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I'M A MUM TO 100 APES; EXCLUSIVE The Brit devoting her life to saving endangered gorillas.

Byline: By SHARON van GEUNS

HER bed is the floor of a wooden hut deep in the West African rainforest. She wakes every day at 5.30am to the screeching of chimps, usually with a baby ape snuggled in her arms.

Meet Rachel Hogan, the wildlife volunteer being hailed as the new Gorillas In The Mist girl.

Rachel, 31, from Birmingham, is mother to 15 young gorillas and 63 chimps, and a variety of monkey species. In total her team cares for 200 orphaned animals.

Like Dian Fossey - the American zoologist who inspired the award-winning gorillas film - Rachel has devoted her life to caring for the primates who are on the verge of extinction.

She has helped save dozens of terrified orphaned gorilla and chimp babies left for dead after poachers massacred their entire family group for their meat.

Too small to sell for food, the babies that survive being shot are either left for dead or dragged through the forests to be sold as pets.

The lucky few are rescued and brought to Rachel. She arrived in Cameroon in 2001, planning to spend just three months as a volunteer with Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund (CWAF).

The UK-registered charity runs the Mvog-Betsi zoo and Mefou National Park in conjunction with the Cameroon government. But nearly six years on, Rachel is still there - and now manages a team of 21.

Between them they currently care for all the gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys and baboons. All are orphans of the terrible bush meat trade.

Up to five million tons of bush meat from wild animals is sold each year Central and West Africa. Rachel and her team - including vet Babila Thafon and director Talila Sivan - are determined do all they can to stop this.

Hundreds of monkeys and apes have been rescued and nurtured back to health over the 10 years the charity has been running. It is demanding work.

When Rachel is woken by the noisy chimps each morning, she opens her eyes to an infant gorilla or chimp sprawled across her chest on the floor of the hut where she lives in an electrified enclosure near to where the apes are housed.

After splashing her face with water, she pulls on a pair of jeans, scrapes her hair back and then it's off to work.

There are no luxuries. Breakfast is usually a cup of tea and half a stick of bread with Marmite, lunch is a plate of rice and beans, and dinner is a packet of crackers and a banana. She says: "And I've eaten just about every type of leaf in the forest, just to show the infant animals how to survive."

Any thoughts of leaving perished the moment she first had a baby gorilla placed in her arms. "He had no hair and no control over his arms and legs - he was like a newborn baby. That was the day I fell in love," she recalls. "But I was terrified. I didn't know what to do. I put him on my chest and he held on to me. And that is where he stayed for two years."

That gorilla was Nkan Daniel. For 24 hours a day she ate, slept and played with Nkan, feeding him milk formula on the hour every hour. Her only respite was to take a quick shower while Nkan clung to a worker wearing her jumper. Rachel nursed Nkan through pneumonia (he was on antibiotics for almost six months), an ecoli infection and a disease called Shigella that attacks the immune system and is usually fatal in gorillas.

"At night his body would shudder and spasm, I was sure he was having nightmares. We thought we would lose him at least three times - it was incredibly hard for everyone."

But he survived and is now a healthy, cheeky six-year-old, standing nearly as tall as Rachel and weighing the same.

Some baby gorillas don't make it even if they are rescued. Seeing their families massacred leaves them so traumatised they often die of a broken heart. Those that survive the initial trauma soon become dehydrated and malnourished without their mum's milk.

But the sanctuary's intensive care routine means all but three or four baby gorillas have made it.

The apes live in eight large forest enclosures, protected by electrified fencing, in the 1,000-acre Mefou National Park. The aim one day is to release all the apes back into the wild.

But that is impossible at the moment because the surrounding forests are littered with the snares and traps of hunters. For the time being, the animals are safe in the park.

The apes are not the only ones who suffer illness. Rachel says: "I've had malaria nine times. It's horrendous but you carry on. You have to when you are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, deep in the jungle."

She cannot imagine it any other way - and she has no plans of going home. "I gave up my career and home before leaving the UK. It was almost as if I knew I'd never come back," she says.

But she does miss her family. "When the sun goes down at 6pm, I like to go outside and sit on my chair and think about my family. I miss them. I don't consider having a relationship. I made a promise when I arrived that I wasn't going to let my babies down.

"But don't think of them as child substitutes: it's not a bunny-hugger attitude, this is serious conservation.

"Gorillas laugh. Just like humans, they grin and feel jealousy. Sometimes they cry. To me, eating them is like cannibalism - I wonder how many people know there is only 0.6 per cent difference in DNA between humans and gorillas."

It is estimated that in 15 years, Cameroon could have no wild apes left. And that is something Rachel and her team are doing everything they can to prevent.

RACHEL can be seen in action on Discovery's Animal Planet UK in a new series called Going Ape. The programmes show the vital work of the CWAF and other sanctuaries in Cameroon.

sharon.vangeuns@sundaymirror.co.uk

HOW YOU CAN HELP: To donate to the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund (CWAF) or to adopt a gorilla or chimp, visit w ww.cwaf.org

CAPTION(S):

Safe... Shufai was rescued after his mum was killed by poachers Main picture: ALAN HAMILTON/DISCOVERY CHANNEL' Buddies... Rachel with Nkan' Surrogate mum... Nkan and Rachel are inseparable' Rescued... Nona's gunshot wounds have healed' Human touch... the park is a safe haven for orphans' Monkeying around... Talila Sivan plays with chimps
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 3, 2006
Words:1105
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