What lies ahead as graceful chimp patriarch turns 49?
What do you do if you are 49 and have a birthday cake? You invite your family and friends to celebrate of course. That is exactly what Zakayo did on Aug.2, as he has done in the past.
Amidst the excitement, Ruth and Amina possibly said “happy birthday Zaks” to elder Zakayo. They are his wives and can afford to be easy with the taciturn giant. But not so Shaka, Acan, and Atim; the former are his sons, and could possibly have said, “Happy birthday paps” instead, while Atim could not because she is human and Zakayo is a chimpanzee.
Zakayo is friends with Helen Atim, a worker at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC) Entebbe where he is kept.
As usual on his birthday, Zakayo’s friends jumped about excitedly and cheered him as they feasted on their primary diet of fruits, leaves, flowers, and seeds.
As Zakayo, who is the oldest chimp at the centre, sat firmly on top of the table eating his cake, one of his wives sat quietly nearby and kept herself busy grooming their handsome son, Shaka.
Chimp tradition dictates that Zakayo eats first as the alpha male or chief. However, he is not selfish and was carefully to ensure enough bread was leftover for his family who feasted on it as soon as etiquette allowed it.
Courteously he moved to the edge of the enclosure to interact more with his visitors. He stopped and sat down raising his long arm indicating he wanted a drink. His visitor’s did not disappoint and he soon had a plastic water bottle filled with his favourite soda.
Zakayo took the bottle, holding it comfortably in his huge palms, and took a few sips. He soon realized however, that his son Shaka and his adopted 6-year old son, Acan, were anxiously following each swallow he made closely. As an elder, Zakayo left some soda for his children and they shared it.
Soon, Zakayo soon was leaving the high table and, with a piece of bread in hand, he ambled gently to sit atop the small hill that is his seat of power.
His friend, Atim, was a little disappointed. Atim says in the past, Zakayo would shout and clap whenever he became excited especially during the celebrations of his birthdays. Not anymore.
“He is weak,” says Atim, “He is aging.”
As the party progresses, Zakayo’s son Acan, who like any youngster at a party was wolfing down bread, uses the now empty soda bottle to fetch water from the pond within the facility to drink. He returns to the pond with a stick to retrieve an orange which was given to him but fell in the water.
In that gesture, Zakayo’s visitors can see clearly that Chimpazee’s are the human’s closest relatives in the animal kingdom. In reality, retrieving an orange from water is nothing unusual since chimpanzees will use tools such as sticks to gather termites, use rocks to open nuts and other things that would be considered tools.
James Musinguzi, the Executive Director of UWEC, says 80% of the chimp’s brains work like a human being. Scientific research has also established that chimpanzees think and plan their everyday activities, know right from wrong, and understand aging and even death.
Perhaps Zakayo senses the beginning of his twilight years. The life expectancy of a chimp is about 30 years in wild and 60 years in captivity because they are provided for with medical care and food. Belinda Atim, the spokesperson of the Centre, says in 2010 Zakayo handed over power peacefully to Matooke a 15-year old chimp to replace him as the head of the 11 chimps.
Zakayo was found in June 1972 at Semuliki in Bundibugyo and was hand-raised before it was later surrendered to the Entebbe Zoo on June 10, 1976. Today, Zakayo knows his name and has become the poster child of the frustrations, aspirations, and hope for all chimpazees. Chimpanzees though smaller in size than man, are about five times stronger. The weight for males is around 70kgs while females are around 50kgs.
Experts estimate that over 5000 chimpanzees live in forests in Uganda, some of them in national parks and wildlife reserves. However, due to encroachment of human settlements and activity, they are increasingly being targeted for elimination.
His long stay and friendly nature has endeared Zakayo to his keepers and centre visitors.
He is fed four times a day on porridge, milk, millet, cassava and sweet potatoes and two bananas. His diet is supplemented with pumpkins and posho, maize meal. He likes to spend time grooming or being groomed by his two wives, Ruth and Amina
Five years ago, UWEC started celebrating Zakayo’s birthday as part of a drive to highlight the plight of chimps in Uganda and promote tourism.