Posted in 15/07/2008

Stany Nyandwi, who left his family, his home, and his homeland behind when he helped stage a daring transport of orphaned chimpanzees out of war-torn Burundi to safety in 1995, has been named a Disney Conservation Hero for 2008.

 Nyandwi is the head caregiver at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, which is home to 48 orphaned chimpanzees. Despite little formal education, he is regarded among the most knowledgeable chimpanzee welfare experts in Africa.

 Nyandwi will receive a plaque and a $500 prize for being named a Disney Conservation Hero, an annual awards program developed by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund that "recognizes conservation initiatives are only as successful as the community and the local people involved with the project".

 This marks the second consecutive year a representative of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) has earned a Disney Conservation Hero award. In 2007, Jonathan Kang of the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon was honored.

 "PASA is extremely proud of Stany Nyandwi and the work he has accomplished on behalf of chimpanzees in East Africa," said Doug Cress, executive director of PASA. "Stany\’s dedication to chimpanzees – even when it meant possibly losing his family or his own life – is remarkable. He is yet another shining example of the courage and commitment we see every day at PASA sanctuaries across Africa".

 Born in Burundi, Nyandwi had only rudimentary education when he applied for a job as a housekeeper / cook at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) chimpanzee project there in 1989. At the time, the JGI-Burundi functioned as a halfway house for confiscated orphan chimpanzees, but so many were arriving and in such poor condition that Nyandwi was quickly converted from a cook to a chimpanzee caregiver. He had a particular affinity and connection with the youngest – and often most damaged – chimpanzees, and he quickly developed a specialty in reviving those closest to death.

 But Burundi was a volatile and dangerous place by the mid-1990s, and Nyandwiωs Hutu ethnicity made him a target for pro-Tutsi military forces. A daily six-mile trek to and from work meant Nyandwi often had to walk in the dark, a practice that grew more dangerous when two JGI-Burundi staff members were murdered in 1994. Despite the risks, Nyandwi usually arrived early for work and stayed late.

 At the end of 1995, JGI decided it was no longer viable or safe to keep the sanctuary going in Burundi announced plans to relocate all 20 chimpanzees to the newly created Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya. But while Nyandwi was eager to help transfer the chimpanzees, he knew his decision to leave Burundi would not permit him to return to his wife and two children. At that time, those who left Burundi were labeled as traitors or rebels, and were often arrested and charged with treason upon their return.

 Nyandwi, who had never flown before, traveled in a small plane with 10 chimpanzees in plastic pet carriers to Kenya. For the next six weeks, Nyandwi was left alone in Kenya to care for the 10 infants. Away from his family, his countrymen and living alone, Nyandwi thought of nothing but the chimpanzees, and on several occasions walked five kilometers and used his own salary to buy food and medical supplies for the infants.

 "My heart is with the chimps," Nyandwi said. "I care for them like my own children. People are killing chimps in the forest, the babies are suffering. They need us to take care of them".

 After helping the chimpanzees acclimate to their new home in Kenya, Nyandwi was asked to stay and train the Sweetwaters staff. He then transferred to the new JGI chimpanzee program in Uganda, and stayed in touch with his family in whatever way he could, sending funds to ensure their survival and welfare. In the end, after almost three years of letter-writing and government appeals, Nyandwi\’s family was allowed to join him in Uganda.

 Today, Nyandwi is the head caregiver for Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary. His main role is the welfare of the chimpanzees in his care, and many visitors to the island comment on Nyandwi\’s "special" relationship with the chimpanzees.