— -- It's illegal to keep a chimpanzee as a pet in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, but that doesn't stop people from buying them on the black market after their mothers have been killed by hunters.
But chimps are very expensive to feed and "don't make very good pets, so often the owners will surrender them" to Sierra Leone's Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, the facility's program manager, Sofie Meilvang, told ABC News.
The motherless chimps, however, have found a mother figure: Posseh Kamara, known at the sanctuary as "Mama Posseh," has been that for an estimated 50 orphaned chimps.
She started as a camp cook several years ago, but within six months, Meilvang said, "she became a caregiver for our youngest and most vulnerable chimpanzees, her own experience as a mother and grandmother coming to the fore as she rapidly grew into the role."
Mama Posseh wakes early so the baby chimps will see her as soon as they rise, Meilvang said. Her day is filled with cleaning, feeding and many tedious jobs that demand careful attention, she added. "It can be late in the evening before the youngest chimp receives their last feed and cuddle from her."
It's a rewarding job, but a difficult one, said Meilvang. "Many people seeing Posseh working with small chimps see the role as desirable or even glamorous, but few realize how tough the work is on a day-to-day basis, both physically and emotionally. Mama Posseh has to walk a narrow path between ensuring her charges are reassured and nurtured but also not getting them too used to human relationships, as they need to be prepared to join their own social group."
She's an "extraordinary lady," Meilvang said. "She sets a high standard that all in the team admire but that is not easy to match."