Page last updated at 01:19 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 02:19 UK

Gorilla fascination started young

By Clare Babbidge
BBC News

A Birmingham woman who has spent seven years in Cameroon caring for gorillas and chimps orphaned by the illegal bushmeat trade has collected a prestigious award in the House of Lords.

But following a whistlestop UK visit, Rachel Hogan returned to continue her work in Africa.

Rachel with Ncarla, a baby western lowland gorilla. Photo courtesy of CWAF
Ncarla is among gorillas which need intensive care from Rachel

Rachel, 33, has always been fascinated by gorillas and kept toy animals from an early age.

"My parents don't even remember when it started - I was such a young age," she said.

"From when I was tiny, it was always about gorillas - I never had dolls."

The middle of three sisters growing up in Harborne, Rachel followed her interest in animals through visits to Dudley Zoo and Birmingham Nature Centre.

She said she was not involved in animal clubs or groups.

"I was a very shy child and it was something I followed privately," she said.

But 20 years later, Rachel has hand-reared 10 gorillas left orphaned by the bushmeat trade and helped save the lives of many other primates.

Working for the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund (CWAF), she manages about 25 staff in Mefou National Park, near Yaounde.

Rachel with Nona. Photo courtesy of CWAF
Rachel with Nona, whose mother was shot for meat

Earlier this month, she was awarded the International Animal Welfare Award for her dedication to the animals, many who are found injured and traumatised.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) award recognised her "outstanding contribution to animal welfare and conservation".

Rachel said that a bad motorbike accident in her early 20s led to several operations. During this time she went back to college and to her goal of working with animals.

She was working at Vale Wildlife Rescue in Tewksbury, Gloucestershire, when she saw a television programme about CWAF and applied to be a volunteer.

She was thrilled to be accepted for a three-month placement in Cameroon.

"I never expected to get accepted and when I did I just wanted to be involved, to work in the vegetable garden or in construction," she said.

"It wasn't about cuddling gorillas, I just wanted to help the project."

'Emotionally fragile'

But she already knew she wanted to work on the project long term.

Once volunteering, Rachel jumped at the opportunity to hand-rear Nkan, a two-week-old orphaned gorilla.

Chimp cared for by CWAF. Photo from CWAF
The charity also cares for chimps and other primates

In the beginning she ate and slept with Nkan, feeding him every hour. When she went for a shower or break, the baby gorilla clung to a worker wearing her jumper.

"At first it's full on, 24-hour care - very much like a human baby but intensified," she said.

"You can hand over a baby to someone to babysit, but you can't with a gorilla at this stage."

She cared for Nkan for two years.

She said gorilla and chimpanzee meat was considered "a delicacy" by some people which fuelled a strong demand and a high price tag.

Rachel said timber companies had opened up the forests, giving hunters more access to the animals.

Hunters are also known to travel on the logging trucks.

The Mefou National Park, one of two sites run by CWAF, looks after 84 orphaned chimps and 17 gorillas.

Rachel said chimps were "emotionally much stronger" than gorillas and better able to survive being orphaned.

"But we only have 48 hours to get to the gorillas," she said. "They are emotionally so fragile, and they tend to shut down and die from a broken heart.

Rachel with Nkan. Photo courtesy of CWAF
Rachel still visits Nkan, the first gorilla she hand-reared

"After trauma, they physically act like humans - they rock and pull out their hair."

She said her dream was to see rescued gorillas re-introduced into the wild, but this was still a long way off.

Rachel added that a project to reintroduce rescued chimps into the wild was being considered.

For now, after hand-rearing, the gorillas are encouraged to build relationships with other gorillas and live in groups.

Rachel still visits Nkan who now heads a group of gorillas at the park.

"He acts a bit like a teenager and sits on my lap and pushes me or gives me a playful slap," she said.

She added that the most rewarding aspect was seeing the gorillas in their groups being "loved again" by their peers.

Caroline McLaney, a CWAF trustee, said the bushmeat trade was a worldwide problem and had contributed to chimps becoming endangered and western gorillas being critically endangered.

Caroline said education about conservation was central to the charity's work in Cameroon, and it worked with schools and local communities.

Its work is supported by Bristol Zoo and the TV channel Animal Planet - partly a BBC Worldwide venture - which has featured Mefou National Park.

Caroline highly praised Rachel's work for the charity, adding: "She has amazing patience and builds bonds and trust with the animals."

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