have been confiscated by the Forestry Development Authority, the government agency tasked with protecting wildlife and enforcing wildlife laws in Liberia. Most of the animals are only two or three years old, and all are victims of poachers illegally hunting adult chimpanzees for meat and selling their young offspring as pets. The orphaned chimps’ history is not just tragic; it’s also a troubling indicator of what lies ahead for western chimpanzees, a critically endangered subspecies that saw its numbers in the wild decline by 80 percent between 1990 and 2014.

The Desmonds came to understand that they were ideally situated to help combat the problem. First, they had the vast stores of experience they would need to help build a sanctuary for the chimps from the ground up. Second, they happened to be in one of the best possible places for such a sanctuary to be built. The years of unrest in Liberia has meant that much of the chimpanzees’ habitat there has been protected from development. Of the roughly thirty-five thousand western chimpanzees that still live in West Africa, seven thousand are estimated to inhabit this one small country. “It’s the only country in West Africa where large tracts of the Upper Guinean forests still remain intact,” Jim said.

So today, more than two years after setting foot in the war-torn nation, Jim and Jenny have no plans to leave. Liberia: Come for the desperate chimps abandoned on mangrove islands, stay for the desperate chimps orphaned by poachers—it’s not a pitch for a kind of life most people would find irresistible. But the Desmonds aren’t most people.

Anyone looking in from the outside would assume that Jim and Jenny have always worked in wildlife conservation. But Jim was a well-paid recent chemistry grad employed in pharma in 1994 when he met Jenny, who was leading trainings on large-scale fund-raising around the U.S. Within a year after meeting, the two married.

Their lives changed course on an around-the-world honeymoon. At an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo, Jim met Annelisa Kilbourn, V96, who was working with veterinarian William Karesh and virologist Nathan Wolfe to look for diseases that great apes might pass on to humans and vice versa. (Kilbourn, whose research provided the first evidence that Ebola threatened wild gorillas, died in a 2002 plane crash.) Jim couldn’t stop thinking about the encounter. If he could do the kind of work that Kilbourn was doing, he could apply his scientific mind to a cause he felt passionate about. But first he would need to go to veterinary school to build the proper foundation.

Jenny took the bold step of writing the famous primatologist Jane Goodall to ask for advice on how Jim might gain experience with African wildlife to strengthen his applications. “Jane’s assistant, the wonderful Mary Lewis, wrote me back with a personal message from Jane,” Jenny recalled. Goodall referred the couple to Debby Cox, then the director of the Jane Goodall Institute, who took them in as managers of the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. “From that day forward,” Jenny said, “our lives were never the same.”

Jim was determined to go to Cummings School, and when he didn’t get in on his first try, he turned down an acceptance from another respected veterinary school to reapply. “If you wanted a different kind of career in veterinary medicine, Tufts was the place to go,” he said. After he was accepted to Cummings in 2003, he enrolled in a dual-degree program that allows students to earn a D.V.M. alongside a master’s in comparative biomedical sciences over five years. A Dr. Henry L. Foster Scholarship helped Jim pursue his new path by lessening some of his debt.

A year after graduating in 2008, Jim landed his dream job with EcoHealth Alliance, which conducts international research into the relationships between wildlife, ecosystems, and human health. For six years, he and Jenny spent months at a time in China, Indonesia, and Myanmar while Jim tested domestic animals for pathogens, conducted avian influenza surveillance, and investigated wildlife markets as sources of animal diseases that could spread to people. The Desmonds also became the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance’s go-to unit in times of crisis. “It just seemed there was no task too big for those two,” said Cress, who served as executive director for the association of primate rescue centers and sanctuaries across Africa.

A Dr. Henry L. Foster Scholarship helped Jim Desmond pursue a new path in wildlife veterinary medicine. Photo: Jenny Desmond

In 2015, the HSUS approached the couple, then working in Kenya, about the position in Liberia. “We didn’t say yes right away,” said Jim, explaining that they were happy in Kenya and had just been offered a job managing a conservation center there. But a five-week intervention turned into a yearlong contract with the HSUS, and then another.

Their work turned the situation around for the former lab chimps. The Desmonds not only made sure the animals got enough food; they corrected the unnatural feeding schedule that was causing so much stress. “The chimps were getting fed only every other day,” said Jim. Within a few months of daily feedings, the chimps were relaxed and coexisting peacefully, and now, said Jim, “they’ve put on weight and their coats have a glossy sheen.” Jim also instituted a much-needed—and so far successful—birth control plan. The chimpanzees were having babies, which was “really not a good situation,” he said, “because each new chimp will live fifty to sixty years in captivity.”

In May 2017, the HSUS came to an agreement with the blood center. The HSUS would assume lifetime care of the lab chimps, supported by $6 million from the blood center. Five months later, the Desmonds’ second consulting contract with the HSUS ended and was not renewed. They decided to stay in Liberia anyway. EcoHealth in November 2015 had tapped Jim to lead a new project there aimed at finding the species that keeps the Ebola virus circulating in nature between outbreaks in humans. And they were devoted to helping the orphaned wild chimpanzees.

The decision to stay in Liberia was not one they took lightly. “It would’ve been a lot more fun to stay in East Africa,” Jim said. In their five years living along Lake Victoria and the white sands of Diani Beach, the Desmonds frequently had friends and family visiting, and savannah safaris in national parks were only a short drive away. “We miss it sometimes,” Jim said. “But this is where we were meant to be, I think.”

In addition to the couple’s work with chimpanzees, Jim has had his hands full with his infectious disease research. The Liberia study seeks to test eighteen thousand bats for Ebola by the end of 2019, which has meant Jim has had to assemble the right research team: ten research technicians, two social scientists, an administrator, and five drivers. “The only non-Liberian who works on the project in Liberia is me,” Jim said. Given the brain drain that resulted from the country’s civil war, this “has been our biggest success so far.” He noted that the team operates independently, and “now the people we’ve trained can train other Liberians.”

Jonathan Epstein, V02, MG02, the associate vice president of conservation medicine at EcoHealth, said, “Jim is very committed to making sure that our local in-country team is both highly trained and also well mentored. He’s right there with them in the field and the office, teaching them about every aspect of the project from animal capture to sample storage to data management.” That’s important, Epstein said, because “ultimately, Liberia will have to be prepared to handle the next zoonotic disease outbreak, whether it’s Ebola or something entirely new.”

Jane Goodall (left) helped Jim, shown with Jenny and their rescue dog, Princess, gain experience before applying to Tufts. Photo: Andrea Coleman

As for the sanctuary project, it’s well on its way. Recently, the Desmonds formally registered Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection as a Liberian NGO—the country’s first and only sanctuary for wild chimpanzee victims of the bushmeat and pet trades. The orphaned chimpanzees currently live on the grounds of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia, where the couple cared for the former lab chimps. Jim and Jenny hope to remain there for up to a year while they raise money. Leveraging Jenny’s grant-writing experience, they’re applying for funding and hoping to establish a trust overseen by board members from local and international animal-welfare and conservation organizations. Their first goal will be to lease a parcel of community land they’ve identified. “Right now, our sanctuary consists of a bunch of enclosures with outside play areas and full-time caregivers,” explained Jim. “But hopefully we will be able to move soon and build the infrastructure so the chimps can play out in the forest.”

The effects could be far-reaching. A 2013 International Fund for Animal Welfare report found that the illegal wildlife trade internationally generates an estimated $19 billion per year—globally, it is organized crime’s fourth most lucrative activity, behind narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. Sanctuaries are invaluable in the fight against such activities, because without them, officials don’t know what to do with any animals they might confiscate. “Since African governments generally don’t have facilities to care for live wildlife, law enforcement officials tend not to arrest animal traffickers,” said Gregg Tully, executive director of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance. “We’ve found that wildlife law enforcement is typically weaker in countries that don’t have sanctuaries. Liberia was one of these countries until Jim and Jenny Desmond began to rescue confiscated chimpanzees.”

Jim also believes Liberia’s new sanctuary could contribute to public health and safety throughout the world. “There is a live great ape trade, and some of these orphaned chimps could’ve been shipped off to China or the Middle East,” which could spread diseases like Ebola far beyond Liberia’s borders, he said. “And it’s not like these traffickers only specialize in animals; they also traffic in drugs, guns, and humans. If we can help break up the networks, we are not only protecting wildlife, but also doing a lot to disrupt organized crime groups funding terrorist networks and other activities.”

Much work remains to be done, but there are encouraging signs. Liberia passed a wildlife law at the end of 2016, and a group is now writing the regulations that will govern its implementation. And Jenny, who serves on a law-enforcement task force, has written grant applications for money to train the Forestry Development Authority on fighting trafficking activities.

The work is not easy and is often exhausting. Jim and Jenny don’t mind, though. “It’s exciting to know that what you’re doing can have a big impact,” Jim said. “We’re super busy, but happy.”

Contact Genevieve Rajewski, the editor of this magazine, at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

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