The cage door opens. A monkey takes its first, tentative steps out. There’s a fleeting backwards look, then the animal takes off, back into the wild.

Whether you call such moments rewilding, reintroductions, or releases, there’s no arguing the emotional wallop such events deliver. They represent something that we in wildlife conservation all long for, a world repopulated with wild animals in wild places. These stories gets clicks, likes and lots of shares online, and it would be easy to assume that making this dream come true for every animal is job one for all wildlife sanctuaries.

But as appealing as this image is, the first consideration sanctuaries should make is to determine what is in the best interest of the animal.

But as appealing as this image is, the first consideration sanctuaries should make is to determine what is in the best interest of the animal.

This is exactly what the 23 wildlife centers that make up the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) do. These sanctuaries have decades of experience reintroducing animals to the wild. In 2020 alone, PASA members released 151 animals back into the wild – and this during a global pandemic. But they also gave long-term care for over 3,000 chimpanzees, gorillas, drills, bonobos, and diverse species of monkey, all within the safe confines of their sanctuaries.

So how do sanctuaries determine who should be returned to the wild, and who should remain at the sanctuary? As they say online, it’s complicated.

First, the animal needs to be a good candidate for reintroduction. The main factors influencing this determination are the healthcare and behavioral needs of the ape or monkey. A chimpanzee that has been chained to a pole for years, devoid of social interaction, proper nutrition, or medical care – and sadly, many of the animals PASA members rescue fit this description – will likely be too traumatized to survive in the wild, or have significant health issues that require ongoing veterinary care.

Second, there needs to be sufficient wild space where a new individual or group could find food, water, and safety. This is getting harder to locate, as forests are cleared for timber or farming, and new roads fragment wild spaces into disconnected blocks. Once land is found, the team must assess whether there are already wild primates there. Introducing a new group could strain the resources needed to support all the animals, and in the worst case, it could result in a violent conflict between the two groups. Finally, the teams evaluate whether the land is known to poachers and wildlife traffickers. The last thing anyone wants is to release a chimpanzee or gorilla only for it to be captured and sold in the illegal wildlife trade.

Sanctuaries play multi-faceted roles within the conservation ecosystem. They work with law enforcement to stop traffickers and provide a place where confiscated animals can receive care. Many primates rescued from poachers witnessed the killing of their family members for bushmeat, and were only spared because they were too small to be killed and sold. Instead, had they not been rescued, they might have been sold to animal attractions in Asia or the Middle East.

I’m thinking of two chimpanzees that illustrate this situation well. Joanna and Rikita were still nursing from their mothers when they were stolen out of the forest in Angola by poachers and sold into the illegal market for pet chimpanzees. Once they were too big for their owner to handle, he locked them in separate cages, isolated, and never let them out again.

Because there was no sanctuary in Angola to take them in, and few people who could help, it took years to coordinate Joanna and Rikita’s rescue. PASA and our partners worked hard to arrange import and export permits, mandatory blood tests, veterinary exams, and transportation to Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, a PASA member in Congo.

When Joanna and Rikita were finally brought to Tchimpounga, we didn’t know how they would adjust. Would they be afraid of open spaces after 12 years of imprisonment? Would they get along with other chimps? I’m happy to share that they have successfully integrated into a family group. Now, they spend their days in their forest habitats, feeling the grass under their feet, drinking clean water, climbing trees and interacting with other chimpanzees.

A turn-around like this can take years to achieve. When a sanctuary takes in rescued animals, they slowly rebuild their lives. This includes medical care – as some rescued primates come in with injuries such as machete wounds or even bullet holes. It also means helping the animals learn how to forage for food and interact with others of their kind.

So while there is a perception that releasing animals back to the wild is the highest calling for sanctuaries, the true calling is to give each animal exactly what it needs to thrive. For some, reintroduction is indeed the right outcome. When that happens, we are thrilled because we all long for a world where apes and monkeys can live free. But for those animals that need a protected environment, sanctuaries provide a safe haven for life. And in the race against extinction, every animal counts, whether it’s in the forest or a forested enclosure.