This abandoned chimp was chained to a tree for two years. The risky escape to get her to safety in Africa

The young chimpanzee with thinning hair and sad eyes stood begging, holding out her plastic bottle while chained to a tree in a desolate urban park in central Angola.

She had been there about two years. Apparently, it had not occurred to anyone to set her free.

Local residents said a man known as Morais had bought her from an animal trader for what had been his mini-zoo in the Granja Por Do Sol park in the town of Huambo and called her Leila. But the zoo went broke, and the man hadn’t been seen in the area for at least 18 months.

No one could afford to feed or care for Leila, so she began begging.

Locals gave her leftovers, sometimes rice gone too sour to eat themselves. For a laugh, some even bought her beer to see her drunk.

When John Grobler passed through town in late April, Leila lay huddled, half-starved in a smudge of shade, with a dirty red rag as a collar and eyes as empty as the abandoned cages.

She had a nasty scar on her head and her incisors had been removed, yet she still trusted humans, her only source of food.

Grobler, a freelance journalist from Namibia, at first did not have time to get involved aside from buying her a meal. There were no fruit shops nearby, so he got her chicken, chips and a soda. She poured the sweet liquid down her throat with a kind of concentrated bliss.

“You know, I fed her and then I sat there and petted her,” Grobler said recently in a phone interview. “There was a moment when she sat and looked me in the eye, long and still, and I could see below the misery there was something there, something familiar. I knew right then I was going to help that chimp, even if I had to steal her.”

According to the Jane Goodall Institute, which runs havens in Africa for rescued chimpanzees, the chimpanzee population is being devastated by the bush meat trade, the wild pet trade, wire snares and the use of chimps as roadside attractions.

There were once millions of chimpanzees across 25 African countries, but the population has dropped to about 150,000 to 250,000, the World Wildlife Fund said. They have gone extinct in countries such as Togo, Benin, Gambia and Burkina Faso.

Advocates say governments have been slow to prosecute those caught trafficking in chimpanzees — which is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — because of widespread corruption across the region. Chimpanzees can sell for $1,000 to $10,000.

Leila, who is 4, was a baby when she was taken from the Mayombe forest in Cabinda, a narrow strip of Angolan territory notorious for poaching, illegal logging and wildlife trafficking, according to government records.

By the time Grobler came across her, she was in no shape to survive on her own. Caring for her would not be easy.

“I couldn’t exactly take her to the B&B I was staying in,” Grobler said.

He was passing through town before a weeklong assignment and decided he would rescue her on his way back through Huambo.

Before departing, he left about $50 — much more than enough to feed Leila for a week — with a cafe owner who promised to care for her.

Grobler also began looking for a permanent home for Leila. After striking out several times, he found a place that could accommodate her, the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance in Chimfunshi, Zambia, about 800 miles away.

When Grobler returned from his assignment and went to see Leila, she danced and hooted with excitement. She clutched his two gifts — fat avocados — gobbling them down with appreciative grunts. The woman he paid to feed the chimp laughed and told him Leila preferred whiskey.

Grobler bought Leila a water bucket, which she pounced on with a joyful splash. She ignored bananas he brought but ate an unfamiliar new treat, pineapple. She picked up a piece of chicken he offered and washed it carefully in her bucket but rejected it.

Grobler showed her the photographs he had taken of her on his phone. She stared at the screen like a child, mimicking every human action she saw.

“By then Leila and I were good friends,” he said. “She’d sit on her platform swaying and looking for me. The moment I arrived she’d be up on her back legs doing a happy chimp dance.”

He found out about Dalene Brisley Dreyer, who ran a small animal shelter in her backyard in the capital, Luanda. She agreed to take Leila. It would buy time to arrange her transfer to the sanctuary in Chimfunshi.

He needed permits from the local head of government veterinary services to move Leila to Luanda. Grobler went to the official’s office time after time. Employees there told him the man would be back — sometime.

It took days to find an SUV to transport Leila after Grobler rejected three, one with no brakes, the second with no spare and the third which looked unreliable.

Grobler spent a day vainly searching the town’s industrial streets for a container that could be converted to a cage for transport.

The project began to look fanciful. Even if he could track down the official and get the papers he needed, the cost of saving Leila was more than he could afford. The car was $620 and he knew that more expenses would crop up along the way.

Then luck turned his way. A crowd of people rallied on Facebook to raise money to move her. He stumbled across the container he needed one evening on the way to dinner. He found a workshop to convert it into a cage with chicken wire.

Then he ran into the veterinary official, who was out for dinner one night. Grobler cornered him, but he was adamant the papers would take at least two weeks.

Grobler pleaded. Then he pleaded some more. Two days later, the required documents were ready.

But the driver of the SUV had disappeared.

On the eve of his departure, Grobler had to find another SUV, get the cage finished and buy some sedatives for Leila for the journey.

He woke at dawn that Friday morning in early May to the smell of fresh bread and the putter of motorcycles, jangling his nerves. Too many things could go wrong. Mostly he worried about the many police roadblocks on the 13-hour drive, any one of which could make big trouble for him, even with the right transport documents.

At the park, he fed Leila two sedatives with honey.

But then a posse of about 20 park security guards arrived and warned Grobler he could not take Leila. Another man accosted him, wanting to be paid for the beer he had bought the chimpanzee. As Grobler argued with them and tried to phone local authorities, the chimp grew agitated.

One of the guards loosened Leila’s chain, and the panicked chimp fled. Grobler gave chase, afraid she would dash into the nearby slum and might be stoned. He eventually found her cowering terrified under a bush.

“She stuck out her arms to me and I picked her up.”

At the park, the security guards backed down, having gotten a call from their boss, who had been contacted by local authorities.

Grobler coaxed the chimpanzee into the cage and set out on the long drive. He talked his way through the police roadblocks, at times covering the cage so that police wouldn’t see the chimpanzee, arriving in Luanda late at night.

He spent three days settling Leila into her temporary safe house with Dreyer. Cautiously, he removed her chain, something he had been longing to do. But she immediately dashed over a fence and stole a neighbor’s pot of beans. With a busy road nearby, the chain had to go back on.

At the shelter, Leila gets plenty of attention and play. She washes clothes over and over in a tub of water, and mimics the shelter staff when they sweep the yard. She rolls on a big green ball and sits on the roof, looking out at the surrounding houses. She cuddles Dreyer’s dachshund, Worsie, picks him up and carries him around as if he were her own.

Sorting out the import, export, veterinary and transport permits for her transfer to Chimfunshi sanctuary is expected to take several months.

“It’s a work in progress,” Grobler said after returning to Windhoek, Namibia, his hometown. “She’s getting used to an environment where she doesn’t have to fight for food all the time.”

On his last day in Luanda, he had picked her up and scratched her on the back of her neck and hugged her for a long time.

“It was hard. I’d steeled myself against it. I didn’t want to get emotionally involved,” he said. “But that damn ape, she loves me.”

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Twitter: @RobynDixon_LAT

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