Marthe Arends had just arrived in Burkina Faso and was walking through the city of Bobo-Dioulasso when she heard a noise over her shoulder.
“I suddenly heard an ’uuhm, uuhm’ behind me,” the 31-year-old from Berlin said. On turning around she saw a pathetic looking Chimpanzee sitting on a wall with a chain around it.
“Lolita clearly wanted to get our attention,” said Arends. That was in 2012. But it became the start of a deep friendship for which the German vet even gave up her job.
Arends’ father – himself a doctor in parasiteology and veterinary medicine at the Free University in Berlin – had cautioned her before she left for Africa that she should concentrate on her doctoral research and not get distracted by other projects.
But, as soon as she scrambled through a hole in the wall to get a better look at the ape, her priorities changed.
A deserted zoo
Lolita in her cage in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. Photo: DPA
On the other side the German vet found herself in a deserted zoo. The only animal that was still there was Lolita, a chimp – the closest relation in the animal kingdom to humans.
But for the last 30 years she had been kept in the most inhumane of conditions in a small cage. And since she had broken out 15 years earlier she was also chained to the wall.
“Her face was completely scarred – she had been scratching herself constantly due to the anxiety she felt. She was undernourished and seemed apathetic,” Arends recalls, still getting emotional at the memory.
The thought of the poor animal wouldn’t let her go.
“That night I dreamed about her, I heard her grunting and saw her empty eyes,” she says.
The next day she knew that she needed to make saving the chimpanzee her personal project. Mission Lolita had begun.
The 35-year-old chimp was brought up as a baby by a European woman who left the country a few years later and handed Lolita to the local authorities. The money she left behind was quickly used up and Lolita was brought to the zoo in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second largest town.
At the time, other animals also lived at the zoo, including lions, snakes and antelopes.
But the business went bust. Some of its inhabitants were sold on, while others were left there and died. The lions starved. The skeleton of a Boa Constrictor still lies there as a dramatic reminder of the zoo's sad end.
But Lolita somehow survived.
“For me as a vet it’s a miracle that she managed it,” says Arends.
Loneliness and boredom
Marthe Arends paints Lolita's cage. Photo: DPA
But it wasn’t only a lack of food that damaged the ape, it was also the loneliness and boredom. Her only companion was Mamadou Traore, the local animal carer who receives a minuscule wage from local authorities.
“The money isn’t even enough for him to look after his own family, let alone to buy food for Lolita,” says Arends. All Traore could do was bring her rotting food from the market as well as a bit of water.
“Mamadou loves her like a daughter, but he simply couldn’t do anything more for her,” the German vet explains.
But Arends did have a bit of money spare, and fed her new companion up on fruit, eggs, protein, peanuts and yogurt. The primate did so well that she even developed a bit of a belly and her coat began to grow through again.
It was just as important to improve her living conditions, though. After endless struggles with local authorities, Arends finally won permission to increase the size of the cage. She also painted the walls in colourful patterns and put a tyre swing in for the chimp's entertainment.
At the end of 2012 Lolita could be freed from her cage.
“She immediately climbed around all over the place and cried with delight,” Arends remembers, smiling.
With a heavy heart the German left Lolita to return home in 2013, but Arends’ mission was far from over.
Since returning to Berlin she has enlisted the help of the Erna Graff Foundation, an animal protection charity.
“Martha Arends has already shown incredible engagement – but this could now fall by the wayside after her return,” warned Diana Plange, from the foundation’s board.
The two women have now teamed up to try and ensure that Lolita is brought to Drill Ranch, a home for chimpanzees in Nigeria.
The benefit would be that the short flight would avoid the need for anaesthetic. But, as well as facing resistance from local authorities, they also lack the money.
And so Mission Lolita continues. Arends has once again given up a position as a veterinarian in order to travel back to Africa and care for her friend – and, if all goes well, to give her a lasting home to retire to.