As avid nature enthusiasts and animal lovers, Rob and I were super excited about our journey to Douala, Cameroon with the express purpose of visiting the renowned Pongo Songo Chimpanzee Island. Located on the Sanaga River, a tributary of the Congo River. This island sanctuary serves as a haven for orphaned and injured chimpanzees, offering them a chance to thrive in their natural habitat.
This post shares our itinerary and process of getting to the Pongo Songo Chimp Island sanctuary and the genuine joy that we felt spending a few hours with our amazing furry cousins.
Where is Pongo Songo Chimp Island?
Threats to Chimpanzees
Chimpanzees in Africa face many dangers, including the loss of their habitat, the rainforest. Farmers often clear large areas of forest by burning it to make room for crops, but the soil quickly becomes depleted and the farmers move on. This leaves chimpanzees without a place to live, and they may either die or be forced to move to a new area.
The areas around the Pongo Songo have almost been completely deforested to make room for palm oil plantations. While these neat rows of palms may be aesthetically pleasing, they have replaced a dense rainforest that was home to many animals, including chimpanzees.
In addition to deforestation, chimps also face the horrific danger of poaching. In the last six years, over 14,000 chimpanzees have been lost to the illegal wildlife trade, with one chimpanzee being poached every four hours to satisfy the sick and illegal consumer demand.
Papaye-France: Rescue Chimps Sanctuary
The Papaye Association’s rehabilitation program plays a crucial role in providing care for orphaned and injured chimpanzees. The program focuses on rehabilitating these primates, teaching them essential survival skills and fostering their social development, with the ultimate goal of releasing them back into the wild of the Pongo Songo Chimp Island.
Founded in 2007 by Patricia Leschaeve, a French animal welfare activist, the sanctuary has transformed the lives of countless primates, providing them with a safe and nurturing environment where they can thrive.
Patricia’s passion for chimpanzee conservation ignited on a fateful trip to Cameroon, where she encountered a heart-wrenching sight: a chimpanzee, later named Papaye, chained and confined in a village. Moved by Papaye’s plight, Patricia vowed to make a difference in the lives of chimpanzees in need.
With unwavering determination, Patricia established Papaye-France, partnering with a dedicated team of local Cameroonian conservationists and securing funding from France. Together, they acquired protected land and a few islands, along the Sanaga River.
Papaye-France currently encompasses two large islands, Pongo Songo Island and Okokong Island, and a smaller mainland area where the conservation camp is located. This camp serves as a temporary home for younger orphaned chimpanzees before they are transitioned to the protected islands.
At Papaye-France, chimpanzees receive the utmost care and attention. They are provided with nutritious food, veterinary services, and the opportunity to engage in natural behaviors, such as foraging, climbing, and socializing. The sanctuary’s dedicated staff ensures that each chimpanzee feels safe, respected, and loved.
Papaye-France’s impact extends beyond the rehabilitation of individual chimpanzees. The sanctuary actively educates local communities about the importance of chimpanzee conservation, promoting harmonious coexistence between humans and wildlife. Through its outreach programs, Papaye-France fosters a sense of stewardship for the natural world, inspiring future generations to protect Cameroon’s rich biodiversity.
Visiting Papaye-France is a transformative experience, allowing visitors to witness the remarkable resilience and intelligence of chimpanzees firsthand. The sanctuary’s serene atmosphere and the opportunity to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat provide a profound connection to the natural world.
Visitors are not allowed on the island, but have the opportunity to accompany the Papaye-France rangers on chimp feeding trips three times per week. To participate, you must notify the organization in advance. On the agreed-upon date, arrive by boat at their boat steps on a Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday before 10:00 AM. A ranger will accompany you with large buckets of fruit.
Visa – Cameroon
Cameroon recently implemented an eVisa process which has a lot of glitches. It did not work for us. Even the email registration process (step 1) would not work for the OTP (one time password). Our guide stepped in to help. Conveniently his wife is the IT person for the Cameroon eVisa and for a fee provided us with the incredibly expensive visas. We had to pay our guide for the Letter of Invitation ($40 Euro per person). Then we paid the convenience fee of the IT person – 50 Euros. The visa was $176 USD each. Quite a sum!
We would recommend getting the visa in an embassy in your home country. Alternatively, you can try getting the visa in a country that has a Cameroon embassy. For example, Libreville, Gabon has a Cameroon embassy that provides visas in one day and does not require the Letter of Invitation (LOI).
The XAF (Central African CFA Franc) is the official currency of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. The XAF is backed by the French treasury and pegged to the euro. Therefore it is a pretty stable currency. However, because it is pegged to the Euro it does make purchases more expensive in these countries.
There are ATMs that allow the withdrawal of currency in Douala. However, the amount of currency, the ATM allowed us to withdraw was limited to only 100K XAF per transaction. Therefore, I had to do a number of withdrawals at a time (and the ATM allowed this).
We have a Charles Schwab debit card which allows us to take out cash from any ATM anywhere in the world. It refunds 100% of any withdrawal or ATM fees that we pay. This is a foolproof way to avoid international ATM fees and get the best currency exchange rate possible.
SIM Cards and Connectivity
The Orange sim card is the best and cheapest option for this country. They have the most extensive 4G network in the country and by far the best prices. For around $5 USD you get 1 GB per day for 7 days. However, do not expect fast internet. The median mobile internet connection speed via cellular networks is 13.57 Mbps. While the median fixed internet connection speed is 8.13 Mbps. Our speed test experience was half of that.
International advisories including USA, Canada and UK warn against traveling to this country as violent crime, including kidnapping by terrorists and/or kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, assault, and carjacking are serious concerns here. I cannot say that I felt unsafe in Cameroon. The country side was bucolic and felt safe. However, driving through the extremely poor and dirty streets of Douala was not as pleasant.
Best Time to Go
The best time to visit Cameroon is during the slightly cooler and drier months of November to February. The Saharan harmattan (very dry and dusty) wind reduces temperatures and humidity, although it does bring a haze of dust.
Day 1 – Arrival in Douala
Arrive in Douala and go directly to the eVisa offices which are right in front of immigration. They will process your passport (with your printed eVisa paperwork and passport). You will then have to clear immigration for more stamping. We were picked up by our hotel and taken there for dinner and a good nights sleep.
Day 2 – Travel from Douala to Mouanko (Village Bel’art)
Leave the hotel no later than 12:00 pm. The road will take you through dirty, dusty and very poor Douala. The road to the Pongo Songo Chimp Island is not a good one.
For 2 hours we drove south east on the main road (N3) from Douala to the dirt road towards Mouanko. The best accommodation that is close to the Pongo Songo Chimp Island is Hotel Bel’Art (+237 6 97 11 27 69). The place is quite dilapidated but they have good air conditioning, passable wifi and acceptable food.
PRO TIP: Make sure that your guide/driver has a 4X4 car, especially for the last 2 hours of the dirt and rutted out road to Mouanko. Our driver did not and there were times when we had to get out and push.
Day 3 – Visit to Pongo Songo Chimp Island and Drive back to Douala
We woke up early in the morning with the excitement and anticipation of the day to come. After breakfast we walked over to the Hotel Bel’Art boat dock and sped to the Papaya International Sanctuary Headquarters on the river.
A guide from the rescue joined our boat and brought with him a bucket of bananas and a bucket of quartered up pineapples. We sped off to the biggest of the islands. The ranger immediately started calling out the chimps by their names. The leader of the pack is Citron followed by Charley, Victuare, etc., After about 10 minutes of calling and changing our location on the water, the chimps started to come out to get their breakfast.
I yelled out, “Charlie, je t’aime”. And Charlie immediately put up his hand. My heart melted and I was in love with this gorgeous and very gregarious creature. A feeling of such kinship poured over me and will stay with me forever!
Our journey to Pongo Songo highlighted the urgent need to protect chimpanzees and their habitat. Deforestation, poaching, and the illegal wildlife trade pose significant threats to their survival. We must all play a role in conserving these precious primates by supporting organizations like the Papaye Association and advocating for sustainable practices.
This magical visit to the Pongo Songo Chimpanzee Island was a transformative experience that deepened our understanding of these remarkable primates and the challenges they face. We were humbled by the dedication of the Papaye Association staff, who tirelessly work to protect and rehabilitate these amazing animals.
Have you had a chance to spend time with chimpanzees? Did you find the interaction to be incredibly human? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.