Living the dream at Congo's chimp rescue centre

Midleton man Mark O’Riordan tells Caroline Delaney about his life at a Congo chimp sanctuary.

Living the dream at Congo's chimp rescue centre

A TYPICAL day for one Cork man starts with doling out milk to 13 babies. Mark O’Riordan from Midleton then feeds dozens of adult guests, checks an electric fence, plants some fruit trees, takes some photos for Facebook, builds a few climbing frames, and dishes out more food before his day’s work is done.

The ‘very important guests’ are the rescued chimpanzees at a primate rescue centre in Lwiro village in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where Mark, 36, is sanctuary supervisor.

And despite several bouts of malaria, a “strange worm” living in his toe and general concerns about rebels and poachers, O’Riordan says he really is living the dream.

“With the sun just up and the birds singing, it really is a little piece of paradise,” he explains.

The Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro (CRPL) takes in baby chimps left orphaned when their mothers are killed for meat. By the time they arrive at the sanctuary they are dehydrated, malnourished and are often injured.

“The ultimate goal of the CRPL is to release all able-bodied primates back to the wild. At the moment, due to instability within the DRC, the national parks are not yet safe enough to do this. But we hope that with ongoing improvements that this will be possible,” O’Riordan says.

The location may be half a world away from Fota Wildlife Park in Cork, but that was where it all began for O’Riordan, who has been in DRC for over a year. “My first job working at Fota Wildlife Park really got me hooked. I have always been interested in conservation and the environment. I really enjoy bird-watching and love camping and the great outdoors. We always had dogs when I was growing up in Midleton,” says O’Riordan who also worked in Edinburgh Zoo, as well as at Taronga Zoo in Sydney.

Seeing the results of the sanctuary’s work is a huge hit with O’Riordan — he mentions the success story of Itebero. This baby chimp arrived there starving and dehydrated and with a snare wire embedded in his wrist.

“After more than a year of TLC you can see the difference in him.”

The 35 staff at CRPL have to constantly be aware of a potential threat from M23, also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army.

“The unrest in the DRC with the rebel group M23 last year was a bit of a concern. After taking over Goma, they set to pass straight through Lwiro village. My girlfriend’s safety and my own was obviously a concern, but with a UN base down the road I knew we would be safe,” explains O’Riordan.

“Thankfully M23 were stopped and things remained calm in Lwiro, but it was a bit hairy for a few days there, barricading ourselves into the house for the night and I had my ‘go bag’ packed. We will see what Mary Robinson can do in her new role as the UN special envoy of the region.”

It’s not all civil unrest and hard work for O’Riordan and his 29 colleagues, though. After working a 66-hour week, his day off is usually spent relaxing. There is a guest house on the research centre’s grounds where Mark and his Australian girlfriend, Rebecca, who also works for CRPL, can go for a beer. “We may have a couple more pints at home on the verandah watching Mother Nature at her finest, giving us a fantastic lightning storm, especially during the wet season which is 10 months of the year.”

The real entertainment often comes from the chimps. “You are guaranteed to get a laugh from these youngsters. They are amazing to watch, all with their own personalities, some naughtier than others. If I want a bit of a giggle, then it’s to the infant chimpanzees I go.”

O’Riordan recalls one incident when they moved the infants to a new enclosure. “They had never had a pool before, or a drinking fountain, and so had to be shown how to use them. One of the females, Sakina, decided to stick her bum in the drinking fountain. We found it amusing as it was a French organisation, Fondation Ensemble, which granted the money for the enclosure — complete with bidet.”

Funding is one of the biggest challenges for the sanctuary. “We rely on grants and donations for all of our costs, from staff wages and food for the primates, to maintenance and construction.”

But O’Riordan focuses on the positive, such as the new enclosure. “This new habitat has seen the relocation of the 13 infants from their previous concrete and metal cage into a lush ¼-hectare enclosure with climbing frames.

“It was wonderful to see the infants running around for the first time, stamping on the grass beneath their feet and chasing each other around the shrubs. This new habitat not only improves their welfare, but starts them on the road to rehabilitation for the time when they can be released back into the national parks of the DRC when they once again become safe.”


The life of one young chimp, named Oscar (inset), is the focus of Disney documentary, Chimpanzee, released earlier this year.

The death of a mother chimpanzee typically proves fatal for her babies in the wild — unless a sanctuary such as CRPL steps in. It is rare for other female chimps to adopt orphans and the adult males are usually too busy trying to build up their supremacy within the group to trouble themselves with youngsters. But when baby Oscar’s mother died, his group’s dominant male, Freddy, stepped in and tenderly looked after Oscar.


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