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Saving Cobra: The Rescue of an Orphaned Chimpanzee

Mystery Apes of the Congo: Preparing for the Journey into the Forest 2:04

BILI, Democratic Republic of Congo — The tip came late at night and left Bernard Iyomi with a difficult choice.

Iyomi, a veteran of the Democratic Republic of Congo's conservation agency, the ICCN, is the chief of the local force in the remote town of Bili. When it comes to wildlife protection in this town, and in the 12-thousand square miles of forest than surrounds it, the barrel-chested Iyomi has extraordinary powers. But the information he received, that a baby chimpanzee was held captive, tied to a post on an army base, put him in a difficult position. The Congolese army, despite its reputation for corruption and atrocities, is a vital partner in the fight against poachers and rebels. Iyomi decided to sleep on it.

Cobra the chimp
NBC cameras were rolling as ICCN chief Bernard Iyomi asked that the orphaned baby chimp be released from the pole it was tied to together with a baby baboon. NBC News

The next morning, he left his armed rangers behind and jumped on his motorcycle, dressed in the full uniform of the ICCN. Our NBC News team quickly followed, our cameras bouncing around on the back of a pickup truck as we raced down the dirt road that is Bili's only street. We couldn't wait to see how this one-man raid was going to play out. But Iyomi, a veteran of the struggle to protect wildlife in a country torn apart by war, rode into the base with the friendly demeanor of a partner.

On one side of the dusty courtyard in the Congolese army's outpost stood a few disheveled soldiers, on the other were a baby chimp and a tiny baboon. They were holding on to each other for comfort and tangled in a dirty rope that tied them to the post. Iyomi quietly approached the group of soldiers and started a conversation with a lieutenant, who explained that he had confiscated the primates from a poacher and was planning on delivering them to his superior officer as a gift.

Cameras rolling, we were waiting to see what happened next. Jef Dupain, from the African Wildlife Foundation, which helps to train, equip and arm Iyomi's rangers, was visibly bemused by our excitement. As a veteran of conservation work in Africa, Dupain knew that this situation would be resolved without a voice being raised. Everyone needed to save face.

"People here are not always aware of what's illegal and what's not," Iyomi said. "But this chimp is protected and has to be confiscated." The lieutenant was off the hook and the terrified male baby chimp, Cobra, was separated, screaming, from the baboon that had kept him company. He immediately clung on to back of the first human who held him. Baby chimps, when they lose their mothers, will cling to any replacement they can find. The whole convoy got back on the motorcycles and in the truck and drove back to the ICCN compound. The baboon, who was not lucky enough to be a member of a protected species, was left tied to the post.

Back at the ICCN headquarters, Cobra found a new human to cling to: American Primatologist Cleve Hicks who has studied apes and documented the illegal animal trade in this area for more than a decade. Hicks made chimp-friendly hoots and stared down at Cobra, who looked back with the soul-searching, clear-eyed gaze that make chimps seem so human-like.

Cute and cuddly as Cobra was, he is the product of what some have likened to genocide. Orphaned chimps are often the sole survivor of their massacred families. "For every orphan chimp you see in a town or village, ten chimps have died, including the mother and other babies," Hicks explained.

"A lot of people think they're cute and they buy them as pets" Hicks says. "By buying them, you're making it desirable to go out and kill another chimp and bring the baby back." Chimps, while cuddly as babies, cannot be handled by humans as they mature. An adult chimp is up to about eight times stronger than the average human and, being a wild animal, will attack humans when threatened. Most pet chimps here are killed long before they reach the age of three.

Lwiro Center
After being saved from captivity, the orphaned baby chimp was transferred to the Lwiro Center for the Rehabilitation of Primates in Eastern Congo. NBC News

Cobra was lucky enough to be rescued, but he couldn't be released back into the forest. Wild chimps are more likely to kill a strange baby than adopt it. Hicks started looking for a sanctuary that would take Cobra in. "Unfortunately that's the best we can offer," said Hicks as he combed baby Cobra, "a home, where trained professionals look after chimps."

He enlisted the help of Laura Darby from GRASP, the UN's program for the survival of apes and their habitats in Africa and Asia, who secured a spot for Cobra at the Lwiro Center for the Rehabilitation of Primates in Eastern Congo. The Sanctuary, run by the Spanish non-governmental organization COOPERA, is a place where Cobra could be well-cared for and - crucially - have the company of another 140 primates.

But more than 1,000 miles separated baby Cobra from his new home and in a country where paved roads are scarce, getting to Lwiro could take many days on the back of a motorcycle bumping along dusty paths, often blocked or destroyed by bad weather. Luckily for Cobra, we had a plane coming to pick us up. Hicks carefully placed the baby chimp in a makeshift crate and carried him on board. When we landed, a UN worker was waiting to pick up Cobra and drive him the rest of the way.

Cleve Hicks
American primatologist Cleve Hicks carefully crated up the baby chimp for a flight to his new life in a sanctuary. NBC News

At Lwiro, Cobra was renamed, at Hicks' suggestion. He's now called Kimia, which means peace in Lingala, the local language. Kimia lives with another five orphaned baby chimps in a nursery enclosure.

Kimia doesn't know it, but he may be the luckiest orphaned chimp in the world. Enormous amounts of good will, first world resources and pure luck had converged to make his rescue and re-homing easy and painless. Every day, in every forest that is home to chimpanzees, humans are slowly killing the last of his kind. Saving one chimp is an enormous privilege, but we all share a responsibility to save other chimps from his fate.

"It's just a precious treasure of the world to have this untouched population of chimps out there," Hicks said. "It's our responsibility to find a way to protect them. We need to stop the forest from hemorrhaging chimps."